Let’s grow beyond our mean-spirited mocking
Originally published 2012-06-02
The world would be much better off if we could learn to mind our own business and refrain from mocking others. But we are social animals. We meddle and mock as we vie for status in the herd. Unfortunately, it feels good to laugh together with friends while ridiculing others. We enjoy teaming up against the vulnerable.
This has something to do with our fascination with scandalous gossip about the private lives of other people. There is entertainment value in denunciation and condemnation. Many seem to enjoy outrage and indignation, especially when it is directed at marginalized others. We like to tease and torment the weak. Cruelty helps us feel powerful.
Mean-spirited jokes help “us” display power over “them.” The most famous story of jeering ridicule is found in the Christian tradition. Jesus, the marginalized outsider, is given a crown of thorns and taunted as “king of the Jews.” History is full of cruel stories in which the executioners laugh as they murder their victims, desecrating their bodies and dancing on their graves.
Scornful joking continues to plague us. Last year at this time, comedian Tracy Morgan said that if his son were gay, he would stab him to death. Morgan later apologized, saying he was just joking. Earlier this month, a pastor from North Carolina, Sean Harris, said that if your 4-year-old son behaved effeminately you should squash that behavior “like a cockroach.” Harris continued: “Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. OK? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male.” Harris later claimed he was joking–about the violence; but not about God’s condemnation of homosexuality.
It is difficult to understand why people hate homosexuals enough to joke about stabbing or beating them; or why anyone would think such jokes are funny. There are much more important things to worry about than other people’s sexuality. If anything falls into the “none of your business” category, it is other people’s sex lives.
But people are obsessed with the sex of others. Another North Carolina minister, Charles Worley, recently preached that homosexuals should be rounded up behind electrified fences where they would die out because they can’t reproduce. He went on to say, “It makes me pukin’ sick to think about … can you imagine kissing some man?” The obvious solution is not to imagine it, if you don’t like it. But we can’t seem to keep our imaginations to ourselves.
Some might blame our hypermediated culture and a degeneration of morals. Our culture does promote voyeuristic mockery as a spectator sport. Everywhere we turn there are comedians and pundits judging, condemning and ridiculing. Electronic communication makes it easier for us to deride and jeer each other behind the anonymity of a phony screen name.
But the problem of gossip, mockery and meddling has a long history. Some verses in the Bible condemn “idle talk.” The Stoic philosophers taught that it was wise to learn to hold your tongue. The Buddhists encouraged “right speech” and the virtue of silence.
There is also a virtue in minding your own business. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius explained, in good Stoic fashion, that it is difficult enough to tend to your own affairs. The hard work of ensuring that your own life is honorable leaves little time for gossip and meddling. He wrote, “To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why means a loss of opportunity for some other task.”
Social animals compete for status within the herd. They push the weak specimens around in a game of power. They laugh and bray and howl together. And as anyone who has a dog can confirm, they have a hard time keeping their noses out of each other’s private parts.
Of course, we ought to aspire to be better than animals. We are reasonable beings who can control our imaginations and our laughter. We don’t have to be cruel. We can hold our tongues and keep silent. And we really ought to keep our noses out of other people’s business.