Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Mischief Making

By Jeff Polet

I’ll confess that in my youth I was often regarded as mischievous, a moniker I’ve never fully outgrown and one in which I take some perverse delight. At a forum such as ours, committed as it is to rejuvenating virtue, it would seem that mischief would have no place. So it was with some eagerness that I read this essay that makes a moral defense for the virtue of mischief-making.

“…tales of mischief are amusing, and apt to elicit in us a certain kind of sympathy. But there is something curious about this. Mischief is essentially a form of misbehaviour, and its practitioners are generally met with punishment and reproach rather than praise, at least when they are caught. Why is it, then, that tales of mischief so often elicit in us such a positive response? Could it be that there is something virtuous about mischief, and something noble about mischievous people, considered as a type?”

To raise the question is, in part, to answer it, for no one would bother to write an essay unless he felt that it contained something defensible.

Mr. Warburton describes mischievous people as “often deserving of praise” for certain attractive characteristics they display. What are these? There is a kind of light-hearted mischief where “there is no victim, no damage caused, not even any real breaking of the rules. It is innocent mischief; perhaps mischief in its simplest, purest form.” This kind of mischief simply makes the world a more amusing and enjoyable place. It is especially found in those with ironic dispositions who can respond to stupidity and vapidity either with annoyance or with bemused detachment and choose the latter.

In more extreme situations where one isn’t simply dealing with foolishness but with suffering and absurdity, the mischievous disposition will seek the humor in the situation as a way of affirming some fundamental goodness where none seems to exist. It expresses a kind of wisdom that the darkness does not get the last word over the light, and I suppose this is in part what Dr. Johnson meant when he observed that “cheerfulness keeps breaking in.” No matter how bleak the prospects, humor can find a way to lighten them. We use the term “gallows humor” to describe this.

Mischief can be a way of seeing things in their correct proportions; or, in other words, it brings perspective. Warburton continues:

“The light-heartedness of mischievous people is also a powerful corrective against one of the worst human vices, namely, a certain kind of over-seriousness. For instance, it is the hallmark of the zealot and the jobsworth [Ed: "A jobsworth is a person who uses the authority of their job in a deliberately uncooperative way, or who seemingly delights in acting in an obstructive or unhelpful manner. It characterizes one who upholds petty rules even at the expense of effectiveness or efficiency"]; two equally unpleasant types, both prone to taking pleasure in the persecution of others. Similarly, over-seriousness is essential to the egotist, for egotism is born of taking oneself far too seriously. The mischievous person, however, is neither zealot nor jobsworth. They do not take things seriously enough for zealotry, preferring instead to mock things and to poke fun at things; and rather than being, like the jobsworth, the petty follower and unbending enforcer of the rules, they much prefer to break them or to see how far those rules can be bent. Similarly, the mischievous person will tend not to be overly egotistic, since this again requires a kind of over-seriousness that is foreign to their nature.”

A proper capacity for mischief thus has the ability to “cut things down to size” or to “turn the tables.” In traditional folklore, this character was known as a “trickster” and has quite a rich historical legacy. My favorite example of the “trickster” is Bugs Bunny, who displayed in spades the qualities mentioned above. I can recall only one cartoon where someone got the better of Bugs, and that was only when Elmer Fudd and Bugs were hypnotized into switching roles. Otherwise, Bugs consistently turned the tables on his opponents, such as Elmer Fudd — a hunter with a gun who was always bested by an unarmed rabbit. What Bugs lacked in power he made up for with intelligence, wit, and cunning. He cut the rich and powerful and egotistical (Daffy Duck) down to size and always managed to come out on top.

Mischief is a way of exposing absurdity, egoism, and poorly made rules that get zealously upheld by people lacking in imagination, wit, and common sense (COVID gave those types an enormous platform). Warburton retells this story of the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe:

“Consider the following anecdote about the British philosopher G E M Anscombe. In the 1960s, Anscombe gave a guest lecture at a university in Boston. After the talk, she was taken out for dinner to a fancy restaurant nearby. Wearing her customary slacks under a long tunic, Anscombe was stopped on arrival by the restaurant’s head waiter, who informed her that, in this particular establishment, women were not permitted to wear trousers. In a brilliant display of deliberate misunderstanding, Anscombe reacted to the waiter by removing her trousers entirely, according to one version of the story exclaiming: ‘What an extraordinary rule!’”

Mischief can be an effective alternative to revolution or armed resistance when it comes to dealing with abuses of authority, bad leadership, and the general BS of organizational life. Sadly, life is not Looney Tunes, and most mischievous people who call out abused authority meet the same fate as their patron saint Socrates who, at his trial and even on his deathbed, couldn’t help but make one last joke.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What other “mischief makers” can you think of, and do you find them at all admirable?
  2. What is the relationship between mischief and practical jokes, and are the latter defensible?
  3. What do you make of people who “can’t take a joke?”

Sign up to receive new content from the Ford Forum.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: