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.)



  1. rq says

    When you start growing all that skin in those giant vats you are no doubt setting up at this very moment, will you be delivering abroad, as well? I’m interested.

    Once again, I am (not) surprised there are still people out there who believe that the phrase “think before you speak” means “shut up” (well, maybe it does mean that to some people…).

  2. leni says

    I don’t know about skin recipes, but maybe Donald Trump could help you out with one for hair? If you can’t get the skin growth to work, you could at least shield yourself with protective, overlapping layers of wispy golden swoops.

    I’m sorry, I know that was horrible. It’s just, as soon as you said something about not making fun of people’s appearances all I could think about was Donald Trump’s hair >< I'll go away now.

  3. says


    Once again, I am (not) surprised there are still people out there who believe that the phrase “think before you speak” means “shut up”

    These are the same people who interpret “please listen instead of talking/writing for a while” to mean “hey, shut the eff up!”

  4. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    I wrote a post, for Big Think

    I’m so sorry. I followed Daylight Atheism there for a year and they have the dumbest fucking drive-by commenters I’ve ever seen.

  5. leftwingfox says

    I misread your second point as “Stop whining and like me”

    Which, honestly, feels like the subtext of a lot of these complaints abut censorship.

  6. Tauriq Moosa says

    @ 6 Which is why I turned comments off on the blog itself. I would’ve maybe kept comments, but I never managed to get control of the comments themselves to flag, ban, etc. So I just stopped all of it.

  7. Copyleft says

    Deliberately and consciously offending people is certainly rude. However, it doesn’t invalidate an argument–just like being offended doesn’t make you right. A lot of people overlook the distinction and say “screw you” like it’s a meaningful argument, or “I’m offended” as if that were a rational rebuttal.

  8. says

    The Lousy Canuck recently did a post about whether it’s immoral to call people “stupid” and why; similar problem.

    Insults gain their power from invidious comparison – trying to insult someone by making a comparison that you know isn’t true. When someone calls someone “stupid” they’re almost certainly not calling an actually stupid person stupid, the damage-value of the slur comes from the fact that the target’s feelings are hurt because the comparison is a lie. Consequently I argue that slurs are bad strategy to use, since they depend on being counterfactual. If you call me stupid, I can easily rebut you by saying, “No, I rather obviously am not.” But if you call me “a lousy German-speaker” I’m not going to be particularly hurt because I know it’s true and I’ll just agree with you or reply “so what?”

    Making fun of someone’s looks is similar – if you call me “hairy-backed” it’s not going to hurt my feelings because, indeed, I’m kinda fuzzy. And I know it. The insult-value of calling me “hairy-backed” would come in if I had some reason to think that was bad or abnormal or it was part of an invidious comparison – “hairy-backed like a gorilla” Uh, sorry, no, that’s not true. Besides, it’s fine for gorillas and they’re family.

    I believe that understanding how invective works and how and why insults hurt allows us to achieve a degree of ataraxia about them. If we are able to determine quickly how an insult was used, we can defuse it just as quickly by refuting it or attacking its premise. If you call me a “retard” (for example) I can reply “Obviously I am not retarded, and it’s unfair of you to compare retarded people – who certainly did not choose to be retarded – to me, who chose to disagree with you. Do you actually have an argument or is all you’ve got attempts to abuse me?” On the flip side, an understanding of the use of invective can allow us to make it more powerful. Strategically, I conclude that truth is the best offense as well. If I am arguing with someone and I feel their position is fascistic and racist, it makes their job harder if I call them a “fascist, racist” rather than “an asshole.” Because it’s easy to reject being called an “asshole” but if someone calls you a racist that invites a further discussion in which supporting facts can be supplied to aid in that determination. In public debate, this can be devastating (e.g: I call someone a “fascist” and they say “no, I’m not” and then I play back some comments they posted someplace that are fascistic)

    Now, if I think my hairy back is unaesthetic and it pains me to be hairy-backed and you call me “hairy backed” then you’ve scored a direct hit. My response is to observe that you’re being mean and that the back hair that the DNA luck of the draw gave me is not what I would choose if I had a choice.

  9. says

    Ludicrous! Making fun of physical appearances is contextual. Sometimes it is funny, sometimes not. Pigeon-holing it shows a lack of appreciation for nuance.

  10. Tauriq Moosa says

    @9 Shripathi Kamath

    I’m not sure who you’re talking to, but if it’s me, my piece says:

    >> “We could argue if one important point of humour is to cut through delusions of power — especially when that power is harmful — to show humanity lurking within it, then we can be aided by showing our audience that the power-hungry have digestive systems, weight problems, and so on. The sacred facade that the power-hungry seek begins to erode not only be pointing out the idiocy of their actions, but the identification of their physiological functions and failings. We are saying: “You, too, are human — not some demi-god.”

    >> Perhaps we should say that we should only mock those who have done something bad. Indeed, that can be a good and important way to use humour. As indicated, I think humour is one essential way to help remind us that people aren’t gods or sacred.”

    So if it’s me you’re targeting, then we could also say “appreciation for nuance” is aided by reading the article you’re attacking. If it’s not me, please indicate who.

    (Also note I said in my first sentence we “should be hesitant“, not that we “should never“)


  1. […] 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.” […]