The Ethics of Ridicule

Colonialism never died. A strange claim, surely, for the bloody imperialism of Britain receded into the historical imaginary decades ago; but a crueller colonialism lives on in the gaze of its citizens; a colonial gaze that dominates and subjugates, through the perpetual orientalisation of the other. Edward Said most famously defined orientalism as the fictitious and damaging portrayal of eastern cultures through a supposedly enlightened western lens. The propagation of stereotypes that reduces thousand year old cultures into single line caricatures. However, this colonial gaze is not merely a transcultural phenomenon. It conquers all aspects of life; class, ability, race, sexuality; any lived experience capable of differing from one’s own.

Sitting in the dining room, one of my flatmate recounts his experience with a cousin; an elitist, yuppie whom, because of his intellectual status, lowers my flatmate into a state of abjection and otherness. My flatmate proceeds to scroll down his social media feed and laugh at a picture of a young woman, with a face tattoo, holding a child. I am gripped with an inarticulate rage, and the more he tries to defend himself, the more I am incapable of speaking.

Little has changed.

Liberal society, contrary to celebrating difference, deeply and resoundingly mocks it. It is most obvious in social media feeds, where the barrage of mindless pop culture sustains itself through the perpetuating ‘yea’ of selves hollowed from critical existence. Articles articulate vacuous gestures of self-affirmation. Heart, like, share, upvote, favourite. Love yourself, and hate what you are not; because what you are not is wrong, sick, strange, stupid, different. The colonial gaze, by describing the other, defines the other. Like orientalism, it etches the other into a caricature—shapes them into something to be made fun of. It does not delve deeper. It does not interact with the other. How can it? It is a gaze, nothing more.

The postcolonial scholar Homi Bhabha critiques logocentrism, the understanding of the world through words alone.* Removed from experience, one no longer critically interacts and comes to an understanding of the world. Rather, one surrounds oneself in other’s words, other’s opinions, other’s facts. In a social media chamber of echoes, the other is displaced from immediate interaction and painted as oriental.

The seemingly contradictory nature of liberalism is necessary for its very existence, for without difference, there can be no norm. As with colonialism, the subjugation of the other brings the self to enlightenment. Colonialism has always, always, been an enlightenment for the coloniser, not the colonised. An authoritarian episteme that wreaths pride in a garland of inclusivity. The ethics of ridicule sustains this. It presents prejudice as irony, parody, comedy, without any of the consequences considered. Why would it? These consequences affect only the other, not the self. Liberalism imposes a normative ethics of difference so it can continue to disparage, displace and devour difference. It creates the hate it claims to erase.

ridicule 08-white-people-jumping.w529.h352
Happiness is a middle-class, whitewash away.

Society perpetuates the artifice of normality by acting it into reality. There is nothing inherently moral in our interactions, yet we transform them into moral foundations—essentialise them through repetition. Work, success and happiness. Inequality, crime and race. Our words and acts weave implications into the fabric of social existence, so tightly we no longer see our own handiwork. The stereotype becomes reality, and reality a stereotype. Social facts arise through our implementations of them. They are constructed, but nevertheless real. I doubt my flatmate saw beyond the stereotype of teen pregnancy, white trash, the evaluative judgement that reinforced his own identity against hers.

I am sick of this ethics of ridicule. Foucault was wrong; the gaze does not normalise to restrict, but to invite difference. It requires it. The self subsumes the other, whilst simultaneously distancing itself from them. It draws energy from hate, and reforms the world the same. This celebration of self against other is liberalism at its most disgusting. Inclusiveness for the sole purpose of laughing ourselves into a narcissistic daze.

*Logocentrism is a much more nuanced term and has a long history in linguistics and literary theory, however, I did not want to diverge too far from my central topic. For the sake of interest though, I’ll bastardise it some more. Essentially, it is the belief that language is separate from reality, and therefore describes reality. The poststructuralist Derrida contested this, saying rather that language creates reality, and is therefore inseparable. A simple example is gender and how its connotations have changed over time. Gender roles circumscribe and normalise individuals, creating the very reality they seem to describe. ‘Oh look, the majority of women are housewives, therefore it’s their role to be housewives’ etc, etc, conservative rhetoric. Judith Butler speaks more on this with her concept gender performativity, which delves into the artifice of static identity. She posits that identity is formed in the very moment of act. The repetition of acts leads to the assignment of gender onto a static self that doesn’t actually exist. Temporality, flux, motion, etc. Anyway, back to logocentrism. The postcolonialist theorist Homi Bhabha also contested it, for it has the problem of elevating what is dominant in language (western thought), and misrepresenting minority discourses and experiences. The the subaltern (the minority other) loses their voice and instead, information is described and propagated by the dominant group (the hegemony). Western scientists, sociologists, psychologists, etc, end up distorting and discriminating against them, despite their claims of objectivity.

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