On the Uses of Ridicule, Part II

On the Uses of Ridicule, Part II January 3, 2011

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.

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