The Right and Wrong of Ridicule

Is it ever OK to laugh at people, and if so, when?

Posted Oct 08, 2018

In ridiculing Christine Blasey Ford, did Trump cross the line at his rally last week? Is there even a line, and if so, where is it? 

Is it ever OK to ridicule? Maybe not. Or maybe it’s always OK to ridicule and anyone who objects is just being PC.  

If it’s sometimes OK, when and who says? 

It’s as though we live in a cross between a citizens-arrest free-for-all and a lawless Dodge City. Anyone can ticket anyone for crossing a line that isn’t established. 

When we ridicule something, we demote it, pointing out its ridiculousness. In the process, we elevate ourselves in relationship to it. Ridicule accentuates or exaggerates the difference between us and them. It’s an uniter and divider. It unites us in elevated status (what I’ll call “we glee,” the glee of being we). It divides us from a united them in demoted status. Put-downs—they put someone down while lifting the ridiculer up. Burns demote someone, elevating the burner in the process. Ridicule is a power move. 

Sometimes people act as though if something can be ridiculed or mocked, then it must be bad. That’s not true. Everyone and everything can be mocked. It’s simple. Just highlight and exaggerate its unappealing features. Try it. Say something, anything, and then mock it with an exaggerated caricature. Anything can be mocked. 

We do something similar with ulterior motives. If we can even just imagine one, we often think we’ve invalidated or disqualified an argument. We hear this when politicians in the heat of debate accuse their opponents of playing politics. Even if they are, that doesn’t mean the accuser isn’t. It’s like a lawyer saying, “Objection, your honor, my opponent might be lawyering.” Then imagine making up an ulterior motive. Fill in the blank: “Oh, you just want to do that because…” The operative word is “just.” It means ignore all other possibilities, thereby highlighting an imaginary cause and ignoring all other possible motives.

Ridicule is caricaturing, calling attention to what’s bad or absurd about something or someone, thereby drawing attention away from what’s good or reasonable about it. It’s a thumb on the scale. We tend to wince at it unless we agree with it. We approve of ridicule that calls attention to the bad or absurd that’s been hidden. Thus, ridicule can distort or it can correct a distortion, as when we ridicule a con artist who portrays himself as a saint.

Some act as though ridicule should be outlawed as immoral. Outlawing ridicule would be unenforceable because it’s inherently hypocritical. It’s like judging judgment to be wrong or calling someone a name-caller, which is name-calling. You can’t ridicule all ridicule, mock all mockery, or shun all shunning. 

Ridicule is an extension of opinion, which likewise can’t be banished. We all value some things over others. Rationality itself is based on comparative value—ratios. We all have different values. Should we always keep them to ourselves? If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all? That, too, is unenforceable hypocrisy: Silence all silencers, put down all put-downers. Value having no values. We can’t advocate neutrality about all ridicule any more than we can value having no values.

But it’s true—ridicule is risky. Pull it out and expect retaliation. Those who live by the burn often die by it. Is there a way to distinguish helpful and unhelpful ridicule? Heroic vs. over-the-line ridicule?

We can distinguish ridicule by its target—who or what is being caricatured as ridiculous and by implication who is elevated in the process. Here are the logical targets:

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Ridicule can reduce or increase equality. Mocking the more powerful increases equality. Mocking the less powerful reduces equality. Making an exception of yourself increases inequality. It elevates you in comparison to others. Sometimes we do it with the backing of a goon squad, people united with us in ridiculing others (i.e., we glee). Sometimes we do it alone (me glee). We can mock everything but us, which makes us feel exceptional, above it all. This has always been a popular move among teens. Lately, it has become a popular response to Trump on the far left—nihilistic sweeping ridicule of every one further to the right than the nihilist. 

There are ways to ridicule others without making an exception of yourself. Late-night comedy’s hosts—Colbert, Bee, Oliver, Meyers, and the breakout artist of this genre, Stewart, make a point of lambasting inward with self-effacing humor. You rarely hear anything like that in current right-wing comedy. It spoils the effect that is its top priority, elevating the team to a status of highest infallibility by any means necessary. 

Trump puts others down, never himself. That’s why some people love him, like the cheering crowd at last week’s rally. That’s we glee at work—us elevated at the expense of everyone who isn’t us. One wonders if some Trump supporters resonate with the Walking Dead, zombie genre. Trump’s opponents are the walking brain-dead, easily smote with ridicule because they’re empty-headed lib-zombies. There must be the same on the left, people who think the right has become a zombie goon squad.

How do Trump supporters assuage guilt about aligning with Trump against people of lower status like Blasey Ford? Many of his supporters are Christian. They claim to embrace a more charitable view, and many are quick to claim that ridiculing them crosses the line. How do they manage their double standard?  

It’s not difficult. They identify as the oppressed, not the oppressor, and there’s always the anti-PC self-justification. “It’s just a joke. Can’t people take a joke?”  

Not all jokes are created equal, which is why it’s useful to recognize ridicule as a power move. Anyone who recognizes that power makes a difference whether justly or unjustly allocated—this would include even those who wish it weren’t—recognizes the need to use power to right wrongs and reduce injustice. For that, ridicule comes in handy. 

Still, who we ridicule is a delicate business. We need to watch where we point that thing, and not just for our sakes—burn people recklessly and we’ll be burned—but for everyone's sake.