Is It Wrong To Laugh At This Story?

"Now, you're sure about this, right?"

“Now, you’re sure about this, right?”

Jonathan Turley found this strange tale, and the professor managed to find a jurisprudence issue in it. Not me: I want to know if finding it hilarious demonstrates unseemly cruelty.

In Zimbabwe, prophet Shamiso Kanyama instructed his followers to bury him alive as part of a ritual to cleanse their house of evil spirits. They did as he asked, and when they dug him up later he was dead.

The family that buried him is charged with murder. “Now the courts have a case where the victim demanded on religious grounds to be buried alive,” writes Turley. “The followers clearly believed that he could survive out of their own religious zeal. What should be the punishment in such a case?”

Oh, I don’t know: a conviction for murder, but a lighter than usual sentence. I don’t really care: this is Darwinism as work. My question is whether it is proof of a lack of empathy that the story reminds me of Monty Python, and makes me laugh.

69 thoughts on “Is It Wrong To Laugh At This Story?

    • Agreed it is Pythonesque, in other words, it is seemly cruelty.

      On serious consideration of punishment, however, I wouldn’t go with G&S because (I assume) it was not considered a crime by the perpetrators unless some dire hidden motive comes to light. Since I now measure all idiocy against the yardstick of Trump supporters, I would sentence the family to a year* of school.

      *or however long it takes them to pass a basic biology course

    • There was a film from India, aired by Jack Paar in the Sixties, that showed a huge throng of Hindu faithful around a pool, solemnly watching a Holy Man who claimed that he could walk on water. He steps off the edge and drops like stone, as all the heads tilt down, following him down. It’s still the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. This story reminded me of that. Of course, that guy didn’t drown. At least, I don’t think so.

      • The humor in that video is not the ignorant Holy Man putting himself in a self destructive situation that could result in his own Darwin Award nomination death it’s the uniform head tilting reaction of the entire crowd watching him sink – now THAT’s funny!!!

        • I agree with that. Hundreds of heads go down as one as he sinks like a stone. The other thing that’s hilarious is that you know what’s going to happen, and its still funny when it does happen. The Holy Man is so, so serious and convinced that he’s going to stay on the surface.

      • Jack said, “Wait—you don’t find the Darwin Awards funny either?”

        Nope; I don’t find the utter stupidity of completely ignorant people “accidentally” killing themselves to be very funny, I think it’s extremely sad; although I do find the reactions of the living to unique situations like the head tilt watching the Holy Man sink to be extremely funny.

          • Yup, I’m quite aware of that. I’m a bit outside the norm of classic comedy when it comes to fatal hubris and I’m ok with that.

            You can probably guess how I responded to some humor in the Army; I don’t just laugh because the crowd does and it made me real “popular” in one of my Infantry units. I can’t change that part of me.

          • A fictional depiction of fatal hubris might be funny. Darwinism, as a construct to describe the result of actions by a real human being, isn’t really funny. It is, as Zoltar has already noted, sad. I find the stories about Darwin Award winners to be interesting but often painful as well as sad.

      • Rich in CT said, “The Darwin Awards are, by definition, humorous…”

        By definition you are WRONG!

        Darwin Awards: The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it…


        In short; saluting or honoring those who have removed themselves from the genome does not equate to humorous.

            • This is what YOU said is not funny:
              “Darwin Awards: The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it…”

              The fact that you claim that definition is not funny is itself prima facie evidence that your funny bone must have been removed.

            • Zoltar, get off your high horse. Obtuse my ass; I think it’s funny. In fact, very funny, in exactly the same way Monty Python is. And incidentally, in a way very closely related to King Lear.

              Yes I find copper fries funny. For all the other reasons a host of other human beings –apparently excluding you – ALSO find it funny. That’s an objective fact. Many people do, you don’t. From that objective fact, I infer you lack a sense of humor that many other people have.

              You’re perfectly FREE to turn up your nose at any particular brand of humor. You probably think Tosh.0 isn’t funny either. Or maybe you hate Benny Hill (I’d join with you on that one – ditto JackAss). Or RoadRunner cartoons. Or Three Stooges.

              Personally, I find the Darwin Awards to be extremely funny – and yes, partly BECAUSE they involve death – in a cosmic, karmic kind of way. It’s humor based on irony, you dolt; the same kind of theatrical sense that underlies Shakespearean tragedies (remembering the difference between tragedy and comedy – a thin line indeed). Go read King Lear.

              You ever hear of ‘Poetic Justice?” Go read the definition of it:
              That’s what underscores the Darwin Awards. Go watch the end of Dr. Strangelove. Again, go read King Lear.

              All you have to do, Zoltar, is say “I find that kind of humor distasteful.” Fine. You’re not the only one.

              But instead, you go off on this sanctimonious rant, ignoring the FACT that obviously a great many people disagree with you, and that the Darwin Awards are a prime example of a fairly deep literary tradition.

              You ask “Have I made my point, Charles?” No, you haven’t. Instead, you’ve displayed your ignorance by presuming that others will agree with your point of view, and done so in a bald-faced manner by not even seeing the patently evident humor in the very definition of the Darwin Awards.

              • Charles,
                Here is some selective cherry picking from your own sanctimonious rant.

                So now I’m a “dolt” because my opinion differs from yours? Why are you stooping to name calling?

                “…go read King Lear.”

                I’ve read King Lear, I know it quite well; I actually played the part of Earl of Kent in a production many years ago.

                “All you have to do, Zoltar, is say “I find that kind of humor distasteful.”

                Maybe you should spend a little time and read my other comments on this page before you spout.

                “…you go off on this sanctimonious rant…”

                Really? Did you bother to read what you just wrote? Look in the mirror Charles!

                “…the Darwin Awards are a prime example of a fairly deep literary tradition.”

                So what, that in itself does not make it humorous.

                “Zoltar, get off your high horse.”

                You first.

                Now Charles you’ve got a choice; do you continue down your chosen path in this conversation or do you choose a different path?

                • I’ve directed King Lear…and with an 80-year old Broadway veteran as Lear. Unfortunately, he had a wooden leg, so he couldn’t carry Cordelia at the end (I had the Fool do it.)

                  What a play.

                    • Arguably the greatest play ever written, with more ideas and wisdom packed into every page that anything any playwright wrote on his best day. My theory is that Will was from Outer Space.

                    • “Arguably the greatest play ever written…” No argument from me, I think so too!

                      To the point at hand:
                      “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
                      They kill us for their sport.”


                      ““Many a true word hath been spoken in jest.”

                    • So many wonderful, amazing quotes. The great thing about directing any play is that you have to understand it, and in the case of this one, it was like taking a graduate course on life.

                      “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear. Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.”
                      Act 4, Scene 6, Lines 180-183

                    • Jack said, “Arguably the greatest play ever written…”

                      You’ll get absolutely no argument from me about that point.

                      Jack said, “My theory is that Will was from Outer Space.”

                      Now that made me bust out laughing and spit out my gatorade; I’ve said the exact same thing dozens of times. LOL!!!

                      Can you imagine what he would be writing if he were alive in modern day USA? 🙂

                    • I don’t get tired of seeing a good production of King Lear; I’m finally going to get to see American Players Theater perform it again this August, it’s been a very long time since they’ve had it on their schedule.

                    • Jack,
                      My recent King Lear experience wasn’t up to par; I was actually disappointed in this production.

                      The grey wooden structure in the photo is permanent as is the grey colored thrust stage, what was different from other productions at this theater was the green elevated permanent thrust stage section extending down stage. The elevated stage section didn’t work for me, it was more of an impediment to blocking movements than a useful set piece, there was way too much unneeded movement across it from stage left to right, etc; at times I got the feeling that the show was blocked without that section and then they found out too late that it was going to be there and they just went with what they had. That section also made elevation differences a bit uncomfortable and there were way too many people sitting on it when talking to someone towering over them which was out of character for some of the dominate characters minimizing their status position. That stage section also created some unusual sight-line issues for people sitting in the first couple of rows. The upstage stairs are pretty normal around there (not that particular green version) and they were used effectively when they were used. Since they are usually doing multiple different shows on the same stage throughout the week, I’m wondering if this is the set they designed was a dominate feature for one of the other shows and they decided to just leave it there for all of the shows – forcing everyone to deal with it the best they could.

                      They also modernized the story, 21 century modernizing, modern costumes, modern guns, up-to-date combat uniforms, smart phones, and the couple of set pieces you see in the photo. I’m was surprised that they didn’t use smartphones more, I was half expecting to have some dork walk across the stage in search of the allusive pokemon. By the way, the set pieces you see in the photo were only used in the opening scene and that was the only set pieces in the entire show, there were also very few props to accent things visually. What you see in that photo minus the podium, easel, and chairs was it for the rest of the show. The actors seemed a bit low on enthusiasm too.

                      The show concept, as played, just didn’t work for me; for me, it lacked a level of professional quality creativity that I’ve come to know from the group, and it truly lost the Shakespeare flare and charm that I’ve enjoyed so much over the years. This group of professionals usually does a fabulous job with absolutely everything they do, but there is something uniquely different this year. I’m going to have to contact an old friend of mine that’s still performs with them.

                  • What a play, indeed!

                    You reminded me of two things: Kurosawa’s version of Lear, Ran, that expanded the role of the Fool to that of a major player, Kyoami, who became the main mourner at the death of both Lord Hidetora and his youngest (favorite) child whom the Fool had just barely reunited. His loyalty to both would have demanded (impossibly) that he carry father and son, but he had done so much running around (barefoot) after the lord in his madness, going back and forth between castles and forest hideaways, courage and tenderness, that his exhaustion and the burden of grief would have been too much to bear either one. There was always a hint of laughter in not knowing which activity or feeling caused the catch in his breath as he cried. Or whether it was sheer temper at the waste of all that effort and the ruination of all. It was brilliant casting: Kyoami is played by the Japanese transgender pop star of the early 80s known simply as Peter.

                    And a quote – as much as I can recall from long ago college days wallowing in fifth century bce Athens (which seems now to have been about the same lang syne) when Aristophanes declared that for the writer and director (I think he was both) of tragedy and comedy, comedy was by far the most difficult. … Of course, he would say that.

          • charlesgreen said, “It’s a prime example of humor!”

            Come one Charles; where is the humor in these stories?

            Again with more emphasis…

            Darwin Awards: The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it…

            In short; saluting or honoring those who have removed themselves from the genome does not equate to humorous.

            Have I made my point Charles?

      • Not funny. Just that your story immediately reminded me of Royal Hunt of the Sun and of Atahualpa’s conviction that he would come back to life. What WAS funny though was the utter weirdness in Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of Atahualpa in the movie version.

  1. Question – would prosecution be forbidden under various US Religious Freedom Restoration Acts?

    I’m certain it would be if the deceased hadn’t volunteered, or at least, I really hope it would be.

    How exactly does this differ from Pentacostal Snake-handlers? How does it differ from Charismatic parents denying medical aid to their children, something quite legal in several states (though considered child abuse in more).

    I’m sure it’s not a binary, that there’s a line that should be drawn, it’s not all-or-nothing, but where that line is, I’m not certain. When do voices in one’s head signify mental illness, and when do they signify one should be a GOP presidential candidate? (And yes, I think that despite current evidence, there is a difference.)

  2. I don’t think it’s even manslaughter. If Houdini asks you to bury him, one expects that it’s part of the trick and there’s no reason for anyone to think he’ll die. Obvious charlatan’s trick is obvious, that it didn’t work isn’t on the rube.

    No intent to cause harm, no reason to expect harm, no recklessness. I’m voting to acquit.

    • One hundred percent with you valkygrrl; well ninety five percent, it still seems reckless to me.

      You can’t prosecute stupid or we’d all be in gaol!

      Just for the record; in the theocracy of ancient Israel if a prophet did his thing and it didn’t come to pass then he was to be stoned to death because he had claimed to speak on God’s behalf and was obviously misrepresenting Him. Same old, same old.

      Does finding it hilarious demonstrate unseemly cruelty? I’ll go with no, because the alternative would seem to be that we all stand around weeping for the poor man and wondering how we can make a law to stop this happening again. Mind you, I don’t find it hilarious; more of a shake of the head and a snort!

      • I just went on to the next story where I immediately saw this:

        “Bad ideas take root when they are not immediately called what they are—bad—, then mocked, eviscerated, and destroyed with reason, logic and common sense. That is why fools should never be suffered gladly, and why their foolish inspirations should be dashed before they are allowed to draw a breath.”

        Seems appropriate here too.

  3. Made me laugh because it reminded me of law professors trying to think up plausible but issue-filled hypotheticals to deploy in law school exams. Scene in the faculty lounge, next to the coffee maker: “Okay, how about this one….”

  4. “Is It Wrong To Laugh At This Story?”

    Here is a fictional depiction of fatal hubris that was grandfathered in as a Darwin Award winner; the last full sentence is the part that’s funny, everything else is just the setup. Jet Assisted Take-Off

    Does anyone find the situation surrounding this Darwin Award winner to be funny? Race To The Death The family and friends of the man who died didn’t think it was funny, the driver of the sprint car that hit the victim didn’t think it was funny – he’ll likely be scarred for life, the police and DA didn’t think it was funny, the EMT’s didn’t think it was funny, the race fans didn’t think it was funny. The whole thing was one of those genuine WTF moments.

    Some of these fatal hubris stories get a well-earned sarcastic “chuckle” in the midst of a murmured WTF, but they’re not actually funny to me.

    In my humble opinion; I think the story of the Zimbabwe prophet earned a murmured WTF, but it wasn’t actually funny for me. The absolute blind ignorance that led to the family to follow the instructions of the profit to bury the profit will scar them for life; the whole thing is sad.

    Back to the question proposed by the title of this blog, “Is It Wrong To Laugh At This Story?”; that question can only be answered by the individual reading the blog. I don’t walk in your shoes and you don’t walk in mine; I don’t know what has guided your sense of humor and you don’t know what has guided mine; heck there are generational differences in sense of humor.

    Is it wrong to laugh at this, naaaa, but I choose not to.

    • I don’t see that story (which I remember) as funny at all, or an even vaguely relevant analogy. If the driver had boasted, prior to the race, that he didn’t fear getting hit by another car, and would leave his car during the next race to prove that it was safe, and was bellowing, “See? There is no danger! I am absolutely…” when he was mowed down, then it would embody some of the same elements of humor. The religious aspect is of course the main missing element.

    • Why is there no mention of Tony Stewart in this story? That was just tragic. The kid who got killed did a really stupid thing when he was all amped up. But he was just a teenager. I can’t believe people gave Tony Stewart a hard time over that. Doing so was unethical in the extreme. Cruel, actually.

        • Jack said, “…its not so clear that Tony Stewart was blameless.”

          Multiple sources including CBS Sports and USA Today reported that Ontario County district attorney Michael Tantillo said the grand jury found no basis to charge Tony Stewart with any crimes”. The DA didn’t say there was insufficient evidence to charge Stewart he said “no basis”; you’re a lawyer, isn’t there some kind of difference between those legal terms?

          So if I’m understanding the definition of the word blameless as you used it then you’re statement is saying that it’s not so clear that Tony Stewart was innocent of wrongdoing but yet there was “no basis” to charge Tony Stewart.

          Am I not understanding something correctly?

          • There were racing experts who interpreted the video differently. Thus it isn’t clear. Some felt that he was trying to scare the guy, miscalculated, and killed him (negligent homicide). Soem felt that Stewart’s superstar status gave him the benefit of a doubt that another driver might not have been given when he accidentally kills a driver with whom he had a rocky relationship. If this were a Columbo episode, it would turn out differently.

            Essentially, the episode was ambiguous, and it is impossible to read Stewart’s mind. The exact same scenario could have occurred intentionally. For a basis to charge, you need evidence that points to guilt, and nothing but. That didn’t exist.

            When author William Burroughs shot his wife dead performing, drunk, a “William Tell act”, no charges were brought. Many remain suspicious, but a conviction would have been too difficult.

            • Jack said, “There were racing experts who interpreted the video differently.”

              I’ve seen the video dozens of times; in my opinion, the Grand Jury was absolutely correct there was no basis to charge Stewart for anything.

              By the way, I’m one of those race car driver per se idiots you spoke about. 😉

  5. Number of words: Approx. 500
    Average read time: 2 minutes
    Level of intelligibility: Relatively high
    Difficult concept level: medium
    Weirdness factor: medium
    Worth my effort? Yes, but YMMV (to quote Zoe)

    The system of law operating in Zimbabwe, and the court where the lawsuit was entered, is likely post-colonial and English in form. But Zimbabwe has a long history which does not include English law. And is composed of many different people, languages, and tribes (or groups).

    If there were not English-style law courts the issue would be decided by some local or tribal entity, and it seems likely that it would only be able to consider the issue through the cultural and religious lens of a pre-colonial mindset.

    In Venezuela (where I lived a good part of my youth, but in Jewish religious community almost entirely separated from Venezuelan culture) there is an unofficial national religion which incorporates African, American Indian and European forms in a totally bizarre combination. It is in fact so strange that it is hard for a US or European person to quite get their mind around it. Generally, it is referred to as El culto de Maria Lionza (Maria Lionza sect). It incorporates spiritism, sympathetic magic, African gods syncretized as Catholic saints. At its ‘darkest’ point it involves unreally strange Cuban voodoo practices and necromancy, at its benign point it can seem almost a little New Age. But my point is that it is very pervasive, and of course more popular the lower one goes down the social scale. (Angelina Pollak-Eltz is a Venezuelan anthropologist who has studied it for years).

    If a modern court had to adjudicate a case in which a death occurred as a result of some (to us) completely strange religious belief, it would be similar to those cases where witchcraft and such was adjudicated in colonial American courts. There would be essentially two lines of consideration: the one defined by English law, and then the other, a system of understanding based in beliefs and understandings which might not even be able to be expressed in ‘English’ terms.

    In Zimbabwe, I’ll bet, this is a rural case, and the people involved in it are country people with very little relationship to English law and even to modernity as we understand it.

    The function of the law then would not be mere adjudication, it would be to impose a value-set against another value-set and to dominate it. In this sense law (and jurisprudence) is a tool of culture which carries behind it all manner of different value-decisions.

    It would have to be adjudicated as manslaughter (if there was no evidence of malice) and there would have to be punishment of those who agreed to bury him. It would have to be a regional ‘lesson’ brought to the attention of unsophisticated people whereby they were ‘shamed’ for their gullibility. In this sense it would reflect a social and cultural will in processes of modernization. But, if the punishment were too severe it would likely be counter-productive and provoke resentment.

    Therefor, the guilt parties must agree to pay to the dead Prophet 2 healthy cows of milk-producing age, or 20 goats (or a combination thereof).

    • There was a tragic case in the Northern Territory some decades ago. An Aboriginal Grandmother regretfully killed her grandchildren by pouring sand in their mouths till they died when they were in her custody.

      There was a drought at the time, and it was custom going back literally millenia that this was the kindest thing to do to children in time of drought.

      That there was plenty of food and water available was immaterial. When the rains failed, this is what was done. This was the way things always had been.

    • Alizia, I think you’re correct. In this case, the law will (and perhaps must) impose a value-set that dominates another value-set. Otherwise, the believers will go on believing their idiotic religious leaders without stopping to think for themselves. If there is no trial (or conviction), there is no shame for their gullibility.

  6. _________________________

    Hark Ye Gentles! Hark Ye All! The Ethical Alarms Players will present to the Discerning Publick a Wondrous Production of William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. To be staged within the Crumbling American Empire as it Balkanizes. (Somehow, ‘the storm’ has to be tied to this election season: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!”).

    Jack will of course direct. He’ll have to be attached to a parabolic dish that captured signals from far far away Civilizations at the other end of the Galaxie.

    The Players (what we might suppose thus far):

    King Lear: Charles Green (?)
    Goneril: Deery
    Regan: Beth
    Cordelia (obviously myself for youth and spiritual purity)
    Edmund: Humble Talent (sorry but you say often how ‘Naughtie’ you are).
    Edgar: ?
    Gloucester: ?
    Kent: Zoltar Speaks!
    Duke of Albany: Steve in NJ?
    Duke of Cornwall: Tex?
    Oswald: ?
    The Fool: ?

    But who would not relish this line: “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.”

  7. Jack, I do believe it is “wrong” to laugh at this story, but that’s more a product of my definition of “right” than the propriety of laughing at such a dumb-ass prophet and his followers. I do not think it is “bad” to laugh about the story (or at least chuckle and shake one’s head), and there’s much “good” in laughter. And, I do not think the laughter portrays a lack of empathy. The irony is overwhelming. In your defense, empathy does tend to be negatively related to distance (i.e., events farther away in time and space have less present effect on us). You may be one of the better ones, but you’re still human. Had this happened closer to home, I am confident your empathy would be in full force.

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