liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
Various things swirling around in my mind at the moment, I'm not sure how coherent this will be. Can we start by taking it as read that you can make jokes about any topic, no matter how painful or horrific? This isn't about censorship; I'm assuming that most people don't especially aim to go around exercising their undisputed free speech right to be as offensive and hurtful as possible, but actually want to be decent human beings. You certainly have the right to joke about atrocities, the question I'm asking is whether it's a morally desirable thing to do.

There was a discussion on a locked journal where the theory was proposed that it's acceptable to mock more powerful people but not less powerful. Of course the obvious trouble with that is that it's not always easy to tell who has the most power, indeed this isn't something that can be ranked in a linear fashion. Atheists may crack racist jokes about Muslims, because in the world as a whole religious believers and particularly religious establishments have way more power than atheists, but in this country Muslims are a tiny minority of the population, most of them are from immigrant backgrounds, and they suffer a lot of discrimination and disadvantage compared to white, post-Christian secularists. Feminists may mock "menz" and "dudes" because they are using satire to challenge the patriarchal establishment, but they are also socially successful, attractive people bullying lonely, low status, socially outcast men.

There's also a really, really fine line between satirizing racism, and actually being racist. It's quite common to see humour which boils down to, this person is so racist that they would even say [extremely racist remark]. Sometimes this kind of thing gets referred to as "hipster racism" or "ironic racism". But the racially despised minorities are still getting subjected to a barrage of stereotyped, offensive portrayals even if the intention is to mock those who believe in such stereotypes. Another problem is that when someone is accused of racism they may defend themselves by claiming it was only a joke, or it was satire, and the accuser should get a thicker skin or a better sense of humour.

In the wake of the devastating terror attack in Norway, Twitter and many other parts of the internet were full of jokes about how white Nordic (ugh, that word!) Christian men would get collectively punished for the attack. The humour here derives from the fact that haha, no they wouldn't, because the attacker was white he would be treated as an individual whereas a Muslim or brown-skinned terrorist would be assumed to be representative of their religion and ethnicity. Obviously the people making these jokes were aiming at the media, particularly the US media, being in such a rush to blame Muslims for everything, they weren't aiming at Muslims. Still, I felt really uncomfortable about these jokes and I couldn't work out why until I read ranty cut-and-paste but apparently sincere blog comments blaming the attack on the "Zionists", because apparently somewhere in the terrorist's writings he says something positive about Israel. Suddenly the racist tendency to blame acts of violence on the perp's ethnic background just isn't funny any more; it really happens, and it is really scary.

There is also quite a lot of calling the terrorist a nutter or a lunatic or a crazed gunman, both from pro journalists and from individuals making comments. So although it's supposedly funny to postulate that he might be regarded as part of the group of white northern Europeans, it's perfectly serious and acceptable to treat him as part of the group of people with mental illnesses. This is a tricky one because it's clearly in no way a rational, reasonable act to shoot a hundred teenagers because you think the government is too generous to immigrants. I'm sure that most people who automatically class this as crazy don't literally believe that the one in four people with mental health issues are all part of an international terrorist conspiracy or regularly go around shooting children. But whether it's a figure of speech or simply speculating about medical causes for evil acts, this kind of thing contributes to stereotyping of people with mental illnesses as violent and dangerous, and causes a lot of harm.

My reactions to the discussions of the Norwegian attack reminded me of something else I experienced recently: [ profile] shweta_narayan linked to a satirical story about racism in SF. She compared it to her own satirical pieces where she presents a Dianna Wynne-Jones style Tough Guide to fantasy exoticism. The thing is that I had found Shweta's writing very funny, but when I went to read Lavie Tidhar's piece, I found it absolutely shocking and not amusing at all. I could convince myself that the Tough Guides are more clearly mocking racism in cliched fantasy, whereas The School reads as if it's mocking, well, Holocaust victims. But if I'm honest, I think it's that I'm conditioned to be more emotionally aware of the Holocaust and really don't deal well with jokes about gas chambers, whereas there are plenty of incidents in colonial history that were just as horrible, but I'm reasonably comfortable with laughing about the latter because they didn't happen to people I feel a personal connection with.

I'm certainly not saying that Narayan and Tidhar shouldn't have used humour to address these serious and even horrific issues. I'm just filing this as an example to remind me to be very careful about making jokes about stuff that readers may find intensely upsetting. Even if the target of the joke is the perpetrators of atrocities, not the victims, treating such subjects humorously could still do damage.

Anyway, yes, swirly and inconclusive post. BTW links to LJ may not work at the moment because the site is undergoing a really serious DDoS attack. It's probably targeted at dissident Russian bloggers, many of whom I expect do use humour to satirize the Russian political establishment. And that really is a free speech issue; they absolutely have the right to use LJ to express their political views, and that right is under attack by the DDoSers. I am a bit impatient with people who are whining about LJ's incompetence and lack of communication in this instance. I know LJ have had problems in the past – after all, that's why I moved here in the first place! But this isn't LJ's fault, it's the fault of seriously unpleasant orgs who are attacking the service as a way of attacking political writing they disagree with. (Also don't whine about Dreamwidth's incompetence when it can't connect to LJ to back up your journal or crosspost your entries; obviously if LJ is down then DW can't reach it, no matter how technically excellent DW may be!)

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 10:23 am (UTC)
iddewes: (medved)
From: [personal profile] iddewes
I don't actually believe it is targeted at dissident bloggers, as I know LJ is used by Medvedev himself and other pro-government groups too. It would therefore be counter-productive for the Russian government to shut it down and I think they could easily shut dissidents up in other ways.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 10:40 am (UTC)
kerrypolka: Contemporary Lois Lane with cellphone (Default)
From: [personal profile] kerrypolka
Yes, because Medvedev has no other outlets to communicate his views to Russians and the rest of the world.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 11:21 am (UTC)
emperor: (Default)
From: [personal profile] emperor
I think the sustained nature of this attack makes it unlikely to be some crackers doing it "for the lolz"; those sorts of people typically bring a site down for a few hours and/or deface its front page.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 11:10 am (UTC)
jesse_the_k: Perfectly circlular white brain-like fungus growing on oak tree (fuck desert war)
From: [personal profile] jesse_the_k
Swirly and yet useful. Thanks for thinking outloud.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 11:13 am (UTC)
redbird: closeup of me drinking tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] redbird
I agree with your point that "free speech means you can do this, but it's still worth thinking about when/whether you should."

W.r.t the "mental illness" thing, I think it's also a way of saying "white Christian conservative men aren't terrorists": we don't hear that same narrative when the terrorists are seen as "other," even if the acts are equally senseless in any reasonable political calculus. It may be partly a way of people telling each other that they don't have to worry that their friends or neighbors who look like that, or even say similar things about immigrants, are going to start shooting at them, because their friends are "normal"/sane.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 12:25 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
Alternatively, it could just be plain ordinary abductive reasoning[1] (see also Bayesian inference) as goes on every day. One sees an effect (for example people engaging in terrorism, or people speculating that terrorists are mentally ill, or people speculating about people speculating about people being mentally ill) and searches for a state of affairs under which that effect is likely (for example people being mentally ill, or people being concerned about being labelled as terrorists, or people engaging in abductive reasoning). It helps if the thing you're invoking is reasonably plausible too, although "reasonably plausible" may well turn out to be based on unsound premises.

People like explanations. People like explanations which flatter and reassure them, yes, and allow them to engage in a variety of morally dubious activities with the feeling of a clean conscience (or even the feeling of righteousness), but people also like explanations which go some way towards explaining things.

[1] Some people call this "inductive reasoning" but I don't like that, because it confuses it with the process whereby you induce generalities from specifics. Sherlock Holmes calls the process "deduction".

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 06:06 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
I think there's a problem with the conflation of the medical notion of mental illness (and other psychiatric conditions), the legal notion of insanity, and various popular notions meant by "crazy", "mad", "insane", "sick" etc., either meant literally, or as metaphors for anger, lust, creativity, zeal, stupidity, etc.. See also the distressingly common use of disease as a metaphor for immorality or just generic badness.

Which then leads me to wonder if people aren't looking for explanations after all, but just throwing around nasty-sounding terms in order to engage in recreational condemnation without regard for who they might be hurting by doing so (see also "gay" as a generic insult). Or maybe a mixture of both.

Most of people people who would happily label serial killers or terrorists or dictators "insane" would probably not be keen on delivering a verdict of "not guilty due to insanity" at a trial. I don't know the stats on serial killers but I suspect that most of them weren't found legally insane; IIRC Shipman wasn't.

All that said, it is clear that a lot of people are excessively worried about that people with mental illnesses might be violent - however there are complications. It's clear, for example, that the stigma attaches more to some conditions than to others (this paper would be interesting as an example if they would let me read more than the first page) - whereas progress might be being made with regards to a variety of mood and anxiety disorders, things like schizophrenia still seem to have a severe - and increasing - image problem.

(Minor minor off-topic point; see also me getting in a twist between mathematical notions of (maximum) likelihood and plain-English "likely"; there's a certain style of argument that I see in some circles that I think is grounded in literary theory and continental philosophy - I get rather wound up by it for various reasons and have been itching to argue back with my own specialisms. But this is beside the point... there's also the point about multiple causation but I think this comment is long enough already).

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-01 10:46 am (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
Final paragraph:

1) basically in common usage, "probable" and "likely" mean more or less the same thing. A lot of the maths that gets used in the areas I work in uses "likelihood" to refer to a specific sort of probability - specifically, the conditional probability of the think you've just observed given the explanation you're hypothesising for it. If you've seen B, then P(B|A) is the likelihood.

2) Graded vs. absolute probable/likely. There's an absolute sense, suggesting a probability greater than 0.5. Under that sense, X and not-X can't both be probable. There's also - I think - a graded sense, meaning "substantially more probable/likely than some base rate" - although this could just be me having a strange idiolect. The maximum likelihood in a given situation can be pathetically low; for example in my line of work it is common to estimate the likelihood of a sentence (or the joint likelihood of a sentence plus annotations (e.g. part-of-speech tags)) given various assumptions. Consider the last sentence; if you (or your software) had made a list of sentences that I might conceivably utter, complete with probabilities that summed to 1, how much of that "1" would have been given over to precisely that sentence.

So: "a state of affairs under which that effect is likely"; basically that was an attempt at putting in plain English "P(B|A) is high", where "high" isn't necessarily absolutely high, just higher than other P(B|X) for various X.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 04:01 pm (UTC)
kerrypolka: Contemporary Lois Lane with cellphone (Default)
From: [personal profile] kerrypolka
Oh, that's quite a good point about it being used as an othering tactic.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 12:00 pm (UTC)
pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)
From: [personal profile] pne
I'm sure that most people who automatically class this as crazy don't literally believe that the one in four people with mental health issues are all part of an international terrorist conspiracy or regularly go around shooting children. But whether it's a figure of speech or simply speculating about medical causes for evil acts, this kind of thing contributes to stereotyping of people with mental illnesses as violent and dangerous

Is that so?

"He acted violently and irrationally; this implies he may be mentally ill" and "He is mentally ill; this implies he may act violently and irrationally" seem to be opposite implications, and A=>B doesn't imply B=>A.

If I overhear someone speaking Romansh, then they're probably from Switzerland (more specifically, from Graub√ľnden). That doesn't mean that people from Switzerland (or even from Graub√ľnden) typically speak Romansh.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 12:25 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
A=>B doesn't imply B=>A.

No. However, P(A|B) may have a bearing on P(B|A).

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-01 05:06 pm (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
I think there's also a feeling amongst at least some people that violence (especially this sort of violence) is a symptom of (a specific) mental illness (not to be conflated with a belief that all mental illnesses have the same symptoms); indeed that perhaps performing such acts should be *defined to be* a mental illness. I find this line of argument extremely troubling; it smacks to me of "people who hold opinions we dislike will be drugged until they don't"; which, well, it scares me, no matter how strongly I disagree with the ideas in question.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 01:58 pm (UTC)
adrian_turtle: (Default)
From: [personal profile] adrian_turtle
It may simply be that some jokes should not be made in mixed company. Joking about painful subjects can be really valuable--as commentary, as a way of dealing with pain--but it assumes some kinds of shared understanding. (Rape survivors can tell rape jokes in the sense of whistling past a graveyard. It's a different sort of thing than rape culture advocates telling rape jokes. As a passerby hearing the whistles, it can be hard to recognize.)

It's quite common to see humour which boils down to, this person is so racist that they would even say [extremely racist remark].

That whole section of my sense of humor shorted out quite a long time ago. It no longer seems *possible* to think of something so exaggerated and offensive that a person won't actually do it in earnest. Satirists cannot work under these conditions! It takes a different kind of satire.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 04:56 pm (UTC)
vatine: Generated with some CL code and a hand-designed blackletter font (Default)
From: [personal profile] vatine
Back when all we knew of Breivik was how his face looked, I was surprised that someone "who should have known better" quipped that he looked like a poster-boy for the Hitler Youth. I took this to actually mean "he looks very much like a white male" (and, yes, he does), but since Breivik looks like roughly half the people I grew up with (the other half look about the same, but female), I did feel a need to point out that only a small minority of Scandawegians are racist idiots.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-29 05:39 am (UTC)
vatine: Generated with some CL code and a hand-designed blackletter font (Default)
From: [personal profile] vatine
Yep. It's extra funny since technically speaking, "aryan" is a description of a subset of Indians and they tend neither towards blue-eyed nor blond.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-01 05:48 am (UTC)
vatine: Generated with some CL code and a hand-designed blackletter font (Default)
From: [personal profile] vatine
It was, I still think, funny seeing S. (who's from a Brahmin family) ask a heckling neo-nazi to stop heckling aryans. The complete mental trainwreck that happened shortly after was a sight to behold. Definitely an "out of context" error, if I've ever seen one.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 02:30 pm (UTC)
polarisnorth: a silhouetted figure sitting on the moon, watching the earthrise (Default)
From: [personal profile] polarisnorth
Feminists may mock "menz" and "dudes" because they are using satire to challenge the patriarchal establishment, but they are also socially successful, attractive people bullying lonely, low status, socially outcast men.

I realize this is not the main point of discussion, but this really bothered me, mostly because it seems to imply that all feminists are both socially successful and attractive, which is a sweeping generalization that sits very wrongly with me. I just thought I should bring that up; sorry if it's overreacting. ><

Other than that, I pretty much agree with this. I've especially been thinking about the way the gunman was automatically labeled crazy because of his actions, exactly because it contributes to stereotyping of people with mental illnesses as violent and dangerous, and causes a lot of harm, as you said. I think I really started to notice that trend in this type of reporting after the Kathy Giffords shooting, when much the same sort of thing was said.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 03:40 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
I was really glad to see the italicised phrase, although I'll agree that there are phrasing issues involved and a few "some"s and "sometimes"es wouldn't have gone amiss (also, while I'm being picky, the last part of the sentence could be read as being a bit too tragic and patronising). The tropes [personal profile] liv refers to are distressingly common on certain parts of the internet; distressing to me at least.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-29 04:52 am (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
Liv, in the phrase:

but they are also socially successful

Did you really mean to put "they"? Or is that a typo for "there"?

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-28 09:12 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Thank you for hosting this conversation, and thank you to everyone participating in it. Lots for me to think about.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-07-29 02:34 pm (UTC)
falena: Picture of a girl hiding behind a camera, reflected in a mirror. (Default)
From: [personal profile] falena
This was immensely interesting, you should post your swirly thoughts more often. Thanks fro sharing.

I'm sorry that, as usual, I don't seem to be have anything worthwhile to contribute. Your thinky post often make my brain go into overdrive (in a good way!), it takes time for me to digest them and then when I get back here people have usually already picked up on the things that struck me. And your commenters are always as eloquent and smart as you are, adding '+1' comments seems a bit useless.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-18 01:51 pm (UTC)
merrythebard: (Default)
From: [personal profile] merrythebard
I just wanted to say that I love your swirly thoughts very much. :-)


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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