On vitriol and mockery

A few days ago, I posted about a piece by South African author Tauriq Moosa, relating to such things as the practice of charitable interpretation on the internet. He has now followed up with a Part 2, which again emphasizes the Millian conception of intellectual inquiry.

Tauriq (who tells me he’d rather I call him by his first name in posts like this) begins by talking about the danger for truth of engaging in vitriol:

This is a problem that persists not only for blog commenters and trolls, but everyone – including the blogger herself. As Mill said: “Unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them”. If we create spaces of reasoned debate – websites, magazines, blogs – in which we always praise the prevailing opinion [of that space, not of society] and disregard with “unmeasured vituperation” anything other than full-throated acquiescence, it is no longer a space for inquiry but of dogmatic following, of uncritical agreement.

Quite so. Tauriq responds to this by emphasising the principle of charity, and that, in particular, it is better to assume you are dealing with someone who has somewhat opaque (to you) thought processes or an unfortunate way of expressing their view, or who is, perhaps, simply mistaken about something, rather than that you are dealing with someone who is disingenuous or horrible. Again, that seems like good advice, at least until you see a pattern of behaviour that suggests you really are dealing with a vicious person.

And even if you see what looks like a pattern, you can’t easily be sure where somebody is coming from. The same questions or ideas may be provoked in different people who have very different overall value and belief systems – in most cases, you’re getting only a limited sample of what this person is really like and of what may actually be bugging her. There may be important aspects of her that are hidden from your view.

Tauriq then has quite a bit to say about mocking or deriding people. Here, there might be some room for disagreement, or at least for further thought, so permit me to quote him at some length:

I think a rule of thumb should be that some people are very good at persuading using mockery, satire and so on; but that requires skill that most of us do not have. Most of us should err on the side of trying our best to respond without namecalling and putting emotions before justification – even if a view is horribly wrong. This is difficult and, probably, most of us have failed often at this: due to knee-jerk reactions, being pushed too far, touching a particularly sensitive topic, and so on. Perhaps this gets reinforced when our anger and animosity drives the offender away. But even here, this is probably not a good thing because, as Mill points out, there are greater concerns than getting a kick out of mocking someone to silence: there is the worry that such an attitude helps foster in-group tribalism, non-engagement with alternative ideas and, indeed, prevents debate from occurring since any alternate ideas could be viewed as only stemming from “bad” people.

I’m very much in sympathy with all of this. In particular, nothing is gained by creating an environment so hostile to an interlocutor that he or she gives up, perhaps feeling frustrated or hurt, and goes away. Where’s the intellectual progress in that? Even if you have, in a sense “defeated” this person, you have not thereby defeated her argument. In fact, you’ve deprived yourself of something that you should normally welcome: an opportunity to hear an argument that might, if you seriously consider what strengths it may turn out to have, prompt you to change your mind (at least on points of detail), or to add extra nuance, depth, or clarity to your position.

Even if it becomes apparent that you’ve heard it all before, there may be others, i.e. bystanders, who have not, and who might profit from seeing your interlocutor add a bit to the debate.

That said, I do think there is a place for mockery and denunciation. For example, it may be legitimate to tell someone that she’s being ridiculous insofar as she’s relying on a premise that seems absurd, or for a conclusion that’s absurd on its face. You might want to use rhetoric, imagery, etc., to try to get your interlocutor and others to shift perspective and see the absurdity that you (think you) see. That’s a legitimate way to argue, and it is not simply a way of trying to drive off a despised opponent.

Sometimes it may, in fact, be legitimate to denounce or ridicule people in the third person – e.g. if someone who really does appear dangerous seeks political power (Mitt Romney may well be an example, though there are even worse political candidates around), or if someone who already has power of some kind is using it unfairly, or cruelly, or with disastrous incompetence.

Sometimes there’s a degree of urgency about responding to this, perhaps opposing it with all your force, or perhaps just dramatically distancing yourself from it. You may need to take a stand and expose someone whom you judge to be truly harmful, or at least acting truly harmfully. But all this is different from situations where the person concerned is involved with you in a Millian quest for truth. And in any situation at all, considerations of fairness and accuracy – and a sense of your own fallibility – might make you pause and reflect before trashing someone who might actually, overall, be a good (and, as most of us are, emotionally vulnerable) person. You don’t want to be a bully, a cheat, or a dogmatist.

I’m tempted to conclude with something as sententious as, “Only mock ideas, not people.” This would allow reductio ad absurdum arguments, but not much else. Although it’s a tempting maxim, I, for one, could never abide by it. I don’t think we should attempt such an onerous, unrealistic reform of our behaviour. There is, I think, a place for vitriol and mockery and denunciation. The take-home lesson, rather, is just that this place is a smaller one, sometimes a much smaller one, than we might reflexively assume. We should at least think about it before we reach for the weapons of vitriol, mockery, and denunciation.

That applies most especially when we are dealing with interlocutors who are, themselves, acting with substantial civility and arguing in what can reasonably be construed as good faith.

Leave a comment ?


  1. There are some blogs in which my experience of being mocked and ridiculed for my ideas (which may have been stupid ideas, but no one refuted them), especially mocked not only by the blog moderator, but also by a gang of blog followers, led me to avoid them, just as I avoid walking in certain neighborhoods in the city where I live.

    Once I learn that a neighborhood is not a safe place to stroll in or even to walk through I no longer enter it.

    I suspect that those people who often mock others who dissent from their ideas in their blogs enjoy mocking and putting down others much more than they enjoy an open discussion of ideas and that appealing to them to refrain from mocking on the principle of charity or other noble principles is about as useful as asking street gangs in certain neighborhoods to refain from molesting strangers who venture into them.

  2. There have been times, mostly when I’ve been attacked on a blog/response, that I’ve “given as good as I’ve got”, so to speak. But I’m not proud about it. Sometimes trying to justify mocking or ridicule feels like trying to justify sexist, racist, wife-beating, etc., there is no acceptable level in some areas.

    So I advocate really avoiding doing it.

    Some folks insist in being ridiculous, some are trolls getting a rise out of provoking you, or if you don’t respond assuming the false positive – nevertheless when they do it’s better to just say that and resist further hyperbole IMO.

    Take the high ground.

    And as swallerstein says above, if the site is full of such trolling bigots – move on.

  3. What and where is mockery and name-calling aloud? It seems to me humour and sharp satire are effective measures to show people how absurd some ideas are: reductio is really the heart of it. But even mockery and satire need not include name-calling, if you’ve set up a space for inquiry.

    But, as always, exceptions:

    A while back The Onion did a piece on Glenn Beck titled “Nation Once Again Comes Under Sway Of Pink-Faced Half-Wit”. They proceeded to say things like: “this original pink-faced half-wit [not Beck] exploited the Great Depression to foment his message of virulent anti-Semitism—a tactic of shamelessly preying upon American misery and misfortune that has since been employed by nearly every pink-faced, intellectually corrupt piece of shit asshole to open his fat, disgusting pig mouth since.” [last part is Beck].

    Now, this is The Onion, but we can feel those assertions. It highlights someone’s anger and certainly it resonated with me, in terms of how absurd Beck’s claims, his goals and his focus was.

    But this is no way, I think, to make claims if we’re trying to blogs aimed at actual reasoned debate. This doesn’t mean mockery can’t happen, but it should happen bolstered by the claim that you can reasonably justify why the idea is wrong – and not just wrong, but perhaps dangerous enough to warrant thorough mockery and derision.

    When reading an interview with PZ Myers conducted by one of my favourite blogger, Daniel Finke, Myers made no good argument for why he regularly name-calls and mocks. He still hasn’t. Sure, he convinced people and what have you — and I’m not saying such justifications don’t exist – but so far I’ve not come across one that is satisfactory. Especially not the poor reasons that Myers provides.

  4. The caveats to the discursive generosity espoused in the article sound like a form of special pleading – a small space carved out to carry on our passionate political tribalism. It is unclear whether or not a criteria could be given to determine when one should engage in vituperative discourse and, furthermore, it is unclear whether such a criteria could ever be met. A dangerous idea is often merely one in which we find the premises dubious and we are fearful of the idea ever taking hold. But this doesn’t make it a dangerous idea in fact….

  5. AT, do you think there’s no place for Voltaire? If you do think there’s a place in our culture for Voltaire’s satire, how would you explain it?

  6. Run Away Screaming

    How about this example: A blatant bit of mocking by well known “skeptic” women who are intent on knocking down another who disagrees with them.

    A shameful display.

  7. Sure, it’s not nice, and, yes, it’s an example of the sort of the thing the post is about, though these are only Twitter comments, so it’s best to keep a sense of proportion and not escalate. Also, it’s not the nastiest example I can think of. There’s been a lot of nastiness in the wider debate that this relates to, and not all from one side.

    That said, the particular woman whose reputation has been trashed, and motivations impugned, in this instance has done absolutely nothing wrong that I can see, and has not in any sense deserved the personal attacks from people who should know better – I certainly don’t mean there has been any bad behaviour from her.

  8. I have had trouble trying to promote the use of courtesy, even on a fairly civilised (philosophy) discussion board! Some people claim their ‘freedom of speech’ is being attacked. 😯 🙄

  9. Yeah, that “freedom of speech” one…

    As I guess you’re implying, freedom of speech is essentially a negative right against the government (or a principle about the limits of government action), not a licence to engage in abuse and general nastiness wherever you like with no non-governmental contraints or criticisms.

    Colin Gavaghan once made the point in one of our threads that perhaps the general thinking behind freedom of speech should prevail in some non-government circumstances (perhaps Facebook should be lenient in what it permits, for example), but none of that takes away from the good non-legal reasons for charity and civility in discussions in real life and online.

  10. Years ago, on a BBC Radio 4 programme, I heard someone explain that the *purpose* of courtesy is to allow people to speak plainly to those with whom they disagree, without it ending in violence. Sometimes it even works! 🙂

  11. @Steve – Wasn’t that also (partly) the idea behind the highly formalised language used in the UK parliament?

  12. @Jeremy, I hadn’t heard that, but it sounds reasonable. Thanks for a minor research topic. 🙂

  13. “@Steve – Wasn’t that also (partly) the idea behind the highly formalised language used in the UK parliament?”

    Yes it is,and it’s interesting because the content of parliamentary speech is privileged, protected against libel actions, so you say things about other parliamentarians that are much stronger than you can say outside of parliament but you must couch it in formally polite terms. And this seems to be an effective approach more or less. It can lead to a certain silliness but even that can be useful in subtracting heat.

  14. There’s another dimension to this issue of vitriol and mockery. Namely, the effect on the soul of the person who engages in it. I find that when I get on my moral high horse and denounce people for their atrocious actions, I become separated from them and from everyone who might not feel so strongly about their actions. I place them in a category of being with which I have, in important respects, very little in common. The result is that my world becomes badly divided, between the miscreants (the “forces of evil”) and me and my friends. You may think that this is just the normal situation. How could it be otherwise? Well, try reading Jelaluddin Rumi, or Walt Whitman, or the Dalai Lama. They evoke a state of mind in which the world is not divided in this way. In which, instead, one perceives every human being as fundamentally valuable, as trying to make sense of their life, no doubt (like everyone) misguided in some respects, but never “beyond the pale.” If you inhabit this sort of attitude, I don’t think you’ll ever engage in vitriol or mockery. And you’ll experience a kind of freedom that can’t be had while engaging in vitriol or mockery. Namely, the freedom of being fully yourself, defined by yourself rather than by what’s other than you (what you’re “opposed to”). This doesn’t mean accepting others’ misdeeds without complaint (becoming a “doormat”). It does mean not even indirectly demonizing anyone.

  15. Of course, this kind of functioning can be extremely difficult to achieve. It certainly is for me.

  16. Robert:

    It’s a gift.

    It comes when it comes and goes away when it goes away.

    You can’t buy it, force it and work your way to it.

    You can be open to it, but then again, maybe being open to it is a gift too.

  17. I actually find that there are things I can do that encourage this gift, in a major way. But this makes me no less grateful for it.

  18. Reading This, I Gave a Sigh of Relief | West Coast Atheist - pingback on April 28, 2013 at 10:34 am

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