Mockery is an important part of my life, and, as such, has recently been the subject of my self evaluative thoughts. It is something that I think is often over simplified, like so much of life, by most, but which is actually fairly complicated, and, I think, important. Below I attempt to evaluate the variables to be considered in moral mockery, and also the role of any fair legal system on mockery.
It’s always safest to define key terms, so I’d like to clarify before I continue that, by mockery, in this post, I mean, to speak negatively about an individual in the presence of members of an outside group, usually the mocker’s, with the intent or effect of implying negative characteristics about a group the target is a member of. The presence of other additional groups is common, but not required. Also, the presence of the groups does not have to literal, so writing in a public paper, for example, would count, as all groups are aware of the speaking, and all groups are aware that all groups are aware.
The factor that most people seem to take into account, to the exclusion of all others, is one’s relationship to the target of mockery, hereafter referred to as the mockee. It is generally acceptable to mock any group of which you are a member, regardless of other circumstance. There are several situations in which this doesn’t apply, but they are situations in which criticism or distraction are frowned upon in general.
Another important factor is the relationship between your group and the mockee’s group. This is a complicated assessment, but one that is, I think, mostly done subconsciously for us. We all instinctually have a decent understanding of the nuances of the social circles we frequent. An example of what I am referring to would be mockery from a member of a majority race to a mockee of a subjugated minority race.
It is usually less morally acceptable to mock groups of less power than one’s own. The problem of morality of such mockery is complicated by the observation that by refusing to mock a group, one is acknowledging the superior power of one’s group, or at least implying it. This complication shows the importance of mockery. In my opinion, there are contexts in which an expectation of mockery is much higher, and those contexts are important areas for exploration of new group vs. group dynamics. Examples of such contexts would be forms of professional comedy.
The expected converse is generally true, as well. It is usually acceptable to mock a group of greater power than ones own. Groups of comparable power are fair game.
Temporary adjustments to the calculus of mockery should be made for relevant local events. By this I mean that groups’ power standing can be effectively shifted, greatly, temporarily, by important events. Important to the mockee group. Depending on the group in question this could be a national tragedy, or some local election result, or any number of events insignificant on the public scale, but important to smaller groups.
One also has to factor in ones familiarity with the mockee group. In order to mock a group one has to know enough about their beliefs or ideas in order to disagree with them. Often people think they know what a group’s beliefs are, but in actuality hold a stereotypical, biased, over simplified or simply incorrect notion of the reality. Revelation of such mistakes in the form of mockery will have a backlash effect. To be a moral mocker, one must work to never make such mistakes, and to acknowledge and apologize for any made.
It is also wise to consider the subject of the mockery. It should target a characteristic that is both controllable by the mockee, and caused by a situation that was controllable by the mockee. This limits the mockery to productive criticism, and avoids low blows for unavoidable misfortunes. These restrictions might seem like they are simple enough, but there are many specific subjects on which there are legitimate disagreements on which category they fall into. For example, mockery over actions performed while drunk. Some people contend that a drunk person is not responsible for his actions, at least partially, since they are not entirely in control. Others contend that since the drunkenness is self inflicted, any impairment was caused by an unimpaired decision, so responsibility is still intact.
All of these other considerations can be relaxed a bit in the event of a counter mock, a counter mock being mockery in direct response to being mocked. Everyone knows if you didn’t start it you can be forgiven somewhat for defending yourself. However, the correct response to all mockery is not counter mockery. There are many circumstances where even in response to mockery, it would be immoral to counter mock.
The above are all the major considerations I can think of that impact moral mockery. If you think I missed any please let me know. All those rules, however, only apply to morality and say nothing about legality. You can break all those rules, and you’ll just be offensive. It is not the place of a just government to legislate offensiveness. Is there ever a time when the government should punish someone for mocking?
This is a complex question, since mockery is so broadly defined. First, you have a right to free speech, but not a right to mockery. Mockery is certainly punishable in cases where it violates other rules. An example would be separation of church and state. Since the government is not to favor any religion, it is also not to mock any religion. (I’d like to point out that in this case, Atheism would certainly count as a religion)
Another situation in which one might be tempted to outlaw mockery would be the extreme cases. These cases, where one goes against all the tenets of moral mockery, would be close to hate speech. It is my opinion that the mockery by itself would not constitute something that should be illegal. I’m not sure what the actual definition of hate speech is, but I think the importantly illegal part of it should be actually trying to convince one group of people to do illegal things to another group of people. Mockery could well be a part of that, but mockery by itself is insufficient. In order for it to be hate speech you would have to say something like, “and that’s why they should be driven from the land” somewhere amidst the mockery.
I cringe to use the word mockery to describe what would be used as part of hate speech, but it is apt. Mockery is a wide term and can describe both the beautiful and the repulsive.
I think that covers all the cases where the law might be involved with mockery. Basically, it shouldn’t be illegal, except when it breaks another law, and it can’t, by itself, do that. I’d love to hear about it if you think I’m missing something major. Eh… even minor. I’ve got time.
So use what I’ve taught you well, and mock mightily for your beliefs. Just don’t use it against me. That’s not coo.