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Reason and Ridicule⎯Or Sarcasm and Solidarity

Someone once said that sarcasm is the weapon of the weak. The same can be said of ridicule. This is why people often resort to them when they disagree with something that someone has said, but are unable to explain why it is mistaken. Unless they are nasty by nature, people who deride and mock what other people say do so out of weakness. It allows them to rest content in their own views without troubling them to do the research necessary to show that they are true. It thus allows them to ignore the strange and disturbing views of others when they have no good reason to do so.

The fact that sarcasm and ridicule are both weapons of the weak should be no surprise. For sarcasm is actually a form of ridicule. The primary difference between the two is that sarcasm employs irony to mock someone. Sarcasm is indirect. It involves wit, and hence intelligence, which means that someone will typically have to look below the surface of what is said to appreciate the contempt that it is meant to convey—and that he may well miss it altogether if he is none too bright, or overly trusting of the person who used it. Ridicule, on the other hand, can be as simple and direct as saying ‘That’s ridiculous!’ or ‘You’re an idiot!’

People typically use sarcasm and ridicule because they cannot use reason to reject a view. But it is useful to note that their successful use of sarcasm and ridicule usually depends upon their having an audience whose members already agree with them and are unable or unwilling to use reason as well.

Sarcasm and ridicule typically play to the crowd. They are typically useless on a one-to-one basis. This is because they offer no other reason to reject the view in dispute than the fact that one of the parties involved disagrees with it—which is, after all, the reason why they are discussing it in the first place. Their success does not consist in convincing the person who actually holds the disputed view—you typically do not convince someone of something by merely offending him—but in silencing him for fear of being ridiculed further. And their success usually depends upon the solidarity of belief among the people who are listening to the discussion. Their success, in other words, depends upon having an audience that generally accepts the views of the person that uses them and will laugh at the person at whom they are directed, thereby bolstering the solidarity of belief that might otherwise be disturbed.

If his audience is quick-witted, then a speaker who is unable to give good reasons to reject a view will resort to sarcasm. If it is not, then he will use simple ridicule instead.

But in either case, sarcasm and ridicule are, and ought to be recognized as, the weapons of an intellectual bully.

This is the reason why sarcasm and ridicule so often fall flat and fail to impress people that do not already share the beliefs of those who use them, or who recognize that the issue has not been settled and there are good reasons to uphold or at least explore other views. It often takes only one such person who has the strength of character to ask ‘Why, once again, is that wrong?’ to stop an intellectual bully.

When someone calls an intellectual bully to account, and he can’t account, the issue becomes clear.

The fact that sarcasm and ridicule are increasingly being used in policy discussions is a disturbing sign of the political polarization in our country—which is, in turn, an equally disturbing sign that fewer and fewer of the people who are listening to policy discussions are ready and willing to reason about policies that are nowhere near as clear or as good as their proponents would like to pretend.