Ridicule Ridiculous Ideas, Including Your Own

Reason doesn’t work when arguing with ideologically unreasonable people

Umberto Boccioni (Italian, 1882-1916), “The Laugh.” Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After watching the Showtime documentary “Everything’s Gonna Be All White,” I experienced an emotion I didn’t expect. I expected anger at the ignorance I had already noticed in the show’s trailer. I expected sadness at how far backward we have moved regarding race relations in this country. I even expected confusion, since that is a typical response to the fallacious reasoning of contemporary social justice activism. But surprisingly, what I felt most saliently was embarrassment—embarrassment for the speakers in this series who thought they were showing the world their strength when they really displayed their weakness, and thought they were expressing empowerment when they were inadvertently confessing severe insecurity. I felt embarrassed for Showtime for believing the opinions expressed in the show were “the POC POV,” and not the immature ramblings of people with the mental and emotional intelligence of first-graders.

Missteps abound in this documentary. The first episode alone examines extremists—those who stormed the Capitol building on January 6, those still upset about the Civil War and those who call the cops on Black individuals for innocuous reasons such as having a cookout—and presents them as an accurate representation of all white people. One commentator insists that the slur “Karen,” denoting an egregiously judgmental white woman who frequently targets Black people with her hypercritical vitriol, applies not just to some white women, but to all white women. The false idea that there is an epidemic of white-on-Black homicide courses through the show, most absurdly through musings that take place in lieu of the serious discussion the topic of racism demands.

To be fair, ridiculous ideas come from across the political spectrum. From QAnon to “Jewish Space Lasers,” the right is not without its own absurdities. However, as a member of academia, I see ridiculousness of the woke progressive variety infiltrating liberal arts education in a variety of disciplines, including my field of rhetoric. Christian Smith, in an essay titled “Higher Ed is Drowning in BS,” states that ridiculousness correlates with the “crisis of faith in truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility, and our common humanity” in academia and, by extension, society at large. Smith continues to insist that “the accumulated effects of all the academic BS are contributing to this country’s disastrous political condition and, ultimately, putting at risk the very viability and character of decent civilization.” I couldn’t agree more, hence my focus on this specific type of ridiculousness.

Regarding the ridiculousness cultivated and distributed by those whom John McWhorter calls “third-wave anti-racists” (TWAs), my driving question is this: Why do we take such ridiculous ideas seriously? Even if the people harboring those ideas can persuade large numbers of people who do not know better, why are the people who do know better tolerating such ideas? Why are they suffering such fools as seriously as they do? Why don’t they respond accordingly? Why don’t they ridicule ridiculous ideas?

Why Ridicule Is a Useful Tool

The Cambridge online dictionary defines “ridiculous” as “stupid or unreasonable and deserving to be laughed at.” The first half of this definition, “stupid and unreasonable,” can be applied to much of the progressive left because they, themselves, dismiss reason as a sufficient way of knowing. According to Judith Katz, a scholar whose “Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture” was featured temporarily on the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s website and is embraced by the aforementioned TWAs, the following concepts are inherently white and, therefore, racist when expected from people of color: delayed gratification; planning for the future; objective, rational and linear thinking; the scientific method; the concept of cause and effect; decision-making, etc. All these concepts can be placed under the general category of reason, a fact that needs no explanation for reasonable readers.

This indictment of reason explains much unreason among TWAs, but the more important observation is this: Reasoning with ideologically unreasonable people may be a fool’s errand. Reason and rationality, or at least a shared respect for them, is key to effective and productive communication. However, if people refuse to abide by reason and rationality—going so far as to call them tools of oppression—two responses present themselves.

The first is to walk away from the situation. Why waste time getting nowhere? Instead, go find the people who respect and do their best to implement reason and rationality. Even if I lose an argument with a reasonable and rational person, I am better for it. In fact, if I am victorious in my debate I may benefit from acquiring a new affective strategy or strengthening my already strong understanding of the subject at hand. When someone refuses the mere courtesy of a short conversation or even a short answer to an innocuous question—like “That’s an interesting point. Can you elaborate?”—carrying on may be wasted effort.

Unfortunately, this evasive strategy may not work with many social justice activists. Walking away enables them to perpetuate their ideas unimpeded and would be playing right into their hands. What’s more, people don’t get to see what dissent can look like in these situations; those who cannot speak up or are still unsure of their understanding of TWA logic may need clarification and validation they will not get if would-be dissenters walk away. But that may not be the only consequence of evasion. When you walk away from many TWAs, they follow, sometimes with insults, inane guilt trips and various kinds of threats. They may even figure out where you live, inform the most rabid among their ranks and observe the consequences. Clearly, it is not wise to turn your back on them. It would seem, then, that walking away isn’t always an option.

The other option happens to be the second half of our operational definition of ridiculous: Laugh at ridiculousness as it deserves to be laughed at. The importance of laughing at the new wielders of cultural power—TWAs—is described well by Simon Critchley in his book “On Humour”: “By laughing at power, we expose its contingency, we realize that what appeared to be fixed and oppressive is in fact the emperor’s new clothes, and just the sort of thing that should be mocked and ridiculed.” By study and observation we can see that the TWAs’ emperor is clearly in the buff; mocking and ridiculing, as did the little boy who pointed out the emperor’s birthday suit, may be the truthful but humorous way to get the point across.

One may ask, “But isn’t ridicule hypocritical? Wouldn’t a reliance on ridicule turn us into the very monsters we are trying to slay?” No, because the TWA counterpart to ridicule is not a different variation of ridicule; it is degradation.

Ridicule vs. Degradation

One may also think that ridiculing TWAs is a “fighting fire with fire” strategy that can only make things worse. However, this isn’t fighting fire with fire; it’s fighting degradation with ridicule. The best operational definition of degradation comes from the field of sociology. In the 1950s, Harold Garfinkel described “status degradation” as “[a]ny communicative work between persons, whereby the public identity of an actor is transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types.” This “communicative work” is meant to cause the loss of dignity for the object of degradation and a mix of schadenfreude and fear among onlookers. The ultimate point of such degradation is to silence people; they can no longer claim status or respect.

Ridicule, by contrast, makes a strong case for the utter silliness of the other person’s beliefs and behaviors, but the person’s status as a whole is not eradicated. Ridicule is not degradation; it is an inducement of discomfiture, so the terms are not synonymous. In “Humiliation: Its Nature and Consequences,” psychologists Walter Torres and Raymond Bergner explain this difference. Using “humiliation” as a synonym of degradation, they write:

In embarrassment, a person discovers such things as that his zipper is open, that there has been spinach between his teeth during a just completed conversation, or that a gossipy comment has been overheard by its target. Such persons are caught out of face, in minor violations of social decorum or conduct. However, in these and other embarrassing situations, their status to make status bids or claims is not rejected. In humiliation, it is.

So, to ridicule is to weaken credibility and respectability in a particular context, not to completely destroy those things, along with a person’s status, in all contexts.

Lastly, unlike degradation, which has little concern for logic or truth, ridicule as I am defining it is backed by logic and truth. It is not enough to insult someone; one must insult someone while thoroughly explaining why the insult is warranted, and that explanation must be fortified by logic and facts. Although TWAs have little respect for logic and facts, ridicule coupled with explanation can go a long way for those listening in: the ones who do not yet know what to make of the absurdities they are hearing; those who notice and lament the absurdities but feel alone in their views; and, especially, those who may believe that they only find these ideas ridiculous because they are missing something and have yet to hear the right arguments or read the right books. This strategy is akin to the open letter in journalism; one seems to be talking to a particular person or group, but the true audience is much larger.

By extension, unlike those who degrade, those who ridicule welcome a response; they want a continuing dialogue and are happy to have their ideas scrutinized by a person who appreciates logic and empirical information. So, ridiculers welcome the ridicule of their own ideas as well, as long as they are given the opportunity to respond. Ultimately, the object of one’s ridicule can still maintain his or her humanity. The purpose of degradation, however, is to eradicate that humanity.

The Roots of Degradation

The degradation strategy is clearer when we trace the illogic of third-wave anti-racism to its Marxist source. Marx and Lenin insisted that anyone with opposing thoughts to theirs simply could not be tolerated. Antonio Gramsci went so far as to turn the Marxist notion of class warfare into ideological warfare; i.e., your socioeconomic status matters less than your ideological status. To be bourgeois was to evade revolutionary mindsets, and such evaders had to be degraded at best, eliminated at worst.

The Frankfurt School, a group of Marxists responsible for creating the school of thought that would eventually give birth to critical race theory, similarly believed that those deemed bourgeois could not be tolerated. Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse, in an essay titled “Repressive Tolerance,” insists that the only way to bring about a revolution that would uplift the downtrodden is to have absolutely no tolerance for those who oppose the revolution. Although Marcuse referred to this anti-revolutionary group as conservative, that term now encompasses all those who do not think all-out revolution is the only way to peace and equality in the 21st century, regardless of political identification.

Critical race theory and, to a larger extent, critical social justice come out of this Marxist mindset of intolerance. If this intolerance is taken to its logical conclusion, one can understand why activists influenced by these theories either refuse to talk to dissenters or work to degrade them. In lieu of show trials and gulags, today we have degradation ceremonies and “cancellations” in the form of firings, Twitter mobbings and other kinds of exclusion. Critical race theory’s origins in Marxist thought should not be dismissed as an interesting historical fact; it is a frightening present fact. Although what is going on in America today can be called a kind of “soft” Marxism, it shares the same “hard” goal as Marxism proper: societal revolution through the collapse of American hegemony. If this revolution results in societal collapse, the TWAs will have achieved their goal.

This goal—complete revolution—explains much behavior among current social justice activists, especially the demonization of values such as reason, dialogue and free speech. If you want a revolution, the last thing you want to do is engage in logical and reasonable discussion with those with whom you disagree. In fact, being illogical and unreasonable is a much better way to bring about chaos. These activists want to negate common sense and ignore any empirical evidence that weakens their arguments.

Effective Ridicule

So what do we do about TWAs, especially since their apparent lack of reason is arguably not inadvertent, but a purposeful tactic of disruption? We have to show them that we know their illogic is purposeful, we do not fear them and their accusations will not land. We have to show them, in no uncertain terms, that we are not taking them seriously. Because walking away won’t always do the trick, we must ridicule. We must ridicule their ridiculousness, and we must do it consistently.

Fortunately, the efforts to ridicule such ridiculousness have already begun. Andrew Doyle, under the pseudonym Titania McGrath, wrote “Wokeness: A Guide to Social Justice,” a parody of TWAs’ sentiments. Winthrop Rosenberg’s satirical book of speculative fiction, titled “Anti-Racist vs. Colorblind 2064: Woke Wars,” displays social justice activism’s illogical conclusions regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. “Anticlownist Baby: A Radical Activist Children’s Book for Anticlownism Education,” written by Doctor Zews (another pseudonym), is a direct dig at anti-racist leader Ibram X. Kendi’s children’s book, “Antiracist Baby.” For people who’d rather watch TV than read, there is Bill Maher’s litany of satirical “woke” movie warnings.

The “grievance studies” hoax may best illustrate the power of ridicule. Authors James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian decided to send purposefully absurd essays to scholarly journals to see if these journals would take them seriously enough to publish. Seven essays were accepted, including an “argument for men self-penetrating with dildos to reduce transphobia. An ethnography of men who attend ‘breastaurants’ like Hooters. Research on rape culture among the dogs at Portland dog parks.” This ridiculing of identity-based scholarship dealt a strong blow to a progressively left-wing academia and exposed third-wave anti-racism in academia for the danger it is. Ridicule works; it dismisses woke behavior and talking points without playing into TWAs’ hands. We simply cannot take such activists seriously, and it has to be blatantly clear that we will not take them seriously.

Lastly, as stated briefly above, we must open ourselves up to ridicule as well. No one is perfect, and when we wander into absurd thoughts, we should be thankful for those who point them out to us, lest we devolve into the very same ludicrous miasma we’re combatting. Socrates compared those who would challenge him as touchstones, referring to the material used to test the integrity of gold. In “Gorgias,” Socrates says to his interlocutor, Callicles, “If my soul, Callicles, were made of gold, should I not rejoice to discover one of those stones with which they test gold, and the very best possible one to which I might bring my soul; and if the stone and I agreed in approving of her training, then I should know that I was in a satisfactory state, and that no other test was needed by me.”

Therefore, Socrates implores Callicles to pull no punches: “Do not then desist from advising me, now that you have begun, until I have learned clearly what this is which I am to practice, and how I may acquire it. And if you find me assenting to your words, and hereafter not doing that to which I assented, call me ‘dolt,’ and deem me unworthy of receiving further instruction” (emphasis mine). Socrates insists that Callicles and others call him out as a “dolt” when he seems to be acting like one. Socrates would rather be ridiculed—while afforded the opportunity to defend himself and converse further—than to be ignored or silenced. Thus, we should not fear ridicule or refrain from the self-awareness that allows us to discover our own fallacious reasoning.

Ridicule Ridiculous Ideas

Although ridicule is not degradation, and although its effects pale in comparison to the effects cultural Marxism would have on society, some of you may be doubting the use of ridicule to cope with and battle third-wave activism. If you share this feeling, know that woke ideas and tactics are ridiculous whether we point it out or not:

To quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Rod Dreher, “Live not by lies.” Saying that woke tactics aren’t ridiculous is a lie, and not saying that they are ridiculous is a lie by omission. Explicitly exposing their ridiculousness is really just an expression of the obvious. Lastly, remember that ridicule and degradation are not the same, and while the latter is unacceptable, the former is fair game.

Of course, throughout all this we still need to be fair. Not all people we would label as social justice activists deserve ridicule. Some commentators in the aforementioned Showtime documentary are thoughtful and realistic and deserve to be taken seriously. Some activists and scholars are not only sincere in wanting to end racism and do right by the minorities damaged by it; they are also actually willing to talk to those who disagree on how best to accomplish that. However, for the cartoonishly intolerant, ridicule may be the most effective rule of engagement. The ridiculous ones are the unreachable ones, the ones who have jettisoned reason and see dialogue as an inherent evil. Since they have rejected reason, the only remaining tactic is ridicule.

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