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?

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.

  • LouisDoench

    That’s a really helpful clarification Dan. I like the dividing line between mockery, humor and satire as part of a stand alone piece and the same as part of a discussion. A great example came to mind, the difference between Jon Stewarts opening bits on the Daily Show, and what is appropriate there, and his interviews, where a different standard of humor applies.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      good example with Stewart. Except for with Tucker Carlson (which I didn’t approve of), he never treats people face to face like he does when satirizing them.

    • GeorgeLocke

      Stewart is not trying to convince, say, John Boehner that his views are immoral and impractical. He’s showing his audience that the views are wildly impractical. When dealing with Boehner in person, one adopts a different rhetorical stance than when addressing the public about Boehner. The implication of the above is that using different rhetoric in the two cases is bad in some way, but this is nonsense.

      Trying to convince you that your views are wrong is a very different objective than trying to convince third parties. I don’t think this distinction is adequately addressed in these comments or in the OP, nor in the civility pledge, for that matter.

    • GeorgeLocke

      It occurs to me that I may be wrong in interpreting that these two comments mark disapproval of the difference in Stewart’s behavior. If so, I apologize.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      yes, we weren’t disapproving

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      George, that was my point, it’s appropriate to satirize a public official to highlight the truth. But you shouldn’t bully him if you discuss with him face to face.

    • GeorgeLocke

      Sorry for the straw man, then.

  • GeorgeLocke

    Alienating the person you’re debating can be wise if you’re trying to reach onlookers. That is, if you make someone look extreme and outlandish, onlookers may find that they do not relate to that person.

    Of course, they may find they don’t relate to nasty debaters either. This tactic is not without its problems, but the wholesale rejection of alienating the person you’re debating ignores one of the main purposes of debate, which is to expose witnesses to the strengths and weaknesses on two sides of an issue.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      maybe in a formal debate, but still there’s no need to bully people. Most onlookers will be put off by a taunting bully anyway.

    • GeorgeLocke

      Bullying is bad and satire has its proper place. Precisely when satire becomes bullying is not always obvious. Yet you premise much of your comments on convincing the interlocutor, which is relatively unimportant in many relevant contexts.

      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.

      I agree that “it’s even more powerful”. I just think that your focus on convincing the person you’re arguing directly against is missing the point. Effective communication is about reaching people, and when you’re arguing with someone, you have to consider whether the person you’re arguing with is your primary audience. The Daily Show and Pharyngula are fora where targets are rhetorically skewered and whether the “target” is made to feel defensive is a tertiary concern.

      It is still reasonable to use the interlocutor’s feelings as a proxy for the general audience of those you’d like to reach in many cases, but not all. (Obviously none of my remarks apply in a one on one discussion. Satire in such cases is a very different beast and must be treated very lightly in comparison.)

    • baal

      I, for one, find the Pharyngula forum one of plain and repeated abuse. What they do is in no way nuanced or shows the glimmer of understanding the perspective of the target. John Stewart (who I don’t entirely like) can at least fairly recite the positions of those he skewers unlike the horde.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639378446 Bridget Gaudette

    I suppose I shouldn’t have suggested a blog wars pool regarding Vacula and PZ. Now I feel guilty…

  • Liam Jones

    I really admire your attempts to raise the bar. I am not optimistic as to its success, but it’s a noble endeavour.

  • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com/ Shira Coffee

    Dunno if you’re aware (or interested), but Daniel Dennett has a new book out called Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. I’m a big fan, so I bought it yesterday and I’m enjoying it. In his section on reductio ad absurdum (and the two following sections) he has some quite useful advice for people using parody as a form of argumentation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tyro-Kathar/1539781848 Tyro Kathar

    Speaking as an Aspie, this is wonderfully helpful. You should share this around to your autistic friends.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tyro-Kathar/1539781848 Tyro Kathar

      We tend to see things very rationally, so having human behavior explained like this is pure gold.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Before engaging in “teasing” we must take the time to really know a person, and we must be careful to only tease within our mutually committed group The group must also be willing to call foul on any member stepping over the line into bullying behavior.

  • baal

    ” coerce their mind to agree through social punishing” Exactly!
    Anyone who wants to claim the label ‘rationality’ must understand this point.

    I’m also otherwise baffled by the number of big names who would not sign the civility pledge. They seem to have buy-in on the social-utility (means) argument and have skipped the ethics part.

  • Ariel

    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.

    Sounds fine, but it sounds also (a bit) like a voice from an ivory tower. What happens if two groups (perhaps with roughly equal power) are evidently at war? Is a war satire an inadmissible tool? Should we reject both Charlie Chaplin and Lustige Blätter simply because the disproportion in power was not big enough, with the outcome of the conflict being unknown? Or is it better to get involved,
    disregard the power balance and prioritize the “hatred and vindictiveness” part?
    If so, how to talk with such fighting groups, especially if you see hatred and
    vindictiveness on both sides? Moreover, how (if at all) should such groups talk to each other?

    I find no practical answers in your general ethical considerations. Trying to read between the verses, I’m on the verge of suspecting that what you really advocate is leaving them alone. Something like: build your own community around some civility pledge and let the sharks kill each other if they are so keen on it. Is that your current position, in practical terms? (If so, at the moment I’m almost sympathetic, as you might perhaps guess.)


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