On the Uses of Ridicule, Part II

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the uses of ridicule and the role it played in my own journey to atheism. I want to say some more about this subject, and a Daylight Atheism reader (thanks, Peter!) pointed me to this white paper from the Institute of World Politics that I’ll use as a jumping-off point. It’s titled “Ridicule: An instrument in the war on terrorism”, but it has some broader lessons that the atheist movement – or any other underdog group fighting a battle of ideas – can usefully employ.

The paper opens with an observation from an unimpeachable authority:

Used as a means of positive persuasion, humor can be an important public diplomacy tool. “If I can get you to laugh with me,” said comedian John Cleese, “you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge the truth.”

Following this, there’s a discussion of the many dictators and tyrannies that banned jokes and satire which poke fun at the powers that be – both ancient, such as the Roman empire and Talmudic rabbis, and modern, from Castro’s Cuba to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. But the gold medal for lacking a sense of humor must surely go to the mullahs of Iran, who, in the 1980s, went so far as to have foreign humorists who lampooned the regime assassinated. (The paper doesn’t name the targets, and I haven’t been able to find other sources referring to these events. If anyone knows more about this, please let me know.)

This is just what we should expect. Most actual or would-be tyrants try to pass themselves off as infallible – they claim to be flawless, to possess limitless strength and wisdom, to never make mistakes and to always know what’s best for everyone – or, in the religious case, they simply claim to be servants of God. Laughter is highly effective at dispelling this fog: by magnifying and exaggerating the leaders’ flaws and foibles, ridicule punctures their pretensions and cuts them down to size. It’s all but impossible to think of a person, or a government or a text, as perfect and flawless when you’re laughing at them.

By humanizing leaders and authority figures, ridicule clears a path for more substantive criticism. The authors write that, in pre-revolutionary France, constant ridicule “stripped away” the moral legitimacy of the church and the monarchy, paving the way for their overthrow. It “arguably motivated and radicalized the public more than the high-minded philosophies of the revolutionaries” – something that should strike a chord with all assertive modern atheists. Religious institutions usually aren’t afraid of philosophical criticism, because their members have been trained to wave away rational argument through faith. But a good laugh is something that anyone can understand, and it hits at the same emotional level where religious faith usually resides.

Another telling point is that, in addition to banning humorous displays by others, cruel leaders and autocratic governments tend to lack a sense of humor themselves. They generally require “either adulation or fear”, no other response in between. This description ought to sound familiar to atheists who notice that the Bible contains a distinct absence of humor. Ironically, as the paper points out, Adolf Hitler in particular was known to take pleasure in playing cruel jokes on others – similar to the way the Bible always depicts God’s laughter as merciless mockery of the doomed, never as genuine merriment.

Ridicule cracks this brittle facade and brings all clay-footed idols crashing down to earth. Against opponents who take themselves absolutely seriously and have no room in their worldview for irony or ambiguity, it’s a highly effective weapon. Religious texts also teach their followers to expect hostility and persecution – in fact, they thrive on it – but ridicule and satire are harder for them to deal with. For all these reasons, ridicule is a uniquely – and asymmetrically – powerful means of persuasion, which is why it should be an essential part of the atheist movement’s strategy.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    A prime example of the successful use of ridicule is the treatment of the Ku Klux Klan in the Superman radio show in 1947.
    Wikipedia entry on Stetson Kennedy

    In 1947, Stetson Kennedy provided information – including secret codewords and details of Klan rituals – to the writers of the Superman radio program, leading popular journalist Stephen J. Dubner and University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, in their 2005 book Freakonomics, to dub Stetson Kennedy “the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the Ku Klux Klan”.[4] The result was a series of 16 episodes in which Superman took on the Klan. Kennedy intended to strip away the Klan’s mystique; and the trivialization of the Klan’s rituals and codewords likely had a negative impact on Klan recruiting and membership

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    I don’t think the Bible is completely devoid of humor: there’s a lot of wordplay in Genesis, a lot of it involving names.

    One scene that leaps to mind is Judges 3, in which Ehud kills king Eglon by stabbing him in the gut, so that shit sprays out. I think that qualifies as funny, for sufficiently lowbrow values of humor.

  • DSimon

    Ehud then cross Eglon’s name off the list, and proceeds on to the final entry: Bill.

  • SteveD

    One scene that leaps to mind is Judges 3, in which Ehud kills king Eglon by stabbing him in the gut, so that shit sprays out. I think that qualifies as funny, for sufficiently lowbrow values of humor.

    Oh, that silly Bible,,. Always finding the laughter in slaughter.

  • Nancy

    Based on this post, I withdraw my comment from your last post re: New Year’s resolutions. My revamped resolution is to make my brother (and the rest of my godbot family members) feel even MORE stupid.

    Could be a good year.

  • http://betterthanesdras.wordpress.com Abbie

    Yeah what arensb said.

    We are not in a good position to judge the humor-quotient of the Bible, because we couldn’t be expected to “get” any of the jokes. There are plenty of obscure references that could easily be ironic commentary on cultural points we aren’t privy to. (Smote them hip and thigh? Hahaha!)

    Think about how much of Bloom County makes absolutely no sense a few decades later. Any topical humor in the Bible would be incomprehensible.

    What does stand out are the many many Hebrew puns, but I don’t know if those are funny so much as folk etymologic or toponymic explanations.

  • 2-D Man

    Ehud then cross Eglon’s name off the list, and proceeds on to the final entry: Bill.

    I’m glad I have a water-resistant keyboard.

  • Cristian

    I think the Iranian case is a reference to Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Verses.

  • Monty

    They generally require “either adulation or fear”, no other response in between.

    Back in my days as a Christian, I lost count of the number of times I heard that we are supposed to “love and fear God.”

  • Paul

    Christopher Hitchens makes the great point that loving who you fear is masochism.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    I’m reminded of that dystopian movie “V for Vendetta” and how a mockery piece helped inflame the dictator. But more to the point, some dictators are just BEGGING for ridicule. Just look at Kim-Jung-Ill. He’s flabby, blind as a mole, has decayed remnants of hair, is in charge of the single largest standing army in the world, and has a bizarre obsession with Hollywood. Or that Imam that ruled on the edibility of Mermaids, for goodness’ sake. Or Achmadenehoweveryouspellit’s ranting Jewish conspiracies and hilariously transparent efforts to procure nuclear weapons. Or Fidel Castro’s recent admission that Communism has failed. We certainly have no shortage of materials!
    Happy new year, don’t buy expired sushi, avoid iron chariots, don’t give money to able bodied 20-year-old beggars, and have a wonderful life!

  • Richard P.

    A prime example of the successful use of ridicule is the treatment of the Ku Klux Klan in the Superman radio show in 1947.

    Show can be found here: http://www.freeotrshows.com/otr2/superman/
    Series is called HateMongers.
    Thanks, I am listening to it now. Its great.

    Ridicule is the only way to effectively bring religion into it’s proper place. Debating is great to explain things. I always feel that by debating christian beliefs, it is given the beliefs validation. That there worthy of debate. Now I find that the only debate worthy of my time is the flat out existence of a god. If that cannot be established then anything afterward is just useless baggage.
    People should be made to feel like fools if they cling to religion. I don’t think anyone would hesitate to make a person feel foolish for living their life according to their daily horoscope, and for their own good to boot. Why not show the same concern for the religious and reinforce the silliness of the beliefs whenever possible.

  • Evil Paul

    See also: Rick Santorum.

  • KShep

    This is a great post. I am going to make a much more thorough attempt to include humor in my arguments from now on. I’m well aware that when I argue this stuff with the god-bots that I’m not going to change their minds—my aim is to get observers thinking. I just need to add some humor to it.

    In high school, I had a social studies teacher who taught us a lesson along that vein:

    He asked the class, “Who can take a joke?” One popular girl volunteered.

    He said, “Karen has recently been named the new poster girl for the zero population growth movement!”

    The class busted up laughing, and the lesson couldn’t have been more clear: once you have them laughing, you have them listening to you, and maybe taking your ideas a bit more seriously. It was a powerful lesson.

    I have to admit I’ve forgotten that lesson in recent years. I’ve had a rough go of it the last couple of years and haven’t had much to laugh about, but that has to change.

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    Earlier, I mentioned

    Judges 3, in which Ehud kills king Eglon by stabbing him in the gut

    In my Bible study notes, I also have the following:

    “Ehud tells Eglon, “I have a secret message for you” before stabbing
    him. The word translated as “message” can also mean “thing” (OAB),
    which presumably makes this the granddaddy of James Bond quips.

    “”Eglon” literally means “young calf”, and “fat” refers to the choicest
    parts of an animal sacrifice (OAB). So Ehud is allegorically killing
    Eglon as a sacrifice to YHWH.”

    (where OAB means Oxford Annotated Bible). I think this qualifies as humor in the Bible.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    arensb: I suppose Ehud and Eglon could be considered humorous, if viewed in a certain light – although I don’t think it exactly undercuts my point about the Bible containing either worshipful praise or violent vengeance, nothing in between. It’s true that jokes don’t usually translate well, but some sources of laughter are universal, and the fact remains that the Bible contains nothing from God or Jesus that could be construed as genuine amusement or humor. I think that’s a striking absence in a book that supposedly captures the entire broad sweep of the human experience.

    I think the Iranian case is a reference to Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Verses.

    I doubt it, Cristian. The original paper says this:

    In the 1980s, the Islamic Republic of Iran went so far as to assassinate jokesters abroad, even in western Europe, where the regime murdered an exiled humorist in Germany and a London merchant who sold CD recordings that mocked the mullahs.

    If Iranian involvement were confirmed, I’d have thought the details of this wouldn’t be difficult to find, but repeated searches turned up nothing. Again, I’d welcome comment from anyone who knows more about this.

  • Eurekus

    I was one whom never allowed rationality be brushed aside by faith. Since my deconversion I’ve only used that same method with only limited success.
    I can see it’s now time for me to use this same humour.

  • Rajesh Kher

    Same sentiments have been expressed in Film ROSE wherein the Monk refuses to give a copy of Comedy by Plato and eventually tries to burn it. Set during inquisition comic ridicule would have made religion a human institution and GOD a human IDEA and thus would strike at the very roots of inquisition.

  • http://www.wordsthatsing.wordpress.com Lirone

    Hmmm, I agree that getting people to laugh with you may help to build up a rapport leading to openness… but making people feel that you’re laughing at them tends to have rather the reverse effect. With people heavily invested in religion and its figures and themes, it’s easy to stray into making them feel mocked by an attempt to poke fun at their sacred cows.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Hmmm, I agree that getting people to laugh with you may help to build up a rapport leading to openness… but making people feel that you’re laughing at them tends to have rather the reverse effect.

    Making the best targets for humour the extremists and fundementalists, they won’t laugh with you anyway, but the moderates and the fence sitters may well do.

    Although making images of Mohammed is supposed to be about not worshipping idols, I would guess the reason Muslims get their knickers in such a twist these days is the potential for mockery. They see the danger as clearly as Ebon sees the opportunity.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    Like John Cleese, we laugh with them to help get them to hear our message, but we also laugh at them to drive the message home. If I’m feeling charitable, I maintain that religious people are not idiots, but instead are misinformed and deluded. It might prod them to reexamine their faith if we openly say that their beliefs are ridiculous. So we make rude jokes about Catholic cracker rituals and Mormon magic underwear, and rewrite the entire Bible in Lolspeak. We guffaw, as Ben Goren, a frequent commenter on other blogs, incessantly does, that they believe in a story that begins with a magic garden, talking animals, and an angry giant.

    No one wants to look ridiculous, and to avoid that, they may critically examine a set of beliefs that used to feel comfortable. It may be a hard way to learn, but very effective!

    Plus it’s good for a laugh.

  • Naked Ape

    “Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think.”

  • Andrew T.

    I’m reminded of this quote by Mel Brooks, which rings true here:
    “Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.”

  • Eurekus

    I’m seeing a fundie friend of mine this weekend. I’ll let you guys know about how my use of comedy works.

    @Peter N

    John Cleese is the perfect person to imitate. Check out what he thinks of Sarah Palin
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMyNk8J1c8g. Bloody hilarious. RD probably has a lower deconversion rate than this man.

  • Moondog

    On the topic of ridicule and humor with an atheist message, Non Stamp Collector is one of my favorites. He strikes an excellent balance of making fun of Christianity and really making you think. I was already an atheist by the time I came across his What Would Jesus Not Do video, but it would have pushed me right along on my way if I’d only just started questioning. Amazing what you can do with such terrible animation. And probably much more effective than a blog rant on the same topic.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Here’s a nice recent example of ridicule:
    Common Sense Atheism runs a post of kids debating the existence of Santa Claus and titles it: This is what it’s like to Debate a Christian.

    In the comments, Christian “David Rogers” shows up to express his outrage at the comparison, and he is given the treatment.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Brilliant, Reginald. That made me laugh out loud in the office. :)

  • Stephen P

    I agree that getting people to laugh with you may help to build up a rapport leading to openness… but making people feel that you’re laughing at them tends to have rather the reverse effect.

    In the short term, yes. In the long term – provided that the laughter is actually justified – it may be the pin that is needed to burst the protective bubble that they have built around themselves.

  • Rollingforest

    I agree that humor can be very useful and of course it should be used.

    However, it should be remembered that humor can be used right back at you. I’ve seen jokes about Atheists who believe in “nothing” or about how annoying the Atheist “war on Christmas” is. Just because something is a joke doesn’t mean it’s true. Jokes often feed off of old stereotypes. In political discussions, I often have a hard time getting some people to listen because they are so preconditioned to mocking my side with personal insults. I personally feel that my political beliefs are logical, but in order to win an argument I have to specifically point out how my opponents are using humor instead of logic. If a Christian does that to us, he can paint us all as sneering bastards.

    So the end result is, yes humor is necessary to get the moderates to start questioning, but if we want to reach those who grew up in the faith, friendly casual conversation sometimes works best.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    In the OP, Ebon links to a paper by Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics, and refers to the following statement, “In the 1980s, the Islamic Republic of Iran went so far as to assassinate jokesters abroad, even in western Europe, where the regime murdered an exiled humorist in Germany and a London merchant who sold CD recordings that mocked the mullahs.” Ebon asked if anyone had any additional information which might corroborate this allegation.

    I asked my brother, an historian living in Berlin (whose blog, Lost in Berlin, I highly recommend to anyone interested in a European perspective on world events), and he pointed me to a very interesting paper. No Safe Haven presents evidence of a number of assassinations carried out against dissidents by Iranian agents (and/or sympathizers) in foreign countries.

    Nine cases are covered in great detail — these victims were all former high-level politicians and military officials living in exile, and each had been working to restore the monarchy or to call attention to human-rights abuses under the theocracy. In an appendix, 162 additional alleged state-sponsored murders of Iranian exiles are listed. One of these was Fereydoun Farokhzad, murdered in Berlin, who was described as a “singer who had been threatened for offending the Islamic Republic of Iran in his shows; stabbed to death.” He was a famous poet and singer, and produced a radio program that was critical of the Iranian regime — I suspect he was the “exiled humorist in Germany” alluded to in the Waller paper. I was not able to identify an Iranian expatriate record shop owner murdered in England from this list.

    As an aside, I had trouble opening No Safe Haven, — perhaps it’s just that the website doesn’t play well with Firefox. If anybody would like to read it, and has similar difficulties, just get in touch with me (click on my name, below, and find me through my website) and I will email the file.

  • Jim Baerg

    FWIW I just clicked on your link to ‘No Safe Haven’ using IE8 & had no problem.

  • Jim Baerg

    BTW here is another example of using Santa Claus to poke fun at something.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    New documents: Hitler-mocking dog enraged Nazis

    BERLIN – Germany’s Nazi government was so angry about a dog trained to imitate Hitler that it started an obsessive campaign against its Finnish owner, according to newly discovered documents…

  • Jim Baerg

    I remember a story “Very Proper Charlies” by Dean Ing (1978) in which there was a deliberate policy of ridiculing terrorists in any report on their actions. Perhaps that would be the most effective tactic in any ‘war on terror’.See for a decent summary