Does Ridicule Play a Role in Discourse?


This is a tough question that has been bothering me for quite some time. Is ridicule a valid way to disagree, or does it simply push others away from your positions?

I think that ridicule makes sense when we ridicule something and not someone. I don't think the difference is all that subtle. The image above was lifted from a religious blog, and it depicts something that seems instinctively wrong. Pointing and laughing at a person is something we perceive as being wrong, because we don't want people to do that to us. But it's perfectly reasonable to attack an idea or a thing.

That brings us to satire. Satire has a long relationship with humanity. It is meant to show something absurd about something we do or believe. It can be very effective when the thing it is making fun of is true. Satire takes that which is taboo or holy and slaughters it on the altar of reason. What we do when we ridicule ideas and institutions is that we remove their holiness. Their unassailable characteristics are the target of fun. Satire wears down outrage like the ocean wears down the pebbles into sand.

If everyone had drawn silly pictures of Muhammed every day, then there wouldn't be enough extremists to violently attack everyone. Christianity is so beaten down by jokesters and blasphemers that some christians have come to believe that god "surely has a sense of humour". Their predecessors however would have wanted to see heads roll if their god's name was taken in vain. This causes a shock arms race, with each new generation of funny person needing to push the envelope of insult. On a deeper level, we learn to detach ideas from our identities, because satire attacks ideas viciously, and in order to avoid the constant hurt and emotional upheavel from being offended, we emotionally distance ourselves from our ideas. From there we can take an outsider's perspective that we wouldn't have been able to take before.

But what about respect? I often talk about respect and how important it is, because it lays the foundation of a productive discussion on any topic. Ridicule can be respectful, given that it follows a few basic guidelines. Good ridicule is based on something that is factual. Even if it is exaggerated, the point bringing brought across needs to have its basis in fact. Making fun of someone or a group for what they are not is disrespectful, and therefore it breeds tension and mistrust instead of an environment that is healthy for disagreement. Good ridicule avoids low blows. Focussing solely on the superficial characteristics of those you disagree with is not only disrespectful, but the precursor to dehumanisation. Good ridicule needs to be defensible as an argument, when al l the exaggeration is stripped away. A thoughtful person who sees something they believe in being ridiculed should be able to think carefully and find some underlying argument thy can think about. Ridicule just for the sake of convincing ourselves that we are superior to others who are on our side is counter-productive. Finally, ridicule should not be the only way we communicate. If we ridicule a belief we should also be ready to refute it in an intellectual space.  Ridicule can be an easy route for people to feel that they are taking part in a debate, when in actual fact they are not.

In essence, ridicule is a tool like any other tool of discussion. It can be used for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. I think a sincere approach to ridicule is warranted. We should think of it as a way to get peoples' attention, to get them thinking about our arguments, and to wear down their knee-jerk reactions to the criticism of ideas that are considered holy. Singling people out to harm them with ridicule is usually a bad idea, but ridiculing ideas in general is good when used correctly. What you will learn if you try to avoid ridicule is that nobody listens to you. Sometimes you need a megaphone to be heard, and emotionally speaking ridicule is just that.  


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