David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
from the world's big
Start Learning

It's not just a joke: The ethics of mocking someone's appearance

It's not just a joke: The ethics of mocking someone's appearance

Joan Rivers called a baby ugly; Frankie Boyle once commented on Twitter that an Olympic swimmer looked like an aquatic mammal, due to the size of her nose.

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

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

Big Think LIVE

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

Keep reading Show less

Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
  • Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
Keep reading Show less

Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Illustration of cockpit of a self-driving car

Indy Autonomous Challenge
Technology & Innovation
  • 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."
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

The dangers of the chemical imbalance theory of depression

A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.

Scroll down to load more…