Laughing when you shouldn't

Being “good” among the Batek of Peninsular Malaysia

by ALICE RUDGE

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Batek people describe their many laughter taboos with utmost seriousness, and in ethical terms of good and bad. Despite this, people often get it wrong—sometimes laughing all the more when the taboos forbid it. Because laughter can be ambiguous and impossible to control, being wrong can be accepted without the need for discussion or reflection. People thus act autonomously while holding deeply shared ethical orientations. Here, ethics can be both culturally predefined and shaped by individuals, as when it comes to laughter people draw on individual and shared concerns in an ad hoc, flexible manner. Laughter's tangled contradictions thus demonstrate that people's understandings of being “good” are mutually implicated with their understandings of what it means to be a person in relation to others.