The Intellectual Perils of Making Fun of People You Think are Stupid
A disclaimer: I make a lot of speculative statements in this essay. I encourage you, whether you agree or not, to investigate the individuals and communities I describe here to determine whether I’ve represented them or their actions fairly and in good faith.
Got that? Let’s talk about bananas.
In 2006, evangelist Ray Comfort held up a banana, called it “the atheist’s nightmare,” and proceeded to explain that every feature of the fruit pointed to the existence of a divine, benevolent creator not just of bananas, but of the whole universe.
This was comedy gold. The “atheist’s nightmare” turned out to be the atheist’s wet dream: a creationist saying something not only easily refuted, but involving one of the most inherently funny food items available. I still giggle when I think about it. Humorous rebuttals to Ray Comfort’s argument spread further than his ministry ever had on its own. I knew him as “Bananaman” before I found out his real name. And when I tried to track down some information on him, mostly what I found was videos of atheists making fun of him. I watched a few of them myself, and laughed, and started looking at their other work. That’s how I discovered the movement of outspoken atheists and skeptics finally breaking their silence and speaking truth to power, stripping mainstream organized religions of the solemn dignity that had protected them from criticism for millennia. It was refreshing and even exhilarating to see.
I liked it. But I wasn’t really the target audience. I wasn’t a Christian, and wasn’t raised as one, so I didn’t need to be persuaded not to believe in Christianity, nor did I need help justifying my unbelief to myself or anyone else. Debates between creationists and atheists were amusing, but ultimately irrelevant to my everyday life, except to the extent that creationists might have access to power over educational institutions. So watching and enjoying a collection of amateur rhetoricians mocking the creationists and other fundamentalist Christians for their absurdly unscientific claims didn’t have a major impact on my beliefs.
Except in one way. When my exposure to Christian ideas was mainly coming from atheists making fun of fundamentalists, I began to think of the most delusional and dangerous Christian beliefs as representing Christianity as a whole. I had Christian friends and family members, and this attitude absolutely affected my opinion of them, even though most of them were not fundamentalists or creationists. I remember being surprised to find out that my cousin was taught evolution in Catholic school. I had to spend several years of my life studying liberal Christian theology from such amazing writers as Marcus Borg and Candace Chellew-Hodge before I began to form a more balanced and realistic idea of who Christians are and what Christianity means. And the most important lesson I learned is that Christianity is diverse. The multitude of sects all following the teachings of Jesus in their own ways represent a terrifically broad variety of beliefs about everything from politics to morality to cosmology to epistemology to mysticism, and only a few believe anything special about bananas. I sometimes find myself explaining the fine distinctions between different schools of theological thought to my friends who were raised Christian themselves, and only have experience with the one church.
I still disagree with most Christians, but what I don’t do is mock their beliefs, because now that I know what their beliefs really are, it’s harder to find anything funny about them. The only way to make fun of most mainstream Christian beliefs is to deliberately misrepresent them as more extreme than they really are, and that is itself an absurd rhetorical technique worthy of mockery. No wonder some Christian media, such as the creators of the film series “God Is Not Dead,” are still portraying atheists as spiteful, irrational god-haters who derive joy only from crushing others’ faith: some of the most vocal representatives of atheism directly interfacing with the Christian community aren’t that different from the strawman. At least Bananaman was relatively congenial.
Drawing a circle around the most extreme aspects of a subculture and coming up with some scornful commentary to highlight its absurdity is an easy way to make media that’s both entertaining and educational. And right now, the intersection of entertainment and education is fertile grounds for economically viable media on the internet. Thus, a lot of people who made amusing online videos making fun of creationists and fundamentalists twelve years ago quickly gained a following, quit their day jobs and created that stuff full-time. And once you depend on something for your livelihood, it can be really difficult to give it up, and even harder to consider that you might be doing some harm with it. And if you make a career out of making fun of stupidity, I imagine it can be really hard not to see yourself as smarter than other people, and by extension, seeing those you disagree with as idiots.
When I think of making fun of stupidity, the seminal example going back to my very earliest memories of humorous media is Dilbert, the long-running syndicated comic strip by Scott Adams. Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss was the most famous stupid person I knew for a long time, and I grew up during the Bush administration. His inept and at times damaging managerial style resonated with a lot of office workers, and that made the strip an easy hit with almost everyone who objects to the idea of working for someone else. I liked it as a kid with zero office work experience because I like surreal humor, and the jokes were usually spelled out in very simple language that a child could understand even without first-hand knowledge of the subject. I also like talking animals who interact with humans.
Every character in Dilbert was defined by their profession and one, maybe two dominant personality traits. Dilbert himself was an engineer, and brilliant but socially inept. Wally was an engineer, and lazy. Alice was an engineer, hyper-competent, but violent. The pointy-haired boss was just stupid. He didn’t even get a name. Even the stupid rat got a name.
Tina the tech writer was, as described in her introduction, “brittle.” She interpreted everything as an attack on either her profession or her gender, but mostly her gender. For instance, she interpreted the Venus De Milo’s armlessness as implying that women can’t lift heavy objects. When Adams got backlash from readers who saw Tina as an unfair caricature of feminists, he patiently explained to these hysterical females that she was never intended that way, and was just meant to be a funny character who takes everything too personally, thus successfully implying that any feminist who objected to Tina’s portrayal were, like her, overreacting to harmless statements. How convenient that this character, who was not at all meant as a personal attack on feminist, nonetheless exemplifies the worst stereotypes that anti-feminists believe about feminists. She is even portrayed as imagining that society is more sexist than it is:
Tina: Alice, one day I hope we can be judged by our accomplishments and not our gender.
Alice: I got my fourth patent today. I’m on my way to a banquet in my honor.
Tina: And you wore that?
(Dilbert strip, March 18, 1998)
The contrast between Tina and Alice is really interesting to me. Tina is attempting to bond with Alice on their common experiences of sexism, while Alice denies that she experiences such sexism, and Tina responds with a disparaging remark about Alice’s appearance. Regardless of Scott Adams’s intentions regarding these characters, they still conform to a lot of sexist beliefs about women in general: that their complaints about sexism are just a bid for attention, that they are catty and superficial, that the few who achieve great professional success prove that the many who do not are facing no major barriers. Never mind that despite having proven herself far more competent than her fellow engineers, she’s still underpaid, under-recognized, and faces sexual harassment regularly. Moreover, Alice overcomes her interpersonal difficulties using violence and aggression, thus transgressing traditional feminine social roles. Tina isn’t just female, she’s feminine, and her stereotypically feminine behavior is the punchline of a joke where the setup is her complaining about being judged for her gender.
It’s funny, but it’s especially funny to anti-feminists and misogynists, because it seems to confirm their beliefs about women and feminism. To many men, a cis man like Scott Adams is a more credible authority on typical female behavior and experience than any feminist, and that’s a manifestation of misogyny: trusting men more than women, even about women’s issues.
So what does this have to do with Bananaman and the atheists?
If there’s a community of self-proclaimed skeptics and rationalists, almost exclusively white and male, who are accustomed to capitalizing on responding to disagreement with mockery and ridicule of their opponents’ most extreme claims, how do you think they would respond to the sudden mainstreaming of intersectional feminism and other social justice movements? Well, many of them responded by turning feminism into their new favorite target, treating it with the same vehement scorn that they used to use on creationists. And that’s a problem, because there are a lot of important differences between creationism and feminism. Feminism is a social movement, not a belief system. The oppression and social problems that feminism seeks to address are real, observable, measurable, and significant. Women really are an oppressed group, and their concerns about systemic sexism, harassment, and violence are legitimate. Intersectional feminism in particular is a complicated and nuanced movement, since it deals with the intersection of multiple axes of oppression, such as transphobia, racism, ableism, ethnocentrism, and economic inequality. Yet, to hear a lot of professional internet skeptics talk, you’d think that feminism is just a bunch of delusional, irrational, blue-haired fat girls who enjoy inventing reasons to claim they’re oppressed. And since a lot of misogynists will trust a male skeptic’s perspective over a feminist’s, the anti-feminist skeptics are becoming very popular among misogynists whose personal biases are being confirmed by the skeptics’ ridicule. And because of the self-applied label of “skeptic”, it’s even easier for these misogynists to justify their beliefs as founded in reality rather than bias.
Hence the proliferation of anti-feminist, “anti-sjw” self-proclaimed skeptics and their thousands of views per video ranting, raving, and screaming about politically correct censorship and anti-intellectualism in social justice communities. A few that I’ve encountered in my exploration include Armored Skeptic, The Amazing Atheist, and Thunderf00t, among others. They do things like quote dictionary definitions of “racism” and “oppression” and yell “gotcha” at anyone using these words in nuanced ways, and they revel in taking personal offense at any negative statement about straight white men as representatives of the powerful and privileged in our society.
Yet few or none of them seem interested in exploring feminist theory or other anti-oppressive ideologies or movements at more than a surface level, or understanding the distinction between different social justice movements or individual activists. For instance, some feminists see gender as an arbitrary social construct that needs to be deconstructed, while others see gender as an essential aspect of individual identity to be celebrated; some antifeminists see this as a contradiction within feminist theory and proof of its illogic, rather than two distinct approaches to the big, sticky problem of gender-based oppression. Holding any individual feminist accountable for another feminist’s contrary views is like dismissing a universalist Christian, who believes all souls will eventually be saved, by ascribing to them the views of another Christian who believes most souls are damned to Hell. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s ultimately debating in bad faith. Moreover, a lot of these “skeptics” falsely claim that scientific authority is on their side, for instance claiming that there are only two sexes determined solely by chromosomes, when the actual science of human sex distinctions is far more complex and nonbinary.
I have a hypothesis about the online skeptic community and why it’s gone so far from its roots as an intellectual community devoted to debunking popular myths and promoting scientific fact. My hypothesis is that when your career revolves around making fun of stupidity, eventually it’s in your best interest to see yourself as smarter than the people around you and anything you disagree with as more stupidity. If any of these skeptics did their homework and actually tried to understand social justice movements before “destroying” them in a scathing takedown video, they’d lose an opportunity for sweet sweet click-money. And it’s hard making a living as an independent media creator. It’s hard to choose the route of intellectual honesty and rigor if it means taking a hit financially — a hit that could very well mean you can’t pay this month’s bills. This is what I choose to believe rather than assuming these people are just being bullies because they’re mean. It helps me get through the day.
If my hypothesis is correct, it might also be observable among people who’ve made a career out of harvesting humor from idiocy outside of the context of internet skepticism originally responding to Christian fundamentalism. And thus I return to Dilbert and its creator, Scott Adams.
Scott Adams has been making fun of stupidity for a living for almost three decades, far longer than any of these internet skeptics I’ve been observing from a safe distance. And now, he’s branched out and started doing more than just a daily syndicated comic strip. He has a podcast now, which mostly consist of his immediate reactions to US political news. I listened to a few recent episodes, just to see if what I’d been hearing about it is correct. My most generous assessment is that Scott Adams has… gone off the deep end a bit. I’m not sure where he thinks he’s going but I’m sure it’s not healthy.
In the first episode I listened to, which was posted on August 14, 2018, Adams talks about Omarosa Manigault’s new book, which he describes as “the most insidious attack on a president that I’ve ever seen,” and as “one of the worst things I have ever seen in my life.” He says, “The severity of this abuse… is unspeakable.” He says, “This is something that could really kill a lot of people,” and even “it could actually destroy the planet.” “I would say that Omarosa is one of the worst human beings in the history of human beings. One of the worst human beings in the history of all human beings. I’d put her on par with, at least potentially, the worst killers and dictators of the world.” He says “What Omarosa is doing is monstrous. Calling her a dog is an insult to dogs. I like dogs. But I have such a low opinion of her right now that I… I can’t think of anybody I’ve ever had a lower opinion of who’s alive.” He says, “Somebody mentioned pedophiles as people who are worse… But only if they’re serial pedophiles. You’d probably have to be doing a lot of pedophilia before you’d be as bad as Omarosa.”
What did Omarosa do that makes her worse than a non-serial pedophile? According to Adams, she claimed that President Trump is on a recording somewhere saying the “n-word.” That’s it. In fact he spends the first several minutes of the episode complaining that this is the only thing he’s reading about in the news, which is an odd thing to complain about if you really do believe it’s a potentially planet-destroying act. But I’m not sure he even read about it on the news, because he misspells “Omarosa” as “Amarosa” throughout the episode’s title, description, and tags. A few weeks later he misspells it again, this time as “Omarossa”. I usually avoid nitpicking about spelling mistakes, but I’m pointing this one out because otherwise it might be hard for readers to find this episode and verify that I’m not misquoting Adams here.
I listened to a few more episodes just to make sure I wasn’t catching Adams on a really, really, really bad day. I don’t think I did. Adams seems to think that CNN is a hatemongering site devoted to spreading as much anti-trump propaganda as they can, to the point where he assumes that any story they post that mentions Trump is part of a push to discredit him. This shows when he reacts to news that Trump’s proposed military parade has been postponed: “Now remember, this is CNN, and the worst thing they can come up with today is that the president canceled a military parade because it was too expensive, which is exactly what his critics would want him to do. So it’s hard to criticize it.” He would rather continue thinking of CNN as a liberal propaganda machine that’s just having trouble digging up any dirt on their political nemesis than accept this relatively neutral story as evidence that not everything on CNN is partisan.
In the same episode, Adams responds to Trump calling for a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid addiction epidemic: “Hello. Did you see that coming? I did not see that coming. And I don’t know if they’ve got a case, but holy hell, have you ever seen anything that was more on the side of the people and against the corporations? So who are the Antifa? Are the Antifa the anti-fascists? And aren’t the fascists the ones who always side with the big corporations? And is the head of our government siding with the corporations or asking the government to sue their asses for addicting the citizens? Well, we don’t know where this is going yet, but it looks like that’s about the least fascist thing any government ever did.”
To answer one of Adams’s questions, no, fascists don’t always side with big corporations. That’s not anything that fascism is, as generally understood. Fascism is a lot of things, but one of the common core aspects of fascism is a focus on national unity of culture, ideology, ethnicity, and support of a strong state government. Fascism would by default be against any large corporation that threatens that unity, for instance a media company that distributes literature contrary to the state-sanctioned cultural narrative. Also, fascist movements often make token gestures to appeal to leftists early in their rise, such as the Nazi party’s inclusion of the word “Socialism” in their name. So Trump asking his government to sue corporations that left-leaning voters are likely already biased against, and which already have significant legal defense resources and are likely to survive any such suit, is far from the “least fascist thing”.
Scott Adams is talking out his ass about things he knows little or nothing about. And I’m sorry, but I must conclude there, because if I spend any more time responding to the things he’s saying I’m in serious danger of slipping down that same slope myself. I can’t start making fun of stupidity in my spare time. It’s too damned addictive, and I need to stay focused on real issues. There are real fascists out there, and they’re not stupid, and I can’t afford to underestimate them. Neither can you. Besides, if I’m right about making fun of stupidity eventually being hazardous to a person’s ability to think critically about their own or others’ ideas and beliefs, I want to avoid that hazard if possible.
I’m not going to laugh at how deliriously off-the-rails Scott Adams’s political commentary is, or how ironically unskeptical popular internet skeptics can be about social issues. Instead I’m going to take them seriously as if they are meant as earnest and potentially credible contributions to political discourse.
We have developed an attitude in the U.S. that comedy is bulletproof, and that comedy is the ultimate weapon against tyranny. But I think that’s not true anymore. That weapon has been turned against us too many times. What’s the difference between a class clown and a bully, really? How do you defend yourself against a malicious lie if any time you point out its falseness it’s dressed up as a joke, but if you treat it as a joke it’s seen as admission of its truth? I think one of the reasons clowns are scary is because that’s the form our most insidious villains often take. Someone who’s just trying to make people laugh.
That’s why I’ve been doing a lot of serious writing about comedy. I think it’s serious business, especially when it dresses up as a legitimate contribution to discourse on important social and political issues. In other words, if you’re going to make jokes in a serious discussion, prepare to have a serious discussion about those jokes and what they’re really saying about you and the ideas you promote.