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The Right to Ridicule?

  1. Jan 22, 2011 #1
    Does free speech guarantee an unlimited right to ridicule? It seems this concept is always being tested. Are certain groups more open to public ridicule than others; say politicians, media stars and other "public" personalities? What about people with disabilities, especially children? How does the "right" to ridicule impinge on those who engage in constitutionally protected activities such as as freedom to worship, or to be free from otherwise illegal discrimination? Is there a right to public bigotry, and how far should it go? Is publically calling for genocide protected speech?

    The attached article takes a broad view of the right to ridicule. It's not illegal to ridicule people with disabilities for their disabilities (at least in the US). However, it is possible to win judgments in civil court for the deliberate infliction of emotional distress on an individual if it can be shown it to be "malicious".

    I personally believe that ridicule can rise to the level of interfering with the "free exercise" of constitutional rights.

    Last edited: Jan 22, 2011
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 22, 2011 #2


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    You're ridiculous! [URL]http://www.vegegifs.com/smiley-emoticon/riredelotre.gif[/URL]
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  4. Jan 22, 2011 #3
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  5. Jan 22, 2011 #4
    As in all things ethical one human right has to be weighed against another in order to reach a morally justifiable conclusion. Freedom of expression, for example, is not freedom to defame and thereby damage another person's the ability to earn a living. Neither is it intended to guarantee a right to deprive others of their peace-of-mind or pursuit of happiness. Calling for genocide against a certain minority group as was done in Nazi Germany violates those two rights. It constitutes a dehumanization of the intended victim to the status of a thing for the sake of political expediency. In short, it can be viewed as speech with malicious intent to cause harm. Just as we can't put up a soapbox somewhere and incite to riot neither are we morally justified in inciting to deprive anyone of their human rights as guaranteed under the Constitution or as clearly delineated by the United Nations.
  6. Jan 22, 2011 #5
    I agree with you, but let me play devil's advocate. First, does it have to be a minority group that's affected? In many US cities, there are only minorities. That is, no identifiable ethnic group represents more than 50% of the population. Further, in some cities, a national minority are a majority in the incorporated city, I could post clips of inflammatory speeches calling for the killing of all the......., given by members of the local majority in those cities. These are well known and there is no need to post them. The point is, they are tolerated. Are not rights of the local minority, which are the targets of this speech, being violated?
  7. Jan 22, 2011 #6
    I totally agree. Majority or minority of numbers is totally irrelevant to a behavior's moral status. Morality within human society is based on the human condition and the duties which such a condition, the ability to suffer physical and psychological pain, our mortality, our reasoning ability, and our need for social cooperation for the sake of survival imposes on us.
  8. Jan 23, 2011 #7
    In fact, the Nazi regime did not publically call for genocide. It went to some effort to hide it. The major portion of the genocide began after the secret Wannsee "final solution" conference in January,1942. Hitler was not present and was careful not to sign any orders related to the subsequent mass murder. He left the operation to Himmler and his underlings.

    The author of the article, Ronald Dworkin, does not mention genocide, but does state his opinion that bigotry is protected speech. Would he also consider that calling for genocide, as opposed to actually taking action in that direction, is protected speech? My understanding regarding the reason that calls for mass murder in the US by certain extremists are tolerated is that they not considered "credible" by the powers that be. The individuals who make such statements do not hold public office and are not part of the majority "power structure". Such calls are written off as hyperbole designed to appeal to a particular audience.

    The author clearly states that protected speech can be "misguided" and "distasteful". Attempts by the government to regulate such speech would be problematic. My point is that "protected speech" as the author seems to define it, can and has gone over some lines in terms of endangering constitutional rights of others. Does ridicule of practicing Christians and Jews on public university campuses violate their First Amendment rights to the "free exercise" of their faith?
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2011
  9. Jan 23, 2011 #8


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    There is a good reason for that absolute freedom of speech is not allowed, especially verbal attacks on and smearing of minority groups, classically jews. The reason is purely pragmatic, it splits society and effectively generates hostile groups who might exercise violence. This is perhaps best seen (in western-Europe) in Paris today, where several hateful leaders of islamic and black-supremacy-groups have recently been arrested and charged for public anti-semitism and other racism-related felonies. I saw this recently in a documentary, I don't have documentation atm. The reasons are many, but the effects are rioting in the streets, destruction of public property, injury of law enforcers and feeding the spiral of poverty and segregation of the city society. The worst part is that many (by the knowledge of some being interviewed in the documentary) of the violent rioters hardly cares about the so called ideals of the organized groups, and are merely there for the opportunity of vandalism. In the same documentary it was said that some parts of Paris are essentially devoid of police, they simply does not dare to go there, even though they are aware of the heavy criminality. This is not accepted as a byproduct of free speech, it needs to be fought at every level, not only in the streets. After all, the worst damage is done by the ones who merely exercises "free speech".

    I could try to provide some more documentation for this if someone feel it is necessary, but as I said this is from a documentary (which may of course give a somewhat false picture of the situation).

    This might not be as much related to mere ridicule, but as I interpret the last comments this discussion went further than that.
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2011
  10. Jan 23, 2011 #9


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    I get the (wrong?) impression that in the U.S. freedom of speech comes before anything else. To whatever degree this is true it can only lead to problems as I see it. So I wouldn't see there should be an unlimited right to ridicule. People in the public eye (with "power") should be to somw extent, though privacy should be protected where it is not in the public interest (to laugh at them!). Groups, for example, disabilities groups, should be open to ridicule, individuals, for being disabled, less so, it seems to me. Where it is clear that genuine offence will be caused (Islam), it should not be done. The right to free speech should not override this. Ideally our democracies should be so healthy that we could let our bigots say what they want and then ridicule them.

    I'd argue that it doesn't because it doesn't stop the practicing and doesn't cause offence. For people of the Islamic faith, because of the explicit statement of offence, it may be a violation of their rights.
  11. Jan 23, 2011 #10

    1. Yes, I know. Quite a few of the Germans taken to see the Nazi concentration camps were shocked and expressed total ignorance of that hideous policy although they definitely were aware of most of the other things that were being perpetrated such as the segregation via gettoes and forced transportation of former respectable citizens into labor camps since such things were happening right under their noses wherever a Jewish community existed. Neither were they ignorant of the Nazi propaganda about racial superiority and the depiction of Jews as subhuman and undesirable in their schools and in the news media. All this they accepted as Hitler via his initial successes rose to almost a Messianic status.

    2. It depends on what we mean by violates. If we mean that it stops them from worshiping then that depends on the reactions of those involved. If violation means that they shouldn't be criticized at all, then of course it violates that right. In short, if the ridicule manages to bring about the desired outcome of hindering their right to worship then it has violated their right to worship in harmony withy that definition. If it hasn't then it merely constitutes an attempt to violate their right to worship or else remains merely ridicule of their right to worship. It all depends on how we define violation.

    Do you feel that it violates their right to worship?
  12. Jan 23, 2011 #11
    It is the FIRST Amendment after all.

    Agreed, but the boundaries are admittedly blurry. There are criminal sanctions for specific "credible" threats of injury or death against specific individuals. Also,any verbal threat against the President of the US is criminal under a special law. There is such a thing as criminal libel but most libel cases are handled in civil courts.

    This is the gray area. This is where societal sanctions operate as opposed to legal sanctions. The press (another constitutionally based freedom) has "decreed" that "public figures" are fair game for just about anything. The most egregious cases end up in civil court and occasionally the celebrity wins.

    On the other hand verbal attacks on the disabled (focusing on the disability) are almost universally condemned. The societal sanctions can include loss of office, loss of employment, public disgrace and for corporations who sponsor media personalities who cross this line, loss of business.

    As far as religion goes, it has been become "fashionable" to ridicule Christians, Jews and and religion itself on university campuses and in some media. The anti-antisemitism label is avoided by saying the ire is directed at the State of Israel, but this is not always apparent. However ridicule of Islam is notably absent at these venues. I wonder why. My view is that ridicule of specific faiths aimed at simply causing distress can be a violation of one's constitutional right to the lawful free exercise of her or his religious beliefs.
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2011
  13. Jan 23, 2011 #12
    See the last line in my response to Cobalt124, post 11 above.
  14. Jan 24, 2011 #13
    Perhaps the term Ridicule (in the OP) should be defined better? It sounds as though postings are more focused on the more aggressive tone of hate speech and calls to action.

    My working definition of ridicule would include this type of "speech" (from above post 2)

    "epenguin Re: The Right to Ridicule?

    You're ridiculous! "
  15. Jan 24, 2011 #14
    It's really about what is protected speech. Dworken makes this clear by asserting a right to bigotry. He calls ridicule "..amomg the most important weapons of both noble and wicked political movements." (link, post 1) So clearly he's talking about more than mocking someone's hair. Targeted groups which are subject to organized protracted public ridicule may see their own freedoms compromised. As Jarle pointed out in an earlier post, ridicule based on race, religion, national origin (among others things) will deepen societal divisions, inflame passions and have the potential for violence.


    Having said that, it's very problematical for a democratic government to regulate speech of any kind. In the US societal norms, rather than restrictive laws, seem to set limits on what you can say and where you can say it. I'm not sure this is the best solution since "political correctness" reigns in many venues and is much more restrictive than any legislated limits on speech.
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2011
  16. Jan 24, 2011 #15
    I don't see how you can discuss "The Right to Ridicule" and "Is publically calling for genocide protected speech?" in the same thread?
  17. Jan 24, 2011 #16
    I've already explained how calls for genocide are tolerated now and have given the standard explanations as to why they are tolerated. As far as I know, there is no US law against it unless it's considered a "credible" incitement to a specific action.

    I do think there should be a law against it and it should be enforced. That's my point. Dworkin seems to be calling for unlimited freedom of speech. So does this include a call for genocide? At the present time, this seems to be the case if you can write if off as "hyperbole".

    EDIT: There's a spectrum from ridicule to something more sinister. 1) All X are stupid 2) All X are a burden on our society 3) Get rid of all X. (Where X is identified by race, religion or national origin). In order to decide where to draw the line (if you are going to draw one) you need to examine the whole spectrum of speech. I consider 1) to be ridicule 2) to be bigotry (which Dworkin includes) 3) consistent with a call for expulsion or genocide.
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2011
  18. Jan 24, 2011 #17
    The (current and future) credibility of the person calling for the action would need to be tested. A comedian suggesting Iran or North Korea be "given" all the nukes they want - meaning use the weapons on them - would be different than a politician or military leader making the same comment.
  19. Jan 24, 2011 #18
    Well, I've made that point already. The reason some people can say "Kill all the X" to a receptive audience and get way with it is that it's not considered credible. In the US at least, societal norms seem to govern not only what you say but where and to whom you can say it. I'm not comfortable with people going around saying "Kill all the X", whether I'm an X or not. In the specific cases I'm thinking of, the speeches of the extremists are available on the internet and have been covered in some news media. I do think such statements should always be considered credible and should be outlawed in the US as they may well influence others to act. What do you think?
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2011
  20. Jan 24, 2011 #19
    I think a forum like this is the counter-weight to ridiculous opinions, comments and assertions presented as factual on the internet.

    For instance, earlier today, someone posted (on another site) that more African Americans are under correctional control today - in prison or jail, on probation or parole - than were enslaved in 1850. They cited (the title only of) a book called "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." They went on to label it a "national crisis" and claimed the prison-industrial complex is corrupting this country and, as the aforementioned book claims, creating a permanent "under-caste" in America.

    I followed along and noticed anyone that asked a question or requested support for comments was ridiculed as being part of the "system" - or brainwashed. All postings that cited a larger population and significant advances by blacks (President Obama being a good example of progress) were also ridiculed.

    I think there is too much talking and not enough listening, thinking, and moderation.

    BTW - I am personally acquainted with the person that made the original comments in my example. He is a white 40 year old male, married with 3 children and employed professionally. His only agenda is to "stimulate" discussion.
  21. Jan 24, 2011 #20


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    Thank you. I thought I would wait a day to see if anyone got it. I have not read the OP's link yet but everybody has been talking about something different from ridicule.
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