Posted by: Chris | October 3, 2010

Chronicles 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 that our opposition to knee jerk outrage and our aesthetic preference for ridicule of people like Andrew Shirvell is born out of a complacency analogous to that of the white moderates during the Civil Rights movement who agreed with MLK on the merits but not on the timeframe or the tactics, with the obvious caveats about the lack of moral equivalence between the two.  For both parties, CF argues, we have the liberty to be complacent because we are not the victims in these episodes and thus necessarily view them through a different light and without a similar urgency and threat.  CF also correctly predicts the basic contours of how I would respond to this argument:

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.

Let’s take them step-by-step.  Point (i) lacks a true prebuttal, which is good, as my take is quite different.  I think, despite both arising in opposition of sympathetic parties taking a more confrontational pose, the supposed complacency of the ridiculers in this case and that the white moderates during the Civil Rights movement are quite disanalogous in form.  The latter took the segregation apparatus very seriously and regarded it as a significant problem for the state to address, but they also perhaps overly concerned* about the after-effects of acting too rapidly to tear down Jim Crow.  Compare that to the ridiculers in the Shirvell case, who regard CAW as  neither serious nor threatening and, because CAW is not part of a broader edifice of oppression, they have no need to worry about further ramifications.  Thus the complacency of the white moderates manifested in as caution, while we throw caution to the wind.

This all, of course, leads naturally to point (ii), which addresses whether one is correct in viewing CAW and Shirvell as irrelevant and absurd.  CF responds to (ii) with a restatement of his original argument, which is a shame, as I believe this is where the crux of the disagreement lies:

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).

First, this is predicated on some very dubious presuppositions about my fundamental nature.  However, this objection is unnecessary, because the outlandishness of Shirvell’s writing seems to me transparent, regardless of the reader’s orientation or victimhood.  CAW is not predicated in fact and is not ashamed to hide it.  Shirvell also liberally uses the most outrageous ad hominems, likening his targets to Hitler or Satan, again with minimal and empty justification.  Finally, when the blog does occasionally dip into the realm of reality, its points are so petty (casino Fridays) or predicated around vapid gossip (who is sleeping with who)  that their fundamental triviality is laid bare.  As I said in the original post, I thought this was a bad joke until I found the WXYZ news report, hardly a sign of “a serious episode of homophobia or cyberbullying.”  Further, I have yet to read, from either CF or the general media, a defense of treating CAW seriously, that was not predicated on an observational relativism.

Finally, on the practicality of treating Shirvell with mockery rather than opprobrium (iii), we are in agreement about the effectiveness of ridicule but not the comparative flaws of outrage.  CF writes:

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…Outrage can work similarly [to noviolence]. 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.

This, I think, assumes that Shirvell and his ilk are similarly motivated as the segregationist is.  But the segregationist pursues his policies for their own ends; he would be perfectly happy continuing them unnoticed in the wilderness somewhere.  However, the Shirvellites act principally for the response they ellicit; that’s why CAW is a publicly available blog and not Shirvell’s personal diary.  Of course, the ideal response for him would be a chorus of approval and adulation,** however the posturing of the gadfly does provide two key things he seeks: attention and legitimacy.  The gadfly’s hysterics only bring wave after wave of viewers to his website and their willingness to treat his ramblings with a heap of undeserved gravity means his writings get the serious consideration he craves (albeit, with a largely unsympathetic audience in both cases).  Thus the prospect of a swarm of gadflies descending is hardly dissuasive, as CF suggests; in fact, I would bet those in Shirvell’s position find it mildly pleasing.  

On the other hand, had the response been to ridicule Shirvell (or majorly troll him, as Mr. Volt Hyunga would have it), he likely would have gotten a lesser bump in attention (as most would instinctively dismiss him out-of-hand) and those that did look would not be inclined to treat Shirvell or his ramblings with a grain of seriousness.  Thus, it seems to me to hold that the response of the gadfly is counterproductive and certainly that the response of the ridiculer is by far preferable, especially in a case where the offender is indisputably ridiculous.

*A judgement that we, with hindsight, can make much more easily than could contemporaries.

**Unlike Ann Coulter or reality TV characters, to whom I originally analogized CAW, I don’t think Shirvell is motivated necessarily by the thrill of being oppositional and confrontational.  He thus does not seek the gadflies as a first order preference, but their response is still amenable to his ends.  Thus, I think he might be more properly comparable to someone like Terry Jones, the would-be Koran-burning preacher.



  1. In reverse order:

    1) It can be effective to express outrage at CAW even if doing so won’t discourage weirdos like Shirvell. If you can portray – rightly or wrongly – CAW as an instance of an undesirable type of activity (homophobia, cyberbullying, etc.) then outrage expressed at CAW becomes outrage expressed at that activity. It may be utterly ineffective at discouraging Shirvell, yet still effective at discouraging the undesirable activity. Your focus on the comparative effectiveness of ridicule versus outrage at shaming Shirvell suggests that you didn’t contemplate this other angle. The angle is worth contemplating because it rationalizes, not just outrage at Shirvell, but a lot of behavior, such as perpetual outrage in general, that otherwise seems silly. Indeed – another idle thought – one of the few ways in which political advocacy groups can actually change things is by repeating, ad nauseam, the thankless task of trying to portray as many episodes as they can get away with as dangerous examples of activity that is already generally thought of as problematic. Involving as it often does lying, this approach is not quite as noble as forthrightly trying to persuade others of the normative desirability of a preferred vision for society – i.e. as trying to change what situation-types are typically thought problematic – but increasing the perceived severity of a particular type of problem (e.g. by increasing the perceived frequency with which instances of the problem pop up) generates an opportunity for movements to position themselves as solutions to the problem, and thus secure (albeit short-term) political gains. (It is also worth noting that this explanation for the (modest) effectiveness of political advocacy is compatible with the plausible hypothesis that the range of possible political action is fixed (if underdetermined) by economic forces – these forces fix the range of situation-types that can be regarded as problematic and these, in turn, fix the range of possible political action. Advocacy occurs within this pre-existing ideological structure, which it can manipulate but not change.)

    2) As far as whether it is appropriate to treat Shirvell seriously, I agree with you that my defense of the permissibility of so doing is predicated on relativism. That’s no objection to it unless relativism is misplaced here. But why think that? What we treat seriously obviously depends on our relative position in the world. What is serious for A may not be so serious for B. One of the more profound reasons for this is the problem of incommensurable narratives. I assume that gay people and, though it is likely more inchoate, the cyber-bullied both have elaborate, self-reinforcing accounts of the significance of certain sorts of behavior that are radically different from our own accounts. Neither we nor gays, I further assume, can “step outside” of our respective social narratives; they are quite pervasive. Given that which social narrative we’re in the grips of depends on highly contingent factors that in no way bear on the aptness of one or another narrative, we are not well positioned to conclusively debunk alternative narratives (if, indeed, they are even the kind of thing that can be debunked). (Notice that I’m not committing myself to global relativism, which has been glibly “confuted” too many times; I’m confining myself to the particular issue of social narratives. It is a churlish move to try to infer global relativism from some particularistic relativism just in order to escape the fact that the particularistic relativism in question is highly plausible.)

  2. […] can easily be framed either as more socialism or as more free market.” Framing, as I have explained before, is what movement theoreticians do: [O]ne of the few ways in which political advocacy groups can […]

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