Laughter and ridicule

There is a common prejudice that laughter and ridicule are a positive thing, in that laughter makes one feel better and helps one overcome situations that would otherwise overwhelm him, and ridicule exposes that which is worthy of contempt and thus serves a positive purpose.

I disagree. I think both laughter and ridicule are neutral, in that they can both be good or evil, depending on the circumstances.

Laughter might help people to overcome difficult situations, but personally, I can’t remember ever having such experiences. What did help me overcome difficult situations was either faith, or trust, or someone’s helping hand. I actually find it more helpful to endure difficult situations by admitting their gravity, crying and asking Gods to help me. Laughing in the face of a difficult situation looks more like denial and madness, an attempt to portray a lion as a sheep in order not to fear him, but a lion remains impervious to such mental fuckery and will eat you regardless. I find it more useful to cry for help and beg for a gun, than to pretend that I’m not facing a real lion. Laughing might help you not feel afraid, but it will not help you survive. It’s the opposite of helpful. The Jews in Hitler’s Germany had two options: optimism or pessimism. Those who chose optimism imagined Hitler as a silly character who can’t really hurt them, and those who chose pessimism fled Germany and Europe in general, and made a new life for themselves in America. We know how that turned out for each group. As I said, optimism and laughter can indeed make you feel better and safer, but it doesn’t actually help you solve any problems. It’s a form of putting your head into sand and hiding from reality, and is not all that far from madness, at least the way I see it. What does help you is to acknowledge the gravity of your situation and seriousness of your problem early on, to invest all your powers into solving the problem and asking for all kinds of help in order to increase your chances of overcoming the problem. If you still fail, at least you didn’t die in denial.

Ridicule is similar, but different in that it isn’t directed at oneself, but others. The role of ridicule is to present the object of ridicule as small, unworthy and contemptible in the eyes of the audience; essentially, it’s a form of social manipulation. When used in order to put emotional accent on the conclusion of an argument, essentially by applying tar and feathers to someone whose arguments were soundly defeated, it can be legitimately used in the context of a debate, but when it is used as a substitute for arguments, in order to manipulate emotional responses of the audience when arguments themselves fail to convince, it is a grave logical fallacy and a form of demagogy.

Let’s see some examples of proper and improper use of ridicule.

Let’s say someone is stating that the Earth is flat. Proper use of ridicule is to state that this person obviously didn’t travel much, because if he did, he would notice how the constellations in the southern hemisphere differ from those in the northern hemisphere, which, combined with the evidence of daily rotation of the sky proves we are on a sphere. This form of ridicule uses a strong argument to disprove a fallacious thesis, and then uses the obviousness of the argument as evidence that the person making the fallacious statement is stupid. Essentially, ridicule is corollary to the conclusion, and not an argument in itself, which is why it cannot be considered a form of ad hominem fallacy. Ad hominem would be “this person is an idiot, which is why his argument is false”. A corollary of the proper conclusion is “the argument against the thesis is x, and since x is rather obvious and straightforward, this person is an idiot”. Such argumentation serves the useful purpose of encouraging one to perform thorough examination of one’s arguments for obvious errors before expressing potentially idiotic theses in public.

Improper use of ridicule is to use one’s own ignorance and ignorance of the audience as an emotionally charged argument against a valid thesis. Examples of this are unfortunately abundant throughout history; Kepler was mocked by Galileo for stating that Moon’s gravitational influence causes the tides. People who produced meteorites as evidence of extraterrestrial origin of meteors were mocked by Lavoisier. Tesla was mocked by Edison who tried to suppress Tesla’s invention of highly efficient alternating current in favor of his direct current. Jewish physicists were mocked by Hitler and his propagandists for inventing relativity and quantum theory, which didn’t sound “right” to the Nazis. Everybody who expresses support for eugenics or racial differences is immediately labelled as “Hitler” without any kind of argument provided. Essentially, it is used to dismiss an argument by emotionally labelling it as either ridiculous or evil, by association. The problem is, everything can be portrayed as ridiculous. To an ignorant person, Al Gore can be portrayed as over-the-top silly for stating that he took initiative in creating the Internet; an informed person would know that before his “information superhighway initiative”, Internet was an academic curiosity at best, without commercial value to the broader public. He saw the potential and knew what infrastructure needed to be built, and he saw to it; essentially, he deserves more praise for the existence of Internet as we know it than any other person, but he is ridiculed for it because people can’t believe that a single person could be so far-sighted and important. To use an even more shocking example, Jesus was mocked and ridiculed in his suffering and death, because “he called himself the son of God” and “because if he was God, why doesn’t he come down from the cross”. It is very important that we never forget those arguments, because they sounded valid to those who said them, and probably to the audience as well, and we now see them as cringe-worthy, in hindsight. Mockery is a terrible thing, because combined with ignorance, it is a terrible weapon against truth, courage and independent thought, and I am therefore highly skeptical of it. Mockery is like an idiot with a hammer, breaking priceless porcelain and bragging how it was trash to begin with, or he wouldn’t be able to break it. It is the favorite weapon of stupidity against challenging and difficult ideas, and the fact that it can occasionally be used against idiots and stupid ideas doesn’t fully redeem it. I don’t see it as a weapon of mass destruction that must never be used, but more as candy, that can be served after a proper meal of rational arguments and evidence, but never as a substitute. It’s sweet when used in moderation and properly, but misuse it and the consequences can be grave.