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Is it wrong to laugh at objectification?

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This isn’t the sort of thing I usually blog about — I’m a believer in the idea of picking one’s battles, which is why you also rarely see posts on here by me about animal welfare, poverty alleviation, vegetarianism, etc, even though those are also things I care about aside from atheism activism.

Today I’m writing about an incident that occurred today at the Skepticamp Ohio 2012 event. Please note that I am hearing about this second-hand, as I’m in Columbia this weekend and not at the conference. Here’s a copy-and-pasted summary of what happened, confirmed through a few different sources on Twitter and Facebook, as stated by my friend S:

A female presenter made a joking comment about how skeptics should have more children, and a guy in the crowd shouts “Are you volunteering?”

My question to our readers is, is it wrong to laugh at this? Is it even funny at all? Now, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about his statement, NOT the act of interruption during the speaker’s talk. Clearly it is inappropriate to interrupt a speaker, regardless of sex, even when they make a joke, if you ask me. Interrupting a speaker is permissible when 1) there is a technical problem, like a dead microphone or 2) there is a safety problem, like a fire in the building, or a bomb threat. Otherwise, it’s fine to laugh, but don’t shout stuff out. I think we can all more-or-less agree on that part.

As far as the content of what the crowd-guy said, is it actually wrong? Let’s look at a few possibilities.

The presenter set the tone for the exchange by making a joking comment (according to an eyewitness from the conference from whom I got the statement above). Setting aside for the moment that this was probably not directed at any single individual and it was inappropriate for a single audience member to respond to it, I would say that the appropriate response to this part of the exchange is laughter. Like I said, I wasn’t there, but I’m guessing that the audience laughed at this part.

Then, the guy from the audience said, “Are you volunteering?” Now’s where it gets tricky: Did the presenter genuinely think this response was funny? Did she feel harassed, but laugh anyway as a defense mechanism? Did she find it a bit funny and a bit harassing, and laugh partially because it was funny and partially as a defense mechanism? Or did she not find it funny at all and feel only harassed (as the eyewitness felt, both vicariously for the speaker, and as a passive participant as part of the crowd)? I would be interested in hearing the speaker’s thoughts on it, if anyone can tell me who exactly it was, so I might be able to contact her about it.

I understand that there is a harassment policy in place at the conference, and that the matter was attended to. I don’t know what that means, but it’s a start.

So, the title of this post is, “Is it wrong to laugh?” When phrased this way, the topic is more clearly one of ethics. I agree with my friend C.M. that if others in the room are also affected by this exchange and so we need to take them into account in our utility calculation, or whatever system we want to use. But what if everyone in the room thought it was genuinely funny and not at all harassing, including the speaker? Would it still be harassment then?

Now we’re looking at a question more like, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?” Or take the example of, “If someone disrobes in a forest with no one around, is it still flashing?” If it’s a public park, I suppose it is, even though there’s little chance of a charge without a complainant. The same, I would argue, applies with this incident: If truly no one was offended, then laughing is totally fine. If even one person is offended, whether it’s the speaker or not, then we start edging toward unethical behavior.

The question is, how do we establish what’s offensive or not until it happens? We can speculate based on previous experience and knowledge of our audience — comedians can get away with saying all sorts of things that we commoners could never permissibly say in a public place — but ultimately, it’s a risk/reward gamble.

Speaking of risk/reward, C.M. also said that “It would have been inappropriate, but not as bad, if the genders were reversed.” I think now we are getting to the meat of it: Is this an ethical problem with harassment, or with sexism?

When asked to clarify, she said, in so many words, that it would do less harm, because women are historically on the receiving end of objectification & harassment. Ah, so we are talking about how much harm we’re causing, not whether or not we’re causing harm. If that’s the case, it’s back to risk/reward: If one person is offended at a “5” on a 1-10 scale, but the other 99 people in the audience think it’s funny at a “5” on a “1-10” scale, is it wrong? Again, it depends on your ethical system. Some people would say that it’s wrong to laugh if anyone is offended, perhaps especially in the case of the speaker. But if we’re talking about less bad, then at what point does it become permissible? Or if it’s never permissible, then why split it into degrees?

Jokes make conferences fun. They make all social interactions fun. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to attend a conference where jokes are prohibited on the basis of the possibility of offense. Even academic conferences (usually!) have some humor. Jokes are all about testing boundaries and sometimes tiptoeing past them. That’s the point. And sometimes the best humor does come from audience interaction, especially from mocking. It’s a tool in the humor toolchest — just look up “heckler” + the name of your favorite comedian on YouTube, or consider this interaction from the late, great Sydney Morgenbesser, the famous Columbia philosophy professor and jokester:

During a lecture the Oxford linguistic philosopher J.L. Austin made the claim that although a double negative in English implies a positive meaning, there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative. To which Morgenbesser responded in a dismissive tone, “Yeah, yeah.”

Consider another Morgenbesser great:

Morgenbesser was leaving a subway station in New York City and put his pipe in his mouth as he was ascending the steps. A police officer told him that there was no smoking on the subway. Morgenbesser pointed out that he was leaving the subway, not entering it, and hadn’t lit up yet anyway. The cop again said that smoking was not allowed in the subway, and Morgenbesser repeated his comment. The cop said, “If I let you do it, I’d have to let everyone do it.” Morgenbesser replied, “Who do you think you are, Kant?” The word “Kant” was mistaken for a vulgar epithet and Morgenbesser had to explain the situation at the police station.

Some people will find this second one offensive. That’s the point. The police officer certainly did, and took Morgenbesser into custody over it. But is it wrong to laugh at this on the basis that someone finds it offensive?

I would say, no. You have to weigh the good with the bad. If our rule is, “If someone finds it offensive, or might find it offensive, don’t say it,” we are losing out on a lot of good stuff. Consider George Carlin’s “Words You Can’t Say On TV” stand-up bit without anything potentially offensive, or Ricky Gervais, or Aziz Ansari, or my favorite, Jim Jeffries. Whoever uploaded that Jim Jeffries clip linked in the last sentence even provides us with a nice little disclaimer in the description, reading “Warning: Highly likely to offend die-hard religious types.”

Or alternatively, is our rule that we shouldn’t laugh at something that has the capacity to offend someone, or a group of people, who have a personal or demographic history of oppression against the subject of the joke? Especially if the person laughing has a historical association with the oppressors, whether personal or ancestral?

I think the most anyone can ask is that we do the best we can. We should do our best to be patient and understanding when someone offends us, and explain why we are offended and what a less offensive alternative might be. But keep in mind, if your only reason for disliking some statement is that it offends you, then what you are really saying is you lack good reasons for intending others to change their behavior. In the words of Richard Dawkins:

You will not say, ‘It’s offensive, it’s offensive.” You will say, ‘No, you are wrong here, and you are wrong here, and you are wrong here,’ and that’s what you should do.

I don’t remember who said this, but I once heard a statement that has stuck in my memory. When you say you are offended, what you are really saying is that you cannot control your emotions, and instead, you want to control other people’s behavior. I’m not sure I entirely agree with it, but I wanted to share it with you, and get your feedback on it.

I think it’s important that we keep in mind that “feminism” means “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men,” not turning the tables so that it’s the reverse of the 1950s’. Similarly, we must keep in mind the different between sexual objectification and sexism. Anyone can be the subject of objectification, and anyone can be the subject of sexism. Women are much more commonly the subject of both of these than men. Although there is a historical element, and privilege plays a role in audience reaction etc, I think it’s important that we remember that, if we really want to call ourselves feminists, we ought to be just as bothered by this statement:

A male presenter made a joking comment about how skeptics should have more children, and a woman in the crowd shouts “Are you volunteering?”

as we are about this one:

A female presenter made a joking comment about how skeptics should have more children, and a guy in the crowd shouts “Are you volunteering?”

In fact, as I mentioned to the eyewitness previously mentioned, I would have just phrased it as: “A presenter made a joking comment about how skeptics should have more children, and someone in the crowd shouts ‘Are you volunteering?’

In an ideal world, it really says the same thing, and that’s what we should be striving for, right? If we achieve social equality, and reproduction has nothing to do with the story, then why even mention what sex the speaker or audience member is?

Very curious for your thoughts on all of this, folks! Thanks for reading. If you comment below, I will respond!

– Dave

P.S. I do think skeptics should consider having more children, or alternatively, adopting. This is something the religious folks have quite a monopoly on. I also recommend this clip, for laughs and for illustrative purposes 🙂

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is

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7 comments on “Is it wrong to laugh at objectification?

  1. Chana Messinger
    May 26, 2012

    Cross posted from facebook. For the record, I’m C.M above:

    Dave, I read your post, and I really think you’re missing something. In general, if you don’t know something is offensive, you’re not fully accountable, but you should take the time to think about what you’re saying, and the effects it will have. This guy clearly didn’t. The atheist community has now been talking about sexism for years. It is foreseeable that that was offensive. If he didn’t mean it, he should apologize if he knows that it was taken poorly. Why is the burden always on those who are offended? Being offended isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a legitimate emotion, especially when it’s part of a broader systemic issue. If you hurt someone’s feelings, you’ve done harm, and you should acknowledge it. No one is outlawing jokes, that’s a ridiculous strawman. The point is you should be careful about jokes you make and in what context. If no one at the conference was offended because they all know each other and it’s fine, than that’s great, if it doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes that will affect others later. But if no one was offended because this guy got lucky, he’s being morally negligent, and anyway that’s not what happened because Sarah was offended, so this guy cared more about his joke than about her. And that’s bullshit. If we’re offended, we can’t always say something is “wrong”, because there’s no truth claim made here. The guy wasn’t making a point, he was making a joke. So now we’re seen as censors when we point out harm done.

    • MU SASHA Administrator
      May 26, 2012

      Thank you very much for your reply, Chana. I may be missing something, and I would like to know what it is – that’s why I included the Richard Dawkins quotation.

      You say no one is outlawing jokes, and that this is a strawman. Could you explain this more please? If we are saying that jokes that have the potential to offend someone present are off-limits, is that not prohibiting them as I said? Every joke has the potential to offend someone; that’s kind of the point. Jokes are all about crossing those lines that make us uncomfortable. Jokes are funny because they poke at someone or something. Even clean jokes like this one, with the most views of all time on the website, mock *someone* (in this case, haughty police):

      I would say that telling a joke that doesn’t seek to lower the status of someone or something is more-or-less impossible. I honestly cannot think of a single joke that doesn’t employ mocking in the argumentative theory of reasoning sense. Now, there are other types of humor besides jokes, but I would ask you for some guidelines here, for those of us who seek not to offend: How do we know where to draw the line? You’re saying we are indeed allowed to make jokes, so the line isn’t simply “Don’t make jokes,” the way it is in airport security screening stations, for example. You are saying, “There is a line, somewhere.” It’s also clearly not when the other person opens the door, because that’s what happened at this conference (although, as I said, we can both agree that the setting was totally inappropriate, considering you don’t interrupt people while they are giving a presentation, but let’s put that part aside momentarily).

      I would like to know that I’m not offending anyone when I decide to tell a joke, but I’m saying that I think that’s impossible unless we decide not to tell jokes at conferences.

      I think that, if you’re offended, you don’t have to be able to articulate “why” in order to say that it’s wrong. Sometimes, intuition is a clue that something is amiss. I mean, this was the entire basis for Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.” Cops call it their “spidey-sense” or refer to a situation as “hinky” when something just feels wrong, but they can’t explain yet what it is. In the ethical sense, if something feels wrong, this should tell us that we need to examine our reasoning further to find out what (if anything) really is unethical about the situation. I would say that an inability to articulate the exact problem is okay; we should still take a closer look to make sure we are not offending anyone.

      If causing harm is what makes it unethical, then we really don’t need to keep searching: That’s a perfectly legitimate reason to call a behavior unethical. As Sam Harris says, the only moral standard that matters is the suffering of conscious creatures. If someone is suffering as a result of someone else’s words, then we’ve entered immoral territory and it’s totally fine to put a stop to it then & there. But what I would like to know is, what harm is it causing? Is it actually causing harm?

      S was offended, and this harmed her; I understand that it could be called wrong on that basis, even if she only heard about it later and wasn’t present. But now we’re getting back to the speculation & risk/reward thing again — if a LOT of people got a genuine laugh and only a few people were offended, is it wrong? If you’re a utilitarian, then no… and that’s why I said, it depends on your system of ethics. Curious for your thoughts!

      • Dylan
        May 26, 2012

        You’ve raised some interesting and fairly complex questions and issues in this post, Dave, as well as in your reply. But I think they betray some personal presuppositions which may underlie your line of reasoning.

        “Jokes make conferences fun. They make all social interactions fun.”

        This assumes that everyone’s concept of fun aligns with your concept of it. I think anyone could come up with countless things that make a conference or a social interaction fun that don’t involve the use of jokes.

        “…if a LOT of people got a genuine laugh and only a few people were offended, is it wrong?”

        Are you assuming that making a lot of people laugh is inherently important or good?

        It seems to me that you are sidestepping some pretty important issues in your analysis of the appropriateness of jokes.

        “Setting aside for the moment that this was probably not directed at any single individual and it was inappropriate for a single audience member to respond to it…”

        How can you set that aside? Don’t you think the idea that “it was inappropriate for a single audience member to respond to it” is inextricably linked to the opportunity the audience member had to tell a funny joke? What I mean by this is: even if it can somehow be argued that it is acceptable to laugh at such a joke in an ideal setting, such a conclusion does nothing to lessen the reality that an important social taboo (wrongfully interrupting a conference speaker) was committed. Therefore, I think that the more necessary question would be something like this: Have we as a society allowed the progression (or digression) of what some might call “social norms” to result in an environment where an individual might instinctively commit the aforementioned taboo for the sake of some potentially unnecessary entertainment? I believe that an argument can be made that things like this are the result of social conditioning, and that the overall pace of that conditioning is exponentially faster than that of our realization and understanding of negative consequences and outcomes. It has been written that Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin…”. This is more than likely an instance of hyperbole, but what I take from it is that if something (such as a habit or particular action) frequently or consistently causes harm or an injustice of some kind, it would be better for me to do away with that habit or action. Neither the eye nor the habit or action are inherently the issue, but how they play out in my particular situations and circumstances.

  2. Dan Linford
    May 26, 2012

    Chana —

    I think you misunderstood one part of Dave’s post. You actually can say what’s wrong with the comment in that you can explain why it’s offensive. You might not be able to say what’s factually wrong with it, but there are more ways to be wrong than that. Here, you can give an explanation of why the action was to be deemed reprehensible (if it was to be deemed reprehensible; I’m not taking a position between yourself and Dave, but it does seem that you can actually explicate why you think the audience member’s actions were wrong and that you have partially already done so.)

  3. rocketkirchner
    May 26, 2012

    i think that any kind of objectification of human beings is very very seriuosly deadly to the one doing the objectifying . Human beings deserve dignity . Example : as a professional musican i am around this stuff all the time . I was once performing in a gay bar , and they all liked the sing alongs and it was a fun gig . However the men in the crowd were teasing a new waitress there more than i have ever seen done by heterosexuals …really vulgar stuff. I got no problem with gays at all, but i had a problem with this becuase it really made her feel uncomfortable . they thought it was cute. i told them to knock it off , becuase it is not cute. they responded with ”hey Rocket , you know we are all gay and she knows we are just kidding ”. My response was ” You may mean no harm , and the waitresses here who have been around for a while enjoy your teasing , but this is really freaking her out .. cause she is new ”. After i pointed that i they kind of cooled it .

    When i am around my female freinds who are platonic freinds we tease each other all the time , but we dont objectify each other , cause we both know that we are kidding . When someone feels uncomfortable , one should shut up ! we got enough air pollution on this planet.

  4. Gordon Clason
    June 11, 2012

    Whether it was objectifying or not, whether it was offensive or not, whether it was funny or not, it was pretty darn rude.

    • Dave Muscato
      June 11, 2012

      Yes; that’s not really what this post is about, but I agree. Interrupting a speaker on stage, for any reason other than safety (fire, bomb threat, etc) or technical problems (mic isn’t working, etc) is very rude. I was standing right next to an ultra-Christian at Reasonfest in Lawrence, KS in February when he interrupted Greg Epstein to loudly announce to the audience, “I just want to let ya’ll know that what you’re doing here is wrong, and that Jesus Christ sees what you are doing,” etc. He was immediately escorted out, and I followed him downstairs to interview him in the hallway and get his side of the story. I think that is a very different case than this, though. As I said in the post, I wasn’t present during the interruption that was the subject of this article, but if people laughed, I think it’s fair to say that it added to the talk in at least certain ways, rather than solely taking away from it. These kinds of things are what make it worth going to talks in person instead of just reading the same info but written in a book. There is a fair amount of research in film theory and anthropology, for example, about how the audience interacts with each other, and the experience of watching something being performed with other people in the room with them. It’s part of the experience and it enriches the experience, in a certain light.

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This entry was posted on May 26, 2012 by in Author: Dave Muscato, In The News and tagged , , .
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