Volume 37 - Issue 2

The Right to Ridicule?

By Michael J. Ovey


‘The wisest and the best of men—nay, the wisest and best of their actions—may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.’ Thus comments Jane Austen’s character Darcy in Pride and Prejudice to Elizabeth Bennett. Ridicule is a theme running throughout the novel, and Austen certainly does a fair amount of it herself...

‘The wisest and the best of men-nay, the wisest and best of their actions-may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.’ Thus comments Jane Austen’s character Darcy in Pride and Prejudice to Elizabeth Bennett. Ridicule is a theme running throughout the novel, and Austen certainly does a fair amount of it herself.

But there are questions about its proper application. Shortly after Darcy’s speech, Elizabeth’s father remarks about his plans for a future guest: ‘There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him.’ He later amusingly engages this guest in a conversation which displays the guest’s servility and self-importance for all to see-all, that is, except the guest. The scene is both entertaining and yet disturbing. For sure, the reader feels that the guest ‘deserves’ ridicule. But nevertheless Elizabeth’s father is determined to bring out the worst in his guest to amuse himself and the more perceptive of his daughters. Elizabeth’s father has rightly seen two serious vices in his guest’s character, yet encourages them rather than steering his guest toward safer ground.

Elizabeth’s father later risks ridicule himself as his weakness contributes to the seduction of his empty-headed youngest daughter, but his final response to this runs: ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’ His defence of ridiculing others is, if you like, that he is prepared to be ridiculed back. The hint is that if he is prepared to take ridicule, he is in some sense allowed to dish it out.

This takes us to the broader question of the use of ridicule in human engagements, and especially in theological discussion. For the way that a discussion is held and carried forward can be as important as the final conclusion. Thus, the basic distinction between a true argument and a valid argument in elementary logic recognises that a true answer can be reached for inadequate reasons. Similarly, Eph 4:13 indicates that truth must be expressed in a particular way-in love (an application of the general NT insistence on charitable other-personed love). Luther’s reflections on how an externally ‘righteous’ action can be produced by self-seeking and self-pleasing are very pertinent here. And it is in the context of the way Christians should conduct themselves in theological discussion that I want to examine the use of ridicule.

This question assumes renewed force because discussion now happens not just through journals, books, and conferences, but through the Internet and its possibilities of blogging, Facebook, and Twitter. These possibilities multiply all kinds of discourse, including discourse on serious theological topics. The convention of informality in these possibilities makes it easier for many of us to access these debates. But the informality also allows unsavoury strategies, like trolling, which aims not to advance debate but to disrupt it by provocation and conscious offense. There is an obvious question whether ridicule can cross over into something illicit too.

Yet ridicule has legitimate uses. Strikingly, ridicule can put something into a truer perspective. Isaiah 44:9-20, for example, pursues a strategy of ridicule, and this helps the reader. For the ridicule prods the reader or listener to grasp how vastly incongruous it is to worship something when the other half of it is firewood consumed by the flames. There, ridicule functions as a reality check. It puts things in their true perspective and ultimately has a beneficial and benevolent function for the people of God, helping us see how absurd idolatry is.

There again, ridicule is sometimes a resort for those without power. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett is the family’s second daughter, with limited prospects. Her initial internal ridicule of Darcy is partly the response of the weak against the socially strong, and it elicits the reader’s sympathy and perhaps admiration that she will not be cowed. She can do little else, but she can ridicule him.

Further, ridicule is very close to the well-tried principle of reductio ad absurdum. Here one works through the consequences of a proposition to show, normally, self-contradiction, falsehood, or absurdity. Thus a British nationalist of my acquaintance was arguing that all immigrants into Britain should be repatriated. He was also extremely proud of his Norman ancestry. My contention was that on his own reasoning he and myriads of others should be repatriated to France, since they were simply long-standing immigrants dating from 1066. This was unsympathetically received and perceived as ridicule, although I think it legitimately used reductio ad absurdum.

However, there is also a darker set of possibilities with ridicule. Sometimes ridicule is not the protest of the weak against the strong, but can be a bullying tool in the hands of the strong to keep the weak weak and to bolster one’s own position. And in the academy, whether theological or not, position and popularity and the power of patronage can make some very strong indeed. Reputation does seem to me to be a real commodity in the academy, and ridicule, because it can be so close to demeaning and belittling, can do real undeserved harm to another.

Thus some blog posts or discussion threads comment not on the argument but on a writer’s alleged intellectual incapacity (‘moron’), extreme position (‘classic fundamentalist’), and possible associations (‘on a par with fascists’). Such rhetoric tends to isolate the writer in question and to some extent demonise him or her, uniting others against the writer as a person, not simply against the position he or she has advanced. Such isolation tactics can occur less publicly but still seriously in a private lecture within an institution. Such isolation tactics are all too tempting for us, partly because they give vent to our anger at a particular position, but also because they can be a rhetorical shortcut and are easier than intellectual engagement with the position itself. Such ridicule tactics shade readily into bullying. I wonder whether the Christian theological academy is quite as free of bullying by ridicule as it should be.

Further, ridicule is not always used to clarify, but sometimes to obscure or avoid an argument. The object here is not to cooperate in a discussion by providing something that genuinely tests the strength of an argument but to find a way of competing successfully in public opinion. Gorgias of Leontini (ca. 430 b.c.) is credited with the slogan ‘One must defeat the seriousness of one’s opponents with laughter and their laughter with seriousness’ (see Aristotle Rhet. 3.18, 1419b4-5). We rapidly recognise the rhetorical shrewdness and force of this (Gorgias was after all a teacher of rhetoric). For with this strategy one remains deliberately out of step with one’s dialogue partner, disabling their contribution by always responding in a different key. To that extent this can be a strategy for silencing a dialogue partner because the dialogue partner cannot speak in the key in which he or she chooses.

This underlines how it is possible to engage in dialogue with two very different models. On the one hand, dialogue can be a cooperative enterprise in which one meets seriousness with seriousness, laughter with laughter. And here the point of ridicule is to take the joint conversation further, as a tool of clarification or restoration of perspective, as we have outlined earlier. This simple but profound point of dialogue as a cooperative enterprise is taken and developed by H. P. Grice into maxims for rigorous and respectful conversations. His fundamental proposition rightly underlines that a conversation has a joint purpose, not just a unilaterally imposed one. He writes, ‘Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.’

By contrast one can also conduct a dialogue competitively rather than cooperatively. Ridicule wrongly used can feed this competitive strategy. It can become a tool not of cooperation but of asserting power over others by insisting on dialogue in a key that others have neither proposed nor accepted. Hence there are serious questions of holiness to be faced by a Christian scholar who uses ridicule: Am I using it cooperatively, in love and charity for my neighbour with whom I am in dialogue? Or am I using it as tool of violent domination (because there can be a ‘covert thrill of violence’ [George Steiner] as I ridicule and demean others in the name of truth)? Of all scholarly communities, the Christian academy should be marked by the cooperative principle, with its connotations of charity, fellowship, and mutuality. But particularly as I read what we say on the Web and our readiness to ridicule others, I wonder how far our scholarly communities are really distinguishable from the world’s. We want truthful, honest, faithful orthodox Christian scholars. We also need holy ones.

Michael J. Ovey

Mike Ovey is principal of Oak Hill College in London and consulting editor of Themelios.

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