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It's not just a joke: The ethics of mocking someone's appearance
Most of us have probably laughed at someone’s appearance, at someone’s accent or voice at some point. We've probably made crude observations and comparisons, publicly or privately, in our writing, perhaps as performers or whatever. Weight, hair, clothes, voice, fumbling — all these are deemed worth mocking others for.
Yet, if the language of mockery removed the property of humour, probably all of these would seem merely nasty. Humour appears to give a gloss of moral invisibility to statements “made in jest” — but perhaps we should be more hesitant and reflective about what we’re participating in and doing.
Humour, targeting others and helplessness
Recently, South African president, Jacob Zuma, gave the State of the Union address. At the event, attendants dressed in formal wear which is usually a cue to begin fashion judgement (read mockery and derision) — especially of women.
One MP, Thandile Sunduza, received particularly nasty insults for her choice of fashion — even from the Editor-in-Chief of one of our leading news agencies (who apologised at length and called for being better to each other). I won’t link to what was said about Sunduza, but it was all manner of judging her weight, comparisons to animals and so on.
Many did this — either by Retweeting awful comments and attached pictures, responding and trying to be meaner and cruder, and so on. After making the claims, many would walk away and forget it. Many would read and laugh.
This happens in all forms of humour and in every kind of medium.
Yet, what’s forgotten here is that there are people targeted; there are individuals with physical characteristics, ways of speaking, differing weights that either are direct targets or share it with these more public targets, who they watch being targeted — afraid to say anything out of fear of being targeted themselves.
The prioritising of minor enjoyment, a moment of pleasure, over the genuine harm we can cause to others seems a misplacement of said moral priorities. We don’t lose out by never hearing another big-nosed joke, but those who feel sensitive about their appearance can at least be more secure among vocal “jokers”.
If a person feels slighted by mockery of her physical appearance, there’s little she can do in defence if the offender thinks she’s fat, has a big nose and so on. After all, the offender does think this (or at least has asserted he does); her asserting the opposite won’t change the offender’s mind. Mocking the offender back doesn’t change his initial insult.
We could genuinely not care what others think and all the strength to us: yet what about those for whom physical appearance is more than just an over-indulgence, or over-sensitivity? Telling such people to get over themselves is not only itself sometimes worse than the initial insult, it lacks compassion and understanding for those who have a legitimate problem with their appearance.
Insensitive and oversensitive
There’s difficulty and nuance to engage in. For example, it’s easy for offenders to dismiss those who dislike jokes as all being a humourless, “PC-Gone-Mad” brigade. No doubt many will think that of me. They might put my concerns of mocking physical appearances under the same banner as those offended by, say, religious imagery.
Does not the hurt at being mocked for big ears and the mockery of a personal god both just mount to mere offence? Have I not written that offence is never itself a sufficient argument?
However, to view all reactions against mockery as standing on the same moral ground is to ignore that there is more than black and white when it comes to moral discussions.
In the instance of religious offence, we can point out that there are no good reasons to believe in god, that not everyone believes, that faith is harmful, anyway; and it’s important to show the human aspects of religion via mockery to help show its true, non-god nature, etc. There are plenty of justified, moral reasons to mock religion.
However, we must note that even here, there are good and bad ways to mock: There’s a world of difference between writing a fiction book on Muhammad and drawing a bomb on a bearded man’s head and calling him Muhammad. There’s more to actions than just being right: there could be good reason to do nothing, to act minimally, or to go large. But to bundle all these various actions under the banner of “We are right — everyone else is left/wrong!” ignores the myriad responses and impressions we will receive.
If we care about actually making an impact for our cause, we will be sensitive to what the right tool is for the current job; not reach blindly into the ethical toolkit and hammer away at the nail of immorality we perceive.
Thus, if even in cases where we’re completely right to conclude mere offence is insufficient reason to stop said offence, we have reason to think reflectively. If everyone, including some allies, think we’re being too harsh, then maybe we care more about our egos than the cause.
Unlike physical characteristics, people can’t change their minds on it — their faces aren't committing grave evils on the world. It’s just their face, their ears, their nose, their weight or whatever we, subjectively, (have decided we) dislike.
People could change their appearance with, say, plastic surgery or make-up; people could go on diets, thus changing their weights. And so on. All of these might undermine the physical judgement. Yet, unlike judging someone’s god, what reason is there to change big noses, to appease a person so insensitive and so arrogant he considers his aesthetic judgement should always be realised?
With regard to, say, weight, we could say there are ethical considerations — related to medical resource spending and so on — but that’s still no reason to engage solely, or primarily, with appearance mockery.
All that might happen would be shaming — which could be a tool, though I have serious reservations of using it. Indeed, in an important article on “fat shaming”, Lesley Kinzel points out that shaming is counter-productive to causes and is, essentially a cover for just pointing and laughing — only trapping, as I’ve pointed out, those who are the targets themselves.
Shame is not a catalyst for change; it is a paralytic. Anyone who has ever carried extreme personal shame knows this. Shame doesn’t make you stronger, nor does it help you to grow, or to be healthy, or to be sane. It keeps you in one place, very, very still.
Here, we’re using a powerful tool, humour, in two ways: the first helps undermine authority by showing, in religion’s case, a power to be humanmade — no matter how many layers of sanctity we dip it into; the second sees us targeting someone we think is funny-looking.
To summarise: There is a difference between a Christian being hurt that his god was mocked and a Christian being hurt her face was mocked. It might appear that in both instances people react the same way, but that doesn’t mean they’re equally justified in doing so. And just because the offender is right to mock god, that doesn’t mean the offender is right to mock the Christian’s physical appearance.
Again: mockery doesn’t get a complete moral pass just because it makes us temporarily happy and helps advance various proper causes, like undermining the power religion has on people’s lives. Yes, mockery in general can aid a good cause but that doesn’t let it off the hook when it unnecessarily targets someone’s appearance.
What good can come of this
What is gained by mocking people’s physical appearance? An audience is delighted. Are there alternate ways to delight an audience that doesn’t involve unnecessarily targeting an individual for a property he can’t change? Of course: politics, society, actual awful individuals or their ideas and actions, like racists or sexists.
Thus, offenders can’t claim that they’re silenced, empty, when there do exist alternate ways to bring joy using humour — and in a way that is actually ethical, since offenders are targeting things that are bad.
Consider: if you want to destroy a racist, what matters isn't his large nose but his racism. Why would you use the art, that devastating tool showing humanity within delusions of power, on a target’s nose? But perhaps you can: by highlighting someone’s appearance, excellent comedians can combine it with targeting horrendous moral values and actions (like The Onion’s treatment of Glenn Beck).
We could argue if one important point of humour is to cut through delusions of power — especially when that power is harmful — to show humanity lurking within it, then we can be aided by showing our audience that the power-hungry have digestive systems, weight problems, and so on. The sacred facade that the power-hungry seek begins to erode not only be pointing out the idiocy of their actions, but the identification of their physiological functions and failings. We are saying: “You, too, are human — not some demi-god.”
But, as with handling rape jokes — that target victims, instead of rapists or awful societal values that blame victims — we should be hesitant. Few are capable of being good with using tools of physical descriptions with keen observations — but they do exist. (I refer you to that Onion piece)
It seems that there’s a small irony here: It’s easy to mock someone’s face, more difficult to humourously find stupidity in terrible actions or decisions. Yet, it’s more difficult to use physical characteristics mockery to aid the latter in a way to help further undermine these justified targets of scorn.
Perhaps we should say that we should only mock those who have done something bad. Indeed, that can be a good and important way to use humour. As indicated, I think humour is one essential way to help remind us that people aren’t gods or sacred.
But I think, too, that we use mockery of physical appearances alone, too often, and at harmless targets. I don’t think I am capable of making sharp observations of people who do wrong, let alone about their physical appearances.
However, if I was to do so, or if I was to laugh at people who do or believe bad things, I’d still be hesitant about exactly how humour is being used. I think I’d still be uncomfortable with targeting their physical appearance.
However, what we should all start doing is being hesitant about using it on people who are not bad; people who are not harmful. If we care about being better people, kinder and making the world safer for those who are not as strong or secure as many others, then perhaps we can start training ourselves to be uncomfortable with mocking physical appearances. Why should we listen to someone who only mocks physical characteristics when there is plenty worth mocking and undermining — again, this is a misuse of a powerful tool and we shouldn't support it when humour targets the wrong group or people.
Image Credit: Olena Mykhaylova / Shutterstock
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Why do so many people encounter beings after smoking large doses of DMT?
- DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
- Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
- The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
What are DMT beings?<p>Do DMT entities actually exist in some other dimension, or are they hallucinations that the brain generates when its visual processing system is overwhelmed by a powerful tryptamine?<br></p><p>The late American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that DMT beings — which he called "machine elves" — were real. Here's how he once <a href="https://www.ranker.com/list/dmt-machine-elves-facts/inigo-gonzalez" target="_blank">described</a> one of his DMT experiences:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope's private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!"</p><p>McKenna believed machine elves exist in alternate realities, which form a "<a href="https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/old-favourites-the-archaic-revival-1991-by-terence-mckenna-1.3924887" target="_blank">raging universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.</a>" But he was far from the first to believe that DMT is a doorway to other realms.</p><p>Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have used ayahuasca in religious ceremonies for centuries, though no one is quite sure when they first started experimenting with the psychedelic brew. The Jibaro people of the Ecuadorian rainforest believed ayahuasca allowed regular people, not just shamans, to <a href="https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/17902/RichardsonG_202004_HonThesis.pdf?sequence=3" target="_blank">speak directly to the gods</a>. The 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio wrote of other Amazonian shamans who used ahaysuca (known as the "vine of the dead") to contact spirits and foresee enemy battle plans.</p><p>In the West, research on DMT experiences has been sparse yet interesting. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted some of the first human DMT trials at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. He found that <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">"at least half"</a> of his research subjects had encountered some form of entity after taking DMT.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences," Strassman wrote in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule".</p>
Manuel Medir / Getty<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny."</p><p>It's also worth noting that not all people who smoke DMT see beings, and that some see beings that look <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">nothing like elves or aliens</a>. The diversity of these reports seems to count against the argument that DMT beings exist in some objective alternate reality.</p><p>In other words, if DMT beings exist in some other dimension, shouldn't they appear the same to anyone who visits that dimension? Or do the beings assume a different appearance based on who's looking? Or are there many types of beings in the DMT universe, but most look like elves? </p><p>You might start seeing elves just trying to sort this stuff out.</p><p>Ultimately, nobody knows exactly why DMT beings take the forms they do, or whether they're just figments of overstimulated imaginations. And the answers might be beside the point. </p><p>In the recent survey, 60 percent of participants said their encounter with DMT beings "produced a desirable alteration in their conception of reality whereas only 1% indicated an undesirable alteration in their conception of reality."</p><p>DMT beings may be nothing more than projections of the subconscious mind. But these bizarre encounters do help some people find real meaning, whether it's through personal revelation or the raw power of ontological shock.</p>
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>