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

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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