March 3, 2006

"Ridicule is a distinct kind of expression..."

Writes Ronald Dworkin in the New York Review of Books:
... its substance cannot be repackaged in a less offensive rhetorical form without expressing something very different from what was intended. That is why cartoons and other forms of ridicule have for centuries, even when illegal, been among the most important weapons of both noble and wicked political movements.

So in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended. That principle is of particular importance in a nation that strives for racial and ethnic fairness. If weak or unpopular minorities wish to be protected from economic or legal discrimination by law — if they wish laws enacted that prohibit discrimination against them in employment, for instance — then they must be willing to tolerate whatever insults or ridicule people who oppose such legislation wish to offer to their fellow voters, because only a community that permits such insult as part of public debate may legitimately adopt such laws. If we expect bigots to accept the verdict of the majority once the majority has spoken, then we must permit them to express their bigotry in the process whose verdict we ask them to accept.
Yes, of course: free speech is part of the mechanism of democracy, and ridicule is an especially important form of political speech.

16 comments:

AlaskaJack said...

If I am in a group political discussion and I ridicule or mock my opponent, my purpose, if I am honest, is not to further rational discussion. Rather, it is to make that person feel the psychological pain of being mocked and made fun of in front of others. Ridicule is certainly a form of expression but I don't see how it is especially important or fruitful in poitical discussions.

FXKLM said...

Sometimes a person has an absolute attachment to a particular position and rational argument cannot dissuade them. In that case, ridicule is perfectly acceptable. You can't ridule a position that isn't inherently ridiculous. Sometimes it's the only way to illustrate the absurdity of an opponent's position.

This is especially true when religion is involved. It's pointless to make a rational argument against the notion that a suicide bomber will find 72 virgins in paradise or that Jesus was immaculately conceived. Anyone willing to analyze those issues rationally would already realize that they are absurd.

If you don't someone to ridicule your beliefs, don't believe things that are self-evidently ridiculous.

JohnF said...

I think this is not really a free speech issue.

Look, God has told these people to burn embassies, behead cartoonists, etc. Mandatory injunctions don't come from any higher court, and are not reviewable.

So what is the answer, other than acquiescence? There are really only two. First, you can try to say God doesn't really want you to do this stuff. There are some people who've tried this of course, saying all the things in the Koran about killing jews and other infidels was meant for a time a thousand years ago and doesn't apply now. But the people doing the beheading and burning don't seem to buy it.

The second answer is just to say screw you, however dressed up it may be in the language of "we believe in free speech" or "you-get-to-criticize-my-religion-so-I-get-to-criticize-yours" or a "clash" of "culture," or any of many other euphemisms.

I don't see an alternative, and the quoted passage really doesn't offer one, as it begins from a premise different from the premise that the supreme law of the universe requires these "bigots" (to use the quoted word) not to accept the "verdict" at all.

vbspurs said...

If I am in a group political discussion and I ridicule or mock my opponent, my purpose, if I am honest, is not to further rational discussion. Rather, it is to make that person feel the psychological pain of being mocked and made fun of in front of others. Ridicule is certainly a form of expression but I don't see how it is especially important or fruitful in poitical discussions.

Blimey. Well said, Alaskajack!

Now, like millions, I believe that ridicule in the form of political satire is priceless, and very salubrious to society.

I am not the only one for whom SNL holds only one skit of interest -- and that's their usual political parody at the beginning of their Saturday programme.

(I actually missed the one following Dick Cheney's hunting accident, for which I kick myself!)

But when it takes a bitter, completely irrational tone of hatred, such as what Margaret Cho has become in her standup routines these days, is when I don't find ridicule worthy or needed.

The same would go for any comic who used the same levels of unhinged vitriol to left-wing politicians -- although you'd be hard-pressed to find any.

I guess this smacks at the root of the matter for many.

Ridicule, satire, especially of a political nature in the US, is one which is almost unidirectional -- from one side to the other.

And as much as I would like to sign on, and laugh at myself, I admit, when it's just that one-sided, it can be fatiguing.

The natural impulse is either to shut off. Or to shut people up.

This can't be good for us.

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

Anyone willing to analyze those issues rationally would already realize that they are absurd.

Faith isn't rational.

Religion is built on faith, which cannot be quantified, measured, and analysed like atomic weights, nor, furthermore, should it be.

For people to even want this religion to be "rational" in the sense of the scientific method, is to inject a post-modern ethos into religion, which is silly.

Of course, in the real world in the West, ridicule of religion by force means ridicule of Christianity.

But not only, I'm glad to say.

Laughing at oneself is, as mentioned already, very salubrious.

But when that laughter is constantly towards one side, but not any other, it becomes troubling.

That was my reaction when I found out that in the Düsseldorf and other German cities' carnivals this year, all floats mocking Islam were forbidden.

But the ones which mocked the Pope, Benedict XVI, were much in evidence.

Some funny. Some hateful.

But only Christian.

It's not about ridicule that some complain about.

It's the constant one-sidedness to be found in modern Western life, that is the problem.

Cheers,
Victoria

johnstodderinexile said...

What a cruel irony of fate (though perhaps it was the intention of some) that the politically-correct thought and expression controls recommended by multiculturalism would become the standard response of public sector bureaucrats at precisely the time when Muslim extremism would assert itself as a significant force in Western society and start issuing demands, such as the suppression of offensive cartoons.

Despite what Dworkin says, it seems pretty clear to me that the major institutions of the U.S. and Western Europe have already conceded to the cartoon protesters the right of censorship, invoking the principle that an oppressed group is entitled to extreme sensitivity whose form and feeling we are not permitted to judge.

There was no reciprocal demand that similar sensitivity to be shown by the Islamist side, i.e. none of the other special groups whose rights are looked after by the same bureaucrats are permitted to demand of Islamists that they refrain from offending them. Again, this is somewhat parallel to the multicultural concept that there can be no such thing as racism by anyone who is not "white." Oppressed v. oppressed conflict is to be resolved by "dialogue" in which the root of the conflict, cultural imperialism, can be correctly identified. If an Islamist were to portray, say, a gay person in an offensive manner, the bureaucratic response would be to try to persuade both sides that the straight white majority was really to blame.

I wish I was just being funny.

The most distressing new wrinkle in this evolution of official sensitivity is that news editors have become so thoroughly indoctrinated by it. What happened to the old, nobody's-fool/without fear-or-favor editors and publishers of the past? They prided themselves on their insensivity--when the words 'bigotry' and 'insensitivity' could be clearly seen as two distinct concepts. Press freedom doesn't mean much if the press won't exercise it. Self-censorship is the most oppressive of all forms of censorship.

AJD said...

I love ridicule, too.

It's why I read this blog...


....tobe able to ridicule an aging professor who thinks she's glamorous and witty.

I know: it's an easy target. But still. Fun, fun, fun!!!

Mehera said...

joseph w.:

I take it YOU are not aging...?

fun, fun, fun!

XWL said...

Ridicule is a sublime force that has the ability to shape the destiny of nations (Carter over Ford was helped in part by the ridicule Ford suffered, and 4 years later the years of ridicule Carter endured helped elect Reagan, the ability to laugh at oneself helps innoculate the mighty from the power of ridicule, why despite being targetted Reagan, Clinton and our current president survived withering ridicule (and why Sen. Clinton most likely won't)).

Ridicule must be protected and cherished.

To mangle Voltaire, I may ridicule your positions, but I'll fight to ridiculous lengths to protect your right to be as ridiculous as you want to be.

And Ridicule was a fantastic film, watch it already.

(with according to those that know one of the most painstaking translations from French to English ever undertaken for film)

johnstodderinexile said...

Ability to survive ridicule is why the self-deprecating Clinton overcame Monica, but the oh-so-serious Gary Hart could not overcome Donna Rice.

FXKLM said...

Ridicule is really just presenting a position in its most unflattering light with a snide tone. If you're truly secure in your beliefs, you'll be accept them even when presented unfavorably and the snide tone will be merely obnoxious. Only the insecure can be ridiculed.

AlaskaJack said...

Imagine a nation full of Jack Straws and Joseph Ws. How long do you think it would take before it descended into civil war?

Maxine Weiss said...

Well, I'm certainly aging, and I'm definitely not glamourous.

Hint: It's best to ridicule yourself before anyone else has a chance to!

Peace, Maxine

Johnny Nucleo said...

Alaskajack said: "If I am in a group political discussion and I ridicule or mock my opponent, my purpose, if I am honest, is not to further rational discussion. Rather, it is to make that person feel the psychological pain of being mocked and made fun of in front of others."

This is absolutely true. But where I disagree with you is that this is absolutely bad.

Ridicule can be useful in argumentation.

The goal of argument is to convince others. If you are already convinced, then I don't think you should be squeamish about using ridicule. It's only a question of whether the ridicule is effective. If you're wrong, you're an asshole. But if you're right, you did a good thing.

AlaskaJack said...

Hey, after reading these comments, I have to admit the error of my ways. Now I'm really sold on ridicule. In fact, I'm so excited about it I'm going to try it out on my girlfriend the first chance I get. I'll keep you all posted on how it works out.

Johnny Nucleo said...

Alaskajack said: "Hey, after reading these comments, I have to admit the error of my ways. Now I'm really sold on ridicule. In fact, I'm so excited about it I'm going to try it out on my girlfriend the first chance I get. I'll keep you all posted on how it works out."

You are using sarcasm to make us look like fools. By doing so, you cause one to pause, to think again. Excellent use of ridicule.