Sunday, July 19, 2015

Three uses of ridicule

There has been a lot of discussion about the use of ridicule in debates about religious belief. It is my conviction that discussion of this tends to conflate three different ways in which ridicule is used.

The first way is simply to entertain ourselves. Think of the Dennett Lexicon, which lampoons various philosophers by giving humorous definitions to their names. Everyone is getting hit, so the Lexicon isn't really designed to change anyone's mind or get them to reject the views of any philosophers as opposed to another. Mostly, it's about having fun. I even once made up a Dennett Lexicon entry making fun of me.I find it easy to make fun even of ideas that I think are true, but has a ridiculous side to them.

Or consider Saturday Night Live spoofs of politicians. Sure Sarah Palin was lampooned by Tina Fey's impersonation, but Obama doesn't get off scot free either. Now it is quite true that the treatment of Palin in particular did play a role in many people seeing what was problematic about her place on the Republican ticket in 2008. But can you really say that Republicans are lampooned more severely there than Democrats? I understand that George H. W. Bush loved the impersonations Dana Carvey did of him.

There is also the colorful use of reductios ad absurdum. These are really designed to refute positions. But these have to be tested as to their adequacy and accuracy. In addition, what you think seems absurd might be cheerfully accepted by your opponent. I happen to think that materialistic atheism leads to absurd conclusions, namely, I think it leads to the conclusion that no one ever believes anything for a reason. However, obviously materialistic atheists themselves think that they do believe what they do for reasons. This is not ridicule in he sense that I would consider to be offensive. 

This is from RationalWiki, hardly a pro-theistic source: 

Reductio ad absurdum is only valid when it builds on assertions which are actually present in the argument it is deconstructing, and not when it misrepresents them as a straw man. For example, any creationist argument that takes the form of "if evolution were real, we'd see fish turning into monkeys and monkeys turning into people all the time" only serves to ridicule itself, since it mischaracterises the theory of evolution to an extreme degree.

Reductio ad absurdum should also not be confused with appeal to ridicule, although both see extensive use in satire. Appeal to ridicule simply dismisses a position as ridiculous, without explaining or arguing why, while reductio ad absurdum actually pursues the logical consequences of an argument.

Here is a treatment from Freethoughtpedia

It's no secret you can short-circuit somebody's brain with shame. How many of us were shamed into doing something stupid in high school?
But why does it work? There are these primitive, lower parts of your brain called amygdalae that controls base, emotional reactions. That's where things like contempt and shame come from, and stimulating it can completely shut down the analytical part of your brain. The gang calls you a coward and the next thing you know, you're wedging a roman candle between your buttcheeks. You'll show them!
You can thank evolution for that. Way back when humans started forming groups and tribes, social status was everything. It's what guaranteed you food, protection and ladies (that is, a chance to pass on your genes). Mockery developed as a "conformity enforcer" to keep people in line.
Making a person, idea or behavior the target of mockery gave it a lower social position, and made it clear that anybody who associated with it would share that lower position, leaving them out of the hunting/eating/fucking that made life in the tribe worthwhile. Thousands of years later, a good dose of mockery can shut down critical thinking and make us fall right in line, no questions asked.
Now let's look at the Dawkins statements I alluded to in a previous post. 

Dawkins: Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

I must ask, isn't he doing EXACTLY what the Freethoughtpedia says is the Appeal to Ridicule, a fallacy? Getting people to the right result is more important to him than fostering critical thinking and getting to the right result for the right reason. I do find this offensive, which is why my reactions to New Atheists are different from my reactions to atheists of another stripe. 


planks length said...

I'm in the middle of a rather frustrating conversation with im-skeptical over on his blog. He appears to regard anything other than 100% approval of atheism as being ridicule. First he goes after you, Victor, for using the term "gnu" - a term I pointed out was coined by none other than atheists. But that doesn't matter to im-skeptical. He chooses to take offense at it (so I guess the atheists who popularized the label must be "self loathing materialists").

Next he quotes Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor ("Man is by nature and vocation a religious being. Coming from God, going toward God, man lives a fully human life only if he freely lives by his bond with God. There is something not totally human if you leave out transcendent [God] and you [atheists] are not fully human. They have an impoverished understanding to what it is to be human. We are all made by God.") and says that is ridicule. How so? If I tell an alcoholic that he has a dependency on drink, am I ridiculing him?

Ridicule may be in the eye of the beholder, but I do not wish to go down the road that so many universities appear to be going nowadays, where everyone has to watch their every last word, lest they somehow "offend" someone's all-too-tender sensibilities.

DougJC said...

"I must ask, isn't he doing EXACTLY what the Freethoughtpedia says is the Appeal to Ridicule, a fallacy? Getting people to the right result is more important to him than fostering critical thinking and getting to the right result for the right reason."


" I do find this offensive, which is why my reactions to New Atheists are different from my reactions to atheists of another stripe."

As an atheist eschewing ridicule and also involved in Christian forums from time to time, I have come to expect a certain amount of unprovoked ridicule from certain kinds of theists. I could call this "offensive" but then I run the risk of actually being offended and I have to be able to brush this off without responding in kind. So instead I'm seeing ridicule as possibly a symptom of someone who no longer has the stomach for the hard stuff and is on cruise-control through a life less examined. I think that applies to some extent to Dawkins.

Victor Reppert said...

I think some of the bad tone that Christians adopt may be part of what happens when get used to dealing with gnus. But it works both ways. I think, for example, that one reason why Loftus engages in the kind of ridicule that he engages is partly because of the ridicule he had to deal with on TheologyWeb. But I really think Dawkins perceives ridicule as a deliberate strategy, and I think that is worse than just engaging in ridicule.