Is it "bad" to make fun of people/laugh at their weaknesses?

post by InquilineKea · 2010-12-29T03:52:55.984Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 7 comments

When you make fun of someone, you are probably degrading their purity and disrespecting them (if we look at the results from the lesswrong thread on, we can see that many of us consider purity/respect to be far less morally significant than most). Yet, making fun of other people does not intrinsically reduce their "utility" - rather - it is their reactions to being made fun of that reduce their own "utility".

This, of course, does not justify making fun of people. Every negative action is only "bad" due to people's reactions to them. But in many cases, there is little reason to be upset when people make fun of you. When they make fun of you, they are gaining happiness over some weakness of yours. But is that necessarily a bad thing? It can be bad when they make fun of you in front of others and proceed to spread degrading information about you, causing other people to lose respect for you. But they could spread that information even when they're not making fun of you. 

Many people find it unusual that I actually laugh when people make fun of me (in fact, I sometimes find it uncomfortable when people defend me, since I sometimes even value the message of the person who's making fun of me). I usually find it non-threatening, and I'm even somewhat happy that my weaknesses resulted in the elevation of someone else's temporary happiness. I wonder if any rationalists feel the same way that I do. Of course, I will refrain from making fun of people if I think that they will be negatively affected by it. But it does make me wonder - what would it be like if no one cared if they were made fun of? Certainly, we must react to those who spread degrading information about ourselves. But does it really matter if others laugh at it? 

Of course, the prospect of amusing one's recipients is an incentive for some people to spread degrading information about you or your friends. So that may be one reason to counter it. On the other hand, though, laughter is also an incentive for people to spread degrading (and potentially true) information about your rivals. Perhaps people somewhat recognize this, and are frequently somewhat hypocritical about this (not that hypocrisy is intrinsically a bad thing). 

PS: I wonder how laughing at other's weaknesses fits in with Robin Hanson's norm-violation theory of humor. Other's people's weaknesses aren't exactly norm-violations. 


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comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-29T04:48:48.524Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Public mockery is a social attack; if effective it reduces the target's social standing.

Whether that's "bad" or not depends on its results, but the costs are neither illusory nor purely psychological; regardless of what goes on inside my mind when I'm being successfully mocked, there are social costs.

Whether that "matters" or not is similarly difficult to answer. If I'm not invested in the resources that such attacks take away from me, or am not aware of the attacks in the first place, then I don't experience them as losses... it doesn't matter as far as I can tell. And if I'm never in a situation where I would have used those resources to benefit myself or others, then perhaps it doesn't really matter to anyone.

But none of that is unique to mockery. Does it matter if someone takes my tuna sandwich? Maybe not. It depends.

But I suspect that in both cases, I'm more likely to have lost something valuable than not.

Of course, it's easier to be unaware of social penalties than to be unaware of other resource losses. A tuna sandwich is pretty concrete; it's easy to tell when it's taken away. Social standing is less tangible.

Also, signaling one's indifference to this sort of social attack can be a defense against it; indeed, sometimes the attacker loses social standing. That depends a lot on the attacker's and defender's initial standing, of course, but when dealing with peers a stance like you describe can be very effective, and cultivating actual indifference is one way of signaling it effectively, on demand.

Of course, when in situations where that style of defense doesn't work (for example, when the attacker is significantly higher status), actual indifference can be very costly.

comment by Eneasz · 2010-12-29T19:19:56.217Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It matters a lot WHO you are attacking. If you are mocking someone in a position of power, who can compensate for their weakness or eliminate it then you aren't doing them much harm. The jester mocks the king, the sadist mocks the peons. Making fun of the weakness of (for example) these folks is simply cruel.

comment by Molly Fisk (molly-fisk) · 2021-11-08T18:16:38.674Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know but I can tell you that what you said is all correct

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-12-31T10:55:04.446Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. The title question differs only in magnitude from asking, is it "bad" to kill people.

When I hear A laughing at B, it tends to reduce my estimation of A's character rather than B's.

Btw, why the scare quotes?

comment by atucker · 2010-12-30T05:10:15.023Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I feel like this question is a bit too general, you can make fun of people and their weaknesses as an attack, or as social bonding. So I want to say that it isn't bad in general.

When me and my friends go around making fun of each other, so long as none of the jokes are particularly harsh (like, if they focus on peripheral issues) then I don't feel like any status attacks took place, it seems like its just humor that happens to involve us.

Replies from: TheOtherDave
comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-30T05:49:14.339Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems to suggest that attacks are a completely disjoint category from humor and/or social bonding.

I suppose this might be a purely semantic thing, in which case I have nothing useful to add... that is, if you're just saying that if a friend does it we don't call it an "attack," even if that's what we would call it from somebody outside the group, that's fine.

But semantics aside, the same action can be both an attack and humorous and a form of social bonding.

Similarly, in some social circles fistfights are pretty common among friends. Such brawls are certainly attacks, but that doesn't preclude them also being good fun. All a question of what you enjoy.

comment by artsyhonker · 2010-12-29T23:19:13.932Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In terms of the effect on others, I think this is very context-driven. Sometimes I am quite happy to be the brunt of a joke, other times not, and I wouldn't like to try to formulate a rule. I know that in face-to-face interactions I am least comfortable with jeering from complete strangers, and more kindly disposed toward those who I know well enough to jnderstand they don't mean to cause serious hurt, but there may be some bias there too in that those who care about me have learned which topics I find most hurtful and tend to avoid those. Online I generally take more care to avoid poking fun at others, but don't tend to react as strongly to others poking fun at me.

I do think that poking fun at others' weakness purely to make oneself look better actually makes one look rude, irrational and unkind. While I hesitate to label it "right" or "wrong" I would go so far as to say this behaviour is unwise if one values social status among people who in turn value politeness, reason and kindness.

Poking fun for other reasons (for example, to educate) can be less self-incriminating, but it is still going to be somewhat context-dependent. It is as well, too, to remember that our desired outcomes and the actual effects of our actions may not always match.