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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