Posted by: captainfalcon | October 2, 2010

Putting Ridicule in its Place

It would ordinarily be a tactical mistake to respond to a (somewhat) jocular defense of ridicule (and only ridicule) for the ridiculous by invoking Martin Luther King, but that is only because King is ordinarily invoked ipse dixit – as a persuasive moral authority whose say-so is truth – whereas ridicule tends to presuppose the inaptness of ipse dixit. It is not a tactical mistake to invoke King here, because I will not invoke him as a moral authority, but as a cunning social scientist.

Chris has two objections – one aesthetic, the other practical – to indignation at Andrew Shirvell. His aesthetic complaint is that Shirvell is “definitionally pathetic and illegitimate, and the only proper response is to laugh in his face.” An improper response, therefore, is for “our culture of perpetual outrage…to treat Shirvell’s paranoid output with a tone of breathless unction and supercilious moral disapproval.” There is also a practical reason to eschew outrage, Chris continues, which is that “it grants the objects of our opprobrium an undeserved legitimacy.”

Because I share Chris’s aesthetic sensibilities,* I also view with distaste those who profess outrage at Shirvell; their response strikes me as inelegant grandstanding. But my aesthetic reaction is conditioned by the fact that the pernicious attitudes of which Shirvell is a caricature are not at all a threat to me; I’m neither gay (accept that arguendo), nor have I been subjected to an (even poorly executed) Internet hit-job. Additionally, though not to the same degree as Chris (who, in this regard, is truly unique), I do not suffer when I am the target of (lunatic or otherwise) disdain.

These aesthetic sensibilities – call them complacency – inform the way we see the world. They cause us to see people like Shirvell as unthreatening and ridiculous, and to attribute contemptible motivations to those who are outraged by him. (Chris correctly observes that the alternative aesthetic sensibilities – the ones possessed by those who profess outrage at Shirvell – cause the contrary thought that “anyone who does not look upon the dreck of CAW with crossed arms and a frown might secretly be rooting for the guy.” And, of course, there is also an abundance of charlatans on both sides; both those who are complacent in knowing service to their own interests (toadies) and those who indulge in outrage because it makes them feel superior.)

Chris’s reaction – a reaction that I share – is thus the product of complacent aesthetic sensibilities that we have, in large part, because they are good for us. (What I assume is his further reaction, that in the case of Shirvell you don’t even need a complacent aesthetic sensibility to see that ridicule is the only appropriate response, is also a product of his complacent aesthetic sensibility; obviousness is relative.)

There are a number of possible explanations why these aesthetic sensibilities are good for us. In a slightly different context, Martin Luther King suggests the two most plausible. Both are debunking explanations. That is: they do not invoke the truth or universal aptness of the deliverances of our aesthetic sensibilities in explaining why we have them.

The first, particularly perverse explanation, he flags when describing one of the forces pushing against his engagement in civil disobedience as “a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of ‘somebodiness’ that they have adjusted to segregation.” In other words, an excess of humility can result from marginalization and lead to complacency. (This could feature in an explanation for our comparatively high tolerance for being the objects of disdain.)

King’s second, more humdrum, explanation is that complacency towards particular episodes is good for those who aren’t threatened by the system that produces those episodes. As he puts it while discussing a system (that the collective imaginaire regards as) more pernicious than homophobia or, in the regrettable neologism, “cyberbullying:”

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’

One response is that there’s no analogy here simply because there is no moral comparison between Shirvell’s blog and Birmingham in 1963. Obviously there’s no moral comparison, but equally obviously I am not making a moral comparison. A related, but more intelligent response – we’ll attribute it to Chris – is that there is no analogy here because (i) he takes Shirvell’s blog less seriously than the “white moderate” takes episodes of segregation, (ii) unlike segregation in Alabama, Shirvell’s blog is so outlandish that it is more properly classified as a one-off eccentricity than as a serious episode of homophobia or cyberbullying, and, even if it is such an episode, (iii) Chris’s attitude towards Shirvell is the most effective means of rendering him illegitimate, and dismantling the system that produced him.

The problem is that these reactions are all predictable by virtue of Chris’s being relevantly analogous to the white moderate that King describes. Chris doesn’t take Shirvell’s blog seriously because it isn’t of a type of episode that has ever threatened him; and Chris regards Shirvell’s blog as mere insanity** because he has never experienced first-hand the extent to which people will violate social norms when dealing with a powerless class (social norms the same violation of which, in a less disparate context, would raise the presumption of insanity).

Issue (iii) – whether Chris’s attitude towards Shirvell is the most effective means of rendering him, and the system that produced him, illegitimate – brings us to Chris’s practical objection to being outraged at Shirvell, instead of ridiculing him. The objection has two parts: (1) ridiculing Shirvell is an effective means of rendering him, and whatever system produced him, illegitimate, and (2) other means of calling attention to Shirvell – such as censuring him – are counterproductive. I have no beef with (1), but (2) is myopic. Other means may be annoying to some (Chris and me), and, therefore, somewhat counterproductive with respect to the Shirvell episode taken in isolation, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t well suited to eradicating homophobia or cyberbullying. King, again in another context, makes the point well:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…We must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice…to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood (emphasis added).

Outrage can work similarly. It is annoying; it is (melo)dramatic; it is the province of the gadfly – a humorless little creature who buzzes about saying dammit, look at me! But, despite all this, the sheer, non-nuanced, persistence of it can nonetheless force a change in norms. At first the change is justly begrudging (“I’d better not say that because, innocent as it is, the gadflies will come swarming with their mindless slogans”), and then the new norm takes root and only a discountable few still have any problem with it.

In sum, Chris’s defense of ridicule is highly contingent. Both his aesthetic and his practical complaint are better seen as a howl of discontent from a particular socio-historical niche than as the product of general enlightenment. Insofar as I occupy a similar socio-historical niche, I am inclined to join his chorus, but I do so enlightened, and without the tinge of outrage that I find so distasteful about Chris’s brief ; )

* Arguably an oxymoron.

** Which isn’t to say that Shirvell’s blog isn’t insane, or that Shirvell isn’t a nut. That is not my point; there’s no doubt that Shirvell is out-to-lunch and, in a way, a sympathetic character. I especially enjoyed the parts of Anderson Cooper’s interview where he tried to connect himself to the long, spirited tradition of take-no-prisoners politicking, where all sides trade ruthless barbs, but there are no hard feelings because everybody’s in it for the love of the game. Like Farva, he just doesn’t understand how the game works. The problem is that only some of us, those not threatened by him and what produced him, can afford to express mere amusement at Shirvell, or even amusement tinged with sympathy.



  1. […] of Ridicule I enjoyed CF’s interesting (if cheeky) devil’s advocate response to my original post on the subject.  Using the words and wisdom of Martin Luther King, he argues […]

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