On the Ethics of Teasing and Mocking People, in Groups, in Friendships, and in Debates and Satire

One of the difficulties in working out the civility pledge I co-wrote and signed earlier this year was addressing the use of humor and mockery in disagreements. So let me offer a bunch of points of clarification of the use of humor to persuade. I will focus on antagonistic humor—like teasing people for what they think.

Taken literally the things we say when teasing each other usually puts them down. The fun of it is in either being cruel and getting under someone’s skin or playing at being cruel and getting under someone’s skin. The line is sometimes thin between genuinely wanting to antagonize and pressure someone.

If we are both genuinely friends and both unambiguously comfortable with teasing each other, then this is an acceptable, enjoyable, and potentially very constructive form of mild cruelty. For whatever reason, from time immemorial it seems that groups (including groups of just two people) have used cruelty for bonding purposes. There are a number of ways that teasing and other forms of antagonism between peers can serve constructive ends. For one thing, it raises the cost of group membership so that a group weeds out insufficiently committed participants. In potentially painful tests, like hazing rituals, routine teasing, demands for personal sacrifices, etc., the individual is forced to show that group membership is more important than personal ego, comfort, and, possibly even, her own personal flourishing as an individual.

Being asked to laugh at oneself is being asked to show that you recognize you are not the center of the world. You are not the most important person to ever exist. You are not flawless. You are not above being the butt of a joke for the sake of everyone else’s pleasure. And when we accept teasing from friends we grant them a special right of intimacy with us. By laying down our shields and swords and refusing to defend ourselves as strongly as we normally might at an insult, we play along and laugh at ourselves or spar back. We convey to the other that they are an insider, an intimate, and that we take even their surface hostilities warmly, as actually being expressions of camaraderie.

Finally, and most simply, it’s simply fun to laugh at our own absurdities and others’. And among our friends who we feel understand and accept us, i.e., the people who free us to express ourselves however we are most comfortable without fears of unduly harsh judgments or social penalties for our non-conformity or our weaknesses, we feel free to laugh at our own personal absurdities and weaknesses because there are not painful social costs attached to owning up to them.

So friendships in which friends share in mutual teasing with each other can be contexts in which we develop and practice our virtues of honesty with ourselves and with each other in ways that are safe for us; ways which do not feel threatening or carry risks of ostracism. They can build a sense of familiarity that makes a close relationship possible. And groups (including “groups” of just two) that bond around their identity as a “we” and not merely as individuals presumably have people more deeply committed to each other than ones that don’t.

There are serious potential downsides here. Groups can crush their members. Friends can crush their friends. When their demands of deference and sacrifice, really and truly start hurting individuals’ well-being, they become unconscionable. And so it goes with teasing. A group can grind down a person by exacerbating his insecurities. The intimacy of familiarity can be exploited, whether intentionally or not, to make the person feel especially rejected and alienated in what he perceives to be his closest and most important relationships. The group (or the individual friend) may use teasing as a form of conformity policing. The group may be a context in which the individual is the furthest thing from free to express herself however she likes. The group’s conformity demands and its contempt for differences may be her greatest sources of anxiety and the group may be responsible for whatever invisible chains there are that keep her from full realization of the life she most wants and is most capable of thriving within.

As Ian Cromwell illuminated for me last summer, jokes assume a shared perspective. Like I said above, what we are often laughing at is what is absurd or otherwise “off” in some way. People sometimes enforce their values through mocking people who deviate from them as living or thinking absurdly and oddly. Sometimes in a group, be it a family, a friendship, a church, a classroom, or whatever, members use teasing to make deviants feel not only stupid but like they risk social rejection for their non-conformity. This is often a significant burden on members of marginalized groups, who in the dominant, privileged, perspectives within a group are often treated as laughable in ways that merely reflect the oppressive prejudices of the reigning norms and viewpoints built on those norms. And, of course, even marginalized groups can form their own subgroups and members can tyrannize each other similarly. All humans are subject to these potentially dangerous dynamics.

So groups, including families and even friendships of just two people, have ways they can empower or disempower their members. Teasing can be a road to, and expression of, exclusiveness and intimacy. Or it can suffocate both somebody’s potential and individuality and punish them for how they deviate from norms or fall within a discriminated against set of people..

So let’s apply awareness of these dynamics to our debates about high stakes controversial issues. That’s the contextin which the civility pledge explicitly binds people. It’s not a prohibition against private teasing among friends. It’s about public engagement on potentially contentious and emotional issues.

In these sorts of conflicts between strangers who identify in firmly different camps, there is no common rapport or solidarity from shared group membership. So, attempts to tease, use sarcasm, and otherwise mock are most likely not going to be received well. They’re not going to be taken as indicators or reminders or creators of a shared bond. They’re going to be taken as attacks. They’re likely to trigger our emotionally charged defense mechanisms and shut down our abilities to engage in critical thought. They are going to be counterproductive to the project of reasoning towards truth together. They are especially and obviously insidious when they are either blatant or passive aggressive ways to goad and bully members of marginalized groups who are already systematically disadvantaged in the assumptions of the dominant discourse. And, less seriously but also importantly if we are to make progress towards mutual understanding and positive rapport, they can shut down members of privileged groups who are turned defensive by backlash. However justified that backlash might be.

Now, on the other hand, there are some ways to joke that create an atmosphere of lightheartedness that helps to create a feeling of rapport. Self-deprecation probably signals to another that you’re non-threatening and not arrogant and that perhaps you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable in the ways that a friendship and trust would require. Gentle ribbing of one’s opponent on clearly inoffensive matters, much different from any of the points of philosophical tension, may be received positively as a subtle request of the other’s trust and feeling of intimate friendship. But where there is a power differential along privileged/marginalized lines, this is fraught as the marginalized may not feel they are in a position to refuse the offer and may take the teasing as a microaggression.

Humor is helpful for making ideas clear. We can be induced, even against our prejudices, to laugh at things that are absurd. If you can get your interlocutor to laugh at ideas he is attached to, even involuntarily, you can get both a tacit concession of your point and, as a huge and helpful bonus, positive pleasure feelings flowing through his brain that naturally accompany laughter.

So, if you can effectively satirize an idea in a way that won’t put your interlocutor’s back up and make him feel threatened and defensive, but rather one that can circumvent all his mess of identity and cognitive dissonance to strike at his funny bone, well then it’s even more powerful than getting him to face a contradiction in his beliefs straight on and plainly. Because this kind of recognition of absurdity in his beliefs that you’re making him aware of is the kind his brain will enjoy, even against his obstinate will. And that has a very softening effect on someone.

So this is what I meant when I pledged only to “use humor to challenge and persuade others rather than to abuse and alienate them”. I want to find ways to establish common rapport, common ground, and fellow feeling. Within that, a little cajoling to laugh at a mischievous joke about their beliefs has some hope of getting a smile or a laugh and a tacit concession that feels good emotionally. That’s effective. Using contentious sarcasm or personally attacking them puts them on defensive.

Finally, a word about mockery and satire. There is a difference between creating a work of insightfully mocking satire, on the one hand, and having a discussion with someone. You can point to works of satire but that’s not the same thing as making fun of the person you’re directly engaging, as an individual. Such behavior is not “art (except if as some part of some legitimate performance art that you’d really have to be able to justify had a great enough higher purpose and wasn’t motivated by maliciousness.) Personally mocking someone you are in a disagreement with is bullying, hostile, and alienating. So, it is in many cases, abusive. It is also irrational. It’s an attempt to coerce their mind to agree through social punishing rather than reason and that should be morally and intelllectually beneath rationalist promoters of reason. It is totally different than an artistic or otherwise highly impersonal satirization of an ideological group you belong to and its general ideas or behaviors.

The latter functions on an abstract level and is part of the vitally necessary intellectual and moral criticism of beliefs, values, practices, institutions, and behaviors which critical thinking requires of us all. The former as part of interpersonal exchanges is a personal attack. When done repeatedly, with special malice, and lack of rational detachment, it is pretty clearly a form of harassment and bullying. Attacking highly powerful public figures with an impersonal but scathing mockery is completely different. There should be some limits of fairness and taste even there, but it’s different nonetheless than cruelly and vindictively engaging people with roughly equal power to you in a way that aims at humiliating, degrading, or silencing them, motivated on your part by hatred and vindictiveness. The civility pledge was written in part to condemn the prevalence of a plague of such harassment poorly conceived and unconvincingly excused as “satire”.

For my take on the value of satire and my rejection that merely taking offense is the same thing as having the right to claim you have in fact been offended, read these posts:

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire Or Criticism

My Thoughts on Blasphemy Day

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.