Sunday, October 5, 2014

Revisiting Ridicule

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post about giving up ridicule. Since that time, a lot of events have transpired and I feel that I need to revisit some of the reasons that I used for giving up ridicule.

The trigger for that post was the elevatorgate incident. As I mentioned in the post, the incredible amount of invective that incident resulted in put me off. But today I feel that the reason it put it off has more to do with the fact that I didn't have the understanding of privilege, intersectionality and feminism that I have today. I was projecting some of the feminist criticism to myself and that was the primary source of the uncomfortable feeling. Of course, that was something I've realized a while ago. The trigger for this post is the recent events involving a few atheist celebrities.

The first celebrity is Dawkins. It was Dawkins' fallacy of relative privation ("Dear Muslima") that set the tone for many atheists on which women's issues are important and which aren't, and as a consequence set the tone for which concerns of women can be ridiculed. At the time he made that comment, and for a while after that, I chalked down Dawkins' comments to just a mistake on his part. But ever since then, he on and off kept belittling women's concerns and recently crossed a line that is beyond "just a mistake" and squarely in the territory of victim blaming.

In past few years, a few serious allegations have been levelled against Michael Shermer. A scientist said that he made a grab for her breasts. Another person, who at the time wished to remain anonymous, contacted PZ Myers and asked him to publish a post accusing Shermer of rape. The person has now come forward publicly in this piece by Mark Oppenheimer. Just after Oppenheimer's piece was published Dawkins started asking questions about being drunk and getting raped. It is highly probable that Dawkins is standing up for his friend Michael Shermer by throwing the accuser under the bus, albeit in a dishonest and roundabout way.

The second celebrity is Sam Harris. He made a sexist joke, and then when a few women adopted a really aggressive critical posture contrary to their estrogen vibes and questioned his sexism, he wrote a defensive explanation which still remained sexist. These posts explain why - Sam Harris, The Criticism of Bad Ideas, and Sexist Appeals To Biology, On Sam Harris’s Reply to Feminist Critics, Sam Harris’s “#EstrogenVibe” Remark Wasn’t The Journalist’s Fault, Is Sam Harris Sexist?

At this point, Dawkins jumped in and threw around words like "Thought police", "witch of the week" to stand up for his friend Sam Harris.

Here is where the third celebrity, Jerry Coyne, stepped in and stood up for his buddies Dawkins and Harris.

So what do you do when celebrities like Dawkins who command an audience of millions set the tone for how to approach the topic of sexism, misogyny and rape? Every time he uses ridicule, his followers take a cue from him and start ridiculing women who talk about sexism, misogyny and rape. The followers can't simply be brushed away as trolls. Ignoring trolls doesn't work(1, 2). Given that they cannot be ignored, should women find a saintly reserve of restraint and patiently explain things to them? That would be asking too much of them. If people are a product of genetic make-up and the environment, the environment here is particularly toxic and demanding patience and civility amidst the toxicity is demanding behaviour that borders on the superhuman. Here ridicule can serve as a shorthand in lieu of a lengthy explanation, or as a perfectly valid emotional response to toxicity.

A few years ago, I would have doubted that such ridicule works. But now I think a robust case can be made that it works. Feminism and social justice have made wide inroads into a number of areas almost always accompanied by bitterness, bitterness that could have been avoided had people in positions of power recognized their mistakes and corrected them. But if history is any guide, when a status quo is challenged, it rarely gets changed willingly. "If only you said it more politely or civilly, I would have changed" is usually a rationalization marshaled for the explicit purpose of maintaining the status-quo. It might well be an unconscious rationalization or something someone sincerely believes in. Whichever it is, the end result doesn't look good. Some of the biggest changes in society, be it anti-colonial struggles, anti-casteist, anti-racist, and women's rights movements have happened not because people sat down and calmly and patiently explained things over and over again to their oppressors and the status-quoists. They happened because people knew they were entitled to certain rights and that acquiring those rights, right now, was far more important than hurt feelings and the tonal quality of intellectual discourse.

We've seen the same in the past few years. For years women have been hinting that things aren't right, and for years they were ignored. It's only when women said "fuck it, it's time to stop being nice" and started demanding change did people start listening, and more importantly change. This change has been happening in a number of fields - sci-fi & fantasy, comics, gaming, the tech industry, and of course in atheism. And all of that involved hurt feelings and extreme bitterness. The conclusion I draw from these events is that there is simply no way around bitterness when trying to bring about change.

Another thing that I noticed was that I didn't factor in the role of comedy on social issues. Comedy is a form of ridicule and so the question became why wasn't I against comedy? Sure, I was against comedy that was justified bigotry, but I enjoy comedy like this. It is then I came across the idea of punching down vs punching up. If comedy punches down on an oppressed group, it is banal comedy. It is just pandering to the status-quo. People might think a comedian is being edgy in saying shocking things, but they are shocking not because people agree that saying such things is fundamentally wrong, but because people don't say them out of fear that someone will call them out. So seeing someone else say them is vicarious pleasure.

In contrast, there is comedy that punches up. It too says shocking things, but this time they are shocking because they make fun of things you believe in. A feminist joke would be offensive and distasteful to someone who grew up absorbing the background radiation of patriarchy. They may think the comedian is resorting to ridicule and nastiness to say something that should have been said nicely, in which case they would have given it some thought. But as we saw above, that isn't quite likely.

So there are quite a few things I got wrong in my previous article on ridicule. To sum up:
  • Naturalism also means that when someone is faced with a toxic environment, expecting them to remain civil and nice is a determinedly unnaturalistic position.
  • Challenging the status-quo almost always involves nastiness. There is too much historical evidence to keep believing that change is possible without nastiness.
  • While ridicule may cause people to double back and hold their positions more strongly, I didn't consider the fact that ridicule pushes boundaries of discourse. Something that people didn't even think of discussing before, is now fair game. As long as people said things nicely, it was easy to ignore them (unconsciously). But when they get angry and put their foot down, it is not so easy to ignore them. Funnily enough I was aware of this at a personal level. In a family, sometimes people get taken for granted and their concerns are brushed away until one fine day they let it rip and things change from then on. I see no reason why this can't apply to groups of people.
  • Also, saying things nicely doesn't seem to have a good track record in changing beliefs. For example, Sam Harris did not change his beliefs even when people explained nicely and patiently why he was wrong.
  • And finally preserving scope for changed beliefs isn't as important as pushing the boundaries of discourse.
Does this mean I will now take up ridicule again? I don't know. I may well not because when I had fun ridiculing before, I was kind of punching down. I still see that as wrong. In some cases, I may. For example, elsewhere I did respond to the sexist atheist celebrity dudebros with ridicule (Couldn't resist the self-referentiality there).


Ramesh said...

Ridicule, you can! But it may hurt those ridiculed (not all, like me). It only shows that those ridiculing reach their limit of efficiency to express themselves to the level of THOSE ridiculed. No doubt it is funny for for the ridiculer. But humanity suffers. However if ridicule is got through and the target person/group understands your point my above concern doesn't apply. But those are rare cases.

So ridicule those who think that they know better than you and for others, I think, one should get down to their (target group/person/issue) levels and convey the message you want to so that humanity do not suffer!

Not sure if you could get me! :) Anyway I made the effort!