The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Mockery as a Tool of the Oppressed

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[Edit: In the interest in clarity, it's worth noting that this post is a follow-up to an analysis of the Hate-Watching article.  Also, commenters from now on (noon CDT, July 26, 2013), asking me to "prove it with examples" will be summarily banned. Thanks.] 

My cat’s hair is thinning. All around his rear-end, the top coat of sleek black hair is missing, revealing a rough, white undercoat that feels gross and thin, like (I imagine), Donald Trump’s toupee. I’ve spoken to his vet about it, and have put him on some new food to test whether or not it’s a food allergy or a psychological issue (cats can have anxiety too!). Basically, my cat licks himself too much – he keeps at it until the hair is licked off. It doesn’t damage his skin and it doesn’t hurt him – it just looks really bad.

Cat and I are working on it, though. We’re on the road to healing, and we’re figuring out ways to curb this behavior. The licking, in itself, isn’t necessary a problem – he just doesn't do it well.

This is what I feel some types of mockery are like. Mockery itself is a fairly neutral behavior, but when it is used to do harmful things to yourself or to others, it becomes a problem. We must look at the output of the behavior, not the behavior itself. Like my cat licking his hair too much, mockery used in oppressive ways deserves to be called out. I believe this is what Richard Clark thought he was doing when he wrote “Stop Hate-Watching the Church” last week, but, as I already explained, he ended up simply reinforcing and repeating oppressive systems of abuse toward individuals.

This repetition of abuse is where mockery derails. Mockery is the cousin of satire, and as such, it can be an extremely useful tool of the oppressed. But it only functions as a helpful tool if the power travels upward – if it is used to make fun of the powerful, the oppressors. Mockery that ends up reinforcing patriarchal power structures deserves to be critiqued – and carefully so, at that.

This is the fundamental error of both Clark’s piece and of the operation at Stuff Christian Culture Likes. Within the mockery and the critique of those who are mocking, we find repeating systems of patriarchal power that function simply to reinforce authoritarian power structures. Numerous intersectional feminists who object to, say, a rape joke on SCCL are often mocked for their “oversensitivity.” Still others who have problems with slurs end up with the slurs being thrown straight back in their faces. In being an “open” community based in mockery, all too often the mockery becomes a weapon of oppression all over again. [Note of clarification: see my earlier post linked above about how the mockery can be healing for many; I am remarking here on a tendency within communities like this to reinforce those systems.]

Let’s look at a wider, less explosive example. I love Stephen Colbert. His satire of right wing conservatism and the overblown hypemachine of the 24 hour news netweorks is a sight to behold. But, every so often in his mockery – more often than not, unfortunately – hinges on making fun of one of the most vulnerable people groups in the world: trans* people. This tumblr, for example, catalogues numerous instances of the slur “tr*nny” on the Colbert Report (as well as on The Daily Show). These “jokes,” in their mockery, end up reinforcing trans*ness as Other, as something deserving of dehumanization and mockery. Rather than satirizing the people in power, Colbert and Stewart both frequently turn a vulnerable group into the punchline of their satire.

Mockery that reinforces power structures and oppression deserves to be critiqued, but it is not the mockery itself that is the issue. The method itself is neutral – it is how you use it. For example, I am careful when I use mockery (as in this post) that I do so in ways that satirizes those people with privilege and power over me – white men, usually conservative white men in power. The butt of the joke on that bitingly sarcastic post, for example? Is men who tone-police women, done by flipping the circumstance around so that the argument sounds ridiculous.

At the risk of analyzing my own joke to death, it uses the same method of discussion in a mocking manner in order to highlight and ridicule the original argument. This method of mockery actually functions to fight against oppression, and feminists – far from being humorless – are well versed in flipping the script in this manner (see the past trending Twitter topics #SafetyTipsForLadies, for instance).

Like my cat licking too much, mockery is a tool that is useful when done in the right forms and in the right ways. But the instant it’s used to reinforce oppressions – by using slurs, by making jokes about someone’s weight, by mocking someone for not following gendered norms, etc, etc – it because unhelpful and, in many ways, downright harmful. The tool itself is not the problem – it is the lines of power along which we use it.

[It is also worth noting that mockery does not equal hate. When I mock someone, it is not because I have a malicious hatred for them, but rather a desire to flip the script and point out the ridiculousness of an idea, as I did on Twitter this afternoon with my mocking tweets about how Tom Daley needs to never hold a puppy again because he makes me think naughty thoughts.  I don't hate the people who tell me to cover up; I do think mocking the idea by making it seem absurd is a valid form of argument.]