On mocking people’s physical appearance & the ethics of humour

I wrote a post, for Big Think, about why we should be hesitant about mocking other people’s physical appearance. I’m uncertain whether we should never do it: I think that, maybe, we do it too much or don’t reflect before doing it enough. I certainly know I’m hesitant about laughing at or making jokes about someone’s physical appearance.

Humour isn’t equal in its target, in its approach, in its ethical basis. Humour isn’t something that gets moral immunity just because it makes us or an audience feel good. Perhaps that’s why people sometimes can’t understand why some take jokes as statements of hate or mockery or derision: “Hey, it’s just a joke!”. Describing something as a joke doesn’t dismiss it from its moral impact.

I’m sensitive to claims of offence: I don’t think offence is a sufficient argument for not doing something, nor, indeed, is it even an argument. It’s, at its base, an expression of disgust or dislike. But adults know that disgust isn’t enough to make rulings on: just because we dislike something is no reason to legislate or command others to cease it. I hate celebrity culture and obsession over the minute details of strange people’s lives, but I’d never want a law that says no one ever is allowed to write about it.

However, as I tried to stress in the piece, just because people sound the same when they react to their god being mocked and their face being mocked doesn’t mean that each response is justified the same. I argued it’s myopic and, indeed, bullying to dismiss everyone’s concerns under the banner of “(merely) offended parties” – as if everyone who responds to all forms of mockery is equally wrong just because they seem the same.

And the corollary is the same: Those (like myself) saying be mindful of what you say because it effects people are not on the same moral ground as those demanding we censor all books that offend a few hypersensitive Muslims.

I want to grudgingly highlight two comments which are emblematic of many comments I’ve seen for some time, from Big Think’s Facebook page.

This argument is the same as censorship

Of course, the Internet, as always is intent on proving that people hate reading and are determined to be as nasty, as unreflective about their impact on others, as possible. You know, until the law steps in or something.

For example, this fellow said in response to my article:

Look at that again and allow me to emphasise the hyperbole: “ANYTIME ANYONE is told “You really shouldn’t say that” it STIFLES ANY free expression”.

What does “free expression” mean to this individual? The ability to mock who he wants? Well no one is stopping him, essentially. It’s his choice to do so. My article argues you should choose – you know, utilise your freedom – to pick the moral path (or what I’ve argued is the moral path). You can choose to ignore me, you can choose to make grand declarations about concepts you haven’t defined on Facebook without argument. You can choose all these things.

This individual – as with many – remarkably manage to equate/confuse “please consider your actions, because we’re fallible and we could be wrong and here’s an argument why…” with “I am the Hand of Justice and Thou Art Wrong. If thou Transgress these here Laws, Thou will be Punish’d Most Harsh’dly!”

I don’t know how people manage to read bloggers and opinion writers as being dictatorships. No one forced you to read, no one forced you to choose to ignore. But for goodness’ sake, realise you have merely articulated your free choice – your CHOICE – to ignore the argument I provided.

If anything, it is those who say “arguments equal censorship” who are damaging to free speech; one of the most effective ways to bring about censorship is to declare opinions you don’t like as being antithetical to “freedom” – instead of acknowledging arguments are part of the very thing free expression is meant to defend.

Stop whining and be strong like me

In my piece, I stressed that we are not all equally strong or capable of dealing with criticism. Again: this doesn’t mean we give in just because someone is offended or hurt. But there’s a difference between mocking ideas and god and a harmless person’s face. There are also good reasons to be able to mock god – but I can’t think of any arguing it’s good or moral or a duty to mock harmless people’s physical appearance. Even if they were such arguments, they wouldn’t be the same and I doubt as potent as the one’s arguing for humour as a tool to undermine sanctity.

But, regardless, a Strong Man just can’t understand why others aren’t like him. We’re just a bunch of wussies, you see. As I quote after, please note [sic] for everything.

1. “you make fun of something that is different, its [sic] normal.”

And we all know we just give into what’s normal, hey bubbah? What’s all this reflecting on whether what’s “normal” is also what’s right or what could be “better”? So silly.

2. stop being little baby’s [sic] about it and get over it.

I’m glad I didn’t point out why this statement might sometimes be worse than the initial insult. That would’ve been embarrassing.

3. “oh no some random guy i don’t know who probably smokes and has 2 bastard kids he doesn’t care for just said my nose is big”.. BIG DEAL!! and yet people get offended by the dumbest smallest comment..

Oh no, some random guy on Facebook I don’t know said I should get over “it”!


How do I “grow some skin”? In a jar? Do you have the recipe? I should’ve just made my post a recipe for skin-growth so all those weak fools who spend the whole life feeling and “looking” different can just ignore them because, luckily, we are all equally strong and “manly”, eh?

5. being different you should be proud of your uniqueness and despite having a large nose or a fat ass you should be proud of what you have that others dont. like a good job, or being a good person..

Yes, all people who have deep-seated issues about their appearance have good jobs because psychological problems means it’s easy for them get great jobs… oh wait. No. It’s not. And do good people tell other people to get over themselves? Or do they say, hey, maybe sometimes people have a good reason to not feel insulted? Maybe the world shouldn’t be a shit place with shit people making others feel shit? I don’t know. I haven’t grown that skin yet so I could be seeing things weirdly with my weak eyes and big feet that I’m so proud of.

6. we are creating a pansy world where kids and adults will be offended and cry over being called a stupid head or ugly face.. i mean really.. we’re f*ing adults here.. grow up..

“Pansy”? Well, if I told you that’s not a nice word, would you say I should get over it? Or would you care about combating a world that stigmatises gay people and realise that words have an impact; that showing you don’t care about the words you use means you don’t actually care about making a tiny, small change in your life that means more to others than you? Gods forbid you make a tiny reflective free choice to not use words – a virtual non-effort on your part – because it benefits people who probably are not you, but who face stigma and hatred everyday for just being who they are.

But what do I know, eh? We should be able to say and do whatever we want and people need to get over it, because we live in an equal world  and no one is oppressed and society treats everyone like a heterosexual, married, man who wants kids and is in a successful job. (Hopefully ones that also can spell.)


Wrong (or right) is a conclusion – not judgement

A commenter indicated, in a post on my comment policy, that “having a comment policy is wrong.”

That was the end of the statement.

This touches on something broader: Right and wrong are conclusions, not the beginnings of a judgement.

When people declare something is wrong – or, worse, is just wrong – we have a duty to ask why: What are the reasons that led to that conclusion? If none can be provided, what reason do we – or indeed the person making the claim – have for taking that conclusion seriously?

People forget this about the terms right and wrong, equating it with things like disgust or attraction. Of course, I’m focused here on right and wrong used in a more moral sense, rather than, say, mathematical or artistic (“That music feels right“).

“Homosexuality  is wrong” invariably for many translates into “Homosexuals makes me feel icky”. The first can be interrogated, debated, criticised. The second cannot. That people really are disgusted by gay people is a fact, not a moral discussion or argument. It’s no different than saying “I like Pink Floyd”. Of course, unlike being a Pink Floyd fan, disgust of gays translates into more harm – especially when people want government to be their feelings police, making sure other people don’t offend these disgusted people.

Interestingly, both feed each other but can be separate. I find the concept of incest a bit unnerving, but I still defend the right of two consenting adult twins to engage in a sexual, romantic relationship with each other. My disgust shouldn’t be a deciding factor in how others should live, in most cases. But, of course, one’s digust can fuel engagement with the topic. For example, my intense disgust for the American prison system and capital punishment is a big drive in my writing on capital punishment. The same is no doubt true for all of us and the things we engage in.

The point is, however, that we must treat these concepts of right and wrong in the… well, right way. Right and wrong must be treated as conclusions, otherwise it makes no sense; if they’re not conclusions, then they are probably aesthetic judgement. If you think merely asserting right and wrong makes it so, then that’s probably bigotry.

(Also, if someone asks you why something is wrong, try not to tell them to read x, watch y, etc. Sure, certain topics might require more in depth engagement. But if you can’t at least summarise your reasoning, then – yet again – no one has to take you seriously just because you declare it so.)

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[Mini-fisk] JR Hill, defending monarchy and conflating arguments

ComRes recently carried out a poll for the Sunday Telegraph, asking the question: ‘Do you believe Britain is better off as a monarchy or would be better off as a republic?’ 66% voted monarchy, 17% republic and 17% don’t know. Yet the Observer insists that the Royal Family is outdated. Is it not ironic that, in the name of democracy, the Observer rejects polling suggesting a democratic majority in favour of monarchy? Today, theirs is the minority opinion, and in democracies minority opinions are not carried. So, by all means disagree. We can do that sort of thing in a constitutional monarchy. But perhaps we should admit that it is the republicans who are outdated? (source)

JR Hill doesn’t show us the link of “yet” in his initial comment. A poll showing us what the average person thinks doesn’t contradict an argument from a single person. It doesn’t link in two ways.

First 66% could vote that women should be denied jobs, “yet” a John Stuart Mill could argue differently. That doesn’t tell us who is right in that debate (spoiler: it’s the great Mill), it shows us differing opinions. The “yet” should be replaced by another conjunction, like “and”.

But, that’s still probably wrong because of the second way it doesn’t link.

In saying that the Observer thinks the Royal Family is outdated, the only way for that sentence to link is if the Observer was making a FACTUAL claim based on the same poll data – not a moral argument. It would make sense in this way: “The poll says that 66% voted monarchy… yet the Observer insists the poll says majority voted against monarchy”.

The Observer isn’t arguing how many agree, it’s arguing the idea is unjustified.

Indeed, when Hill says “theirs is a minority opinion”, he again seems to be linking majority with justification of argument. This is an appeal to majority fallacy. And again, the Observer wasn’t describing data which is what Hill is doing and conflating.

Oprah Winfrey and misusing entertainment (and large) platforms

In my latest for Big Think, I use the whole “Oprah denies atheism” affair as a jump off point to examine her larger and damaging approach to thinking.

I don’t view all celebrity as bad. What I worry about is the uncritical or unthinking engagement so many have toward things they adore: From people to video games, nothing is sacred. That doesn’t mean we can’t be sensitive in how we criticise, of course, but neither does it mean our silence for fear of offence.

Celebrities can do good, of course. But we shouldn’t be afraid of calling them out just because their platform is larger than ours or just because they’ve, perhaps, done good in the world. As I indicate, doing good in one area doesn’t absolve you of wrong done elsewhere.

(PS: Please try refer to her as Oprah Winfrey or Winfrey. I have a small annoyance at referring to strangers by first name, who actually have a surname. [Hence, Madonna is fine and is after all her stage name])

Being a critic and being a fan

In my latest for Big Think, I argue that – in many cases – fandom runs counter to proper criticism.

This can be about films, comics, games, whatever. Passion for the thing can blind us to its flaws, making any form of negative criticism (or, indeed, adaptation) tantamount to an attack in passionate fans’ eyes.

Reasonable, justified criticism is essential to the creative process, which leads to the creation of better, beautiful things (it doesn’t need to be the case that today’s artists are better than the Leonardos of the craft, but it does mean today’s artists try to be and this can be aided by pointing out flaws in the Masters’ works).

Passion is great but can become poison. Sanctifying anything, it seems, is usually a bad move.

Being right is not enough

In conversation with Twitter friends, I asked about whether we should attempt to find a term that better portrays video games as not being strictly for children. I used the example of “graphic novels” to illustrate this point, since graphic novel “sounds” more mature, more adult, despite many of us still calling them comics, regardless.

Predictably, many said that ignorant people shouldn’t be catered to. We know that video games are a medium, not genre; similarly comic books aren’t all about superheroes. If people assume all video games are mindless shooting, sexist romps that turn children into psychopaths, why should we change our terminology to suit them? They’re wrong after all.

However, this isn’t in dispute – the point is do we mount a kind of political campaign to try change perspectives? [Read more…]

Having children and selfishness

I wrote a piece replying to another South African writer regarding the tired assertion linking selfishness and child-free.

I’ve been trying to tease out a proper justification for why someone would claim you’re selfish for not wanting children, but it’s never really held firmly. At the very least, I can “understand” what my opponents in various discussions mean when they oppose me on, say, euthanasia or sex work; there’s something firm that they’re trying to beat me with.

But this is one of those discussions that feels like I’m grappling eels.

I thought I wasn’t harsh in my response here. After all, that would’ve been selfish (and also unhelpful to discussion).

In which I yell at kids to get off my lawn (apparently)

I started writing some lighter pieces for a South African women’s site. In my latest, I list some things I think we need to stop saying – in cyber- and meatspace – such as “That’s just your opinion”, “Just saying”, etc, and why.

I’ve already thought of more, such as discussions of the weather and hating plotholes in narrative fiction. I want to develop this latter one into a longer post though.

Any others I’ve left out or that you disagree with?

Many think I’m grumpy for this list, which is strange: I think I justified my reasons. It’s not me being irritated with humans, etc. – that factor is irrelevant (even if true).

(I should inform you that the site is notorious for awful comments, ranking alongside YouTube in terms of toxicity levels. Luckily, it requires magical Facebook powers to comment so I’m unable to.)