The philosophy of irony and sarcasm

characters in ancient Greek comedy

characters in ancient Greek comedy

In Ancient Greek comedy, Eiron was a clever underdog who somehow always managed to get the better of his rival, Alazon, by sheer use of wit. The Socratic dialogues by Plato essentially represent Socrates as the philosophical equivalent of Eiron. And, of course, it is from him that we derive the term “irony,” the Greek root of which means dissimulation, feigned ignorance.

Contrast that with sarcasm. That word also has a Greek root, naturally, which meant “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer.”

Irony and sarcasm are often confused with one another, but they are not the same thing, even in today’s usage. They are, however, not quite distinct either, as sarcasm can (and often does) have a component of irony, though the latter concept clearly encompasses a much larger range of linguistic situations.

I’m interested in the topic for a number of reasons, but chiefly because I need to reconcile — if possible — my profound dislike for sarcastic videos like the one infamously recently tweeted by Richard Dawkins, featuring a feminist who agrees to be raped by an Islamist, because, you know, when Islamists do it is not really rape, with my enjoyment of comedy of the type featured by Jon Stewart, and now Trevor Noah, on The Daily Show. Is there a principled distinction there? Or am I just trying to rationalize my taste, seeking differences where there are none? (Obviously, this is a rhetorical question, which, however, is neither ironic nor sarcastic…)

First things first. Let us begin with a brief examination of each phenomenon in turn.

Irony, Socratic and otherwise

There are, of course, a number of definitions of irony. The OED puts it this way: “A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.” Notice, however, that such mockery is not necessarily the result of human agency. Things can be ironic in a cosmic fashion (the irony of fate), or in a historic one (e.g., the fact that The New York Times used to mock crossword puzzles, back in the 1920s, while it is now the newspaper most widely identified with the concept).

Indeed, a probably partial taxonomy of irony includes: classical (i.e., in the sense used by the ancient Greeks), cosmic (the serendipitous and often contradictory outcomes of fate), dramatic or tragic (from the Greek tragedies to Shakespeare and beyond), “romantic” (related to self-awareness and self-criticism), situational (resulting from a disparity between intended and actual outcome), and verbal (literally a contradiction between intended and stated meanings). And, naturally, there is plenty of overlap and cross-fertilization.

The type of irony that concerns us here is comic in nature, as famously exemplified in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which begins with the author stating that it is well known that men of good fortune are always on the look out for a wife, while it is obviously the opposite that she means: it is women, in her cultural universe, who are after marriage with men of means. Clearly, Austin uses wit to poke fun, and implicitly criticize, certain aspects of her culture — very much like the writers of the Daily Show often do.

But, being a philosopher, I’m also concerned with Socratic irony. It is a matter of dispute exactly what the “Socratic method” consists of. In some dialogues, Socrates himself tells us that he acts as a philosophical “midwife,” simply helping his interlocutors “remember” (or, better, figure out on their own) a given conclusion about whatever subject matter is at hand.

In other cases, however, it is equally clear that his “elenchic” approach aims at convincing others that they really don’t know as much as they think they know (after all, the Oracle at Delphi did declare Socrates the wisest man in Greece, on account that he knew that he didn’t know…).

These cases, at the least some of the times, become clear examples of irony, if not sarcasm. When Socrates pleads with Euthyphro to teach him what the latter knows, since Socrates is so obviously less wise than Euthyphro himself, he is quite clearly making fun of the guy for the benefit of the audience (i.e., of those that heard the dialogue narrated, or read it, later on).

Do the characters in Austen’s novels, and Euthyphro in the homonymous dialogue, deserve the irony? It seems so, because it is directed either at a usually unquestioned — but perfectly questionable — social habit, or at a fool who has potentially dangerous to others delusions of grandeur.

Which brings me to a couple of initial conclusions. First, irony is not always intentional, nor is it always concerned with comedy. Second, when it is both of those things, it is a somewhat gentle form of criticism — of social mores or of individuals — aimed at teaching others and whose targets tend to be deserving of it (either because of their otherwise unquestioned hegemony, or because they are pompous, self-important, and so forth).

Sarcasm, biting and scratching

Let’s begin again with definitions. Here is dictionary.com: “In sarcasm, ridicule or mockery is used harshly, often crudely and contemptuously, for destructive purposes.”

According to B. Brousfield, “sarcasm is an insincere form of politeness which is used to offend one’s interlocutor.” John Haiman separates sarcasm and irony in this way: “situations may be ironic, but only people can be sarcastic … people may be unintentionally ironic, but sarcasm requires intention. What is essential to sarcasm is that it is overt irony intentionally used by the speaker as a form of verbal aggression.” And for Henry Watson Fowler “the essence of sarcasm is the intention of giving pain by (ironical or other) bitter words.”

Here is an interesting observation from William Brant’s Critique of Sarcastic Reason: “sarcasm is hypothesized to develop as a cognitive and emotional tool that adolescents use in order to test the borders of politeness and truth in conversation.”

There are, however, some illustrious defenders of sarcasm: Dostoyevsky, for instance, argued that sarcasm is “usually the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”

One last note, not at all intended as sarcastic (or is it?): in 2014, the US Secret Service actually requested bids for software that would identify sarcasm in tweets. Good luck with that.

Irony, sarcasm, and the ethics of humor

It is a well known truism of the ethics of comedy that “good” (in the ethical sense) humor punches up, not down. That is, comedy ought to concern itself with going after the mighty and powerful, not the downtrodden.

Of course, plenty of comedians still rely on ethnic and gender jokes, though the best ones do it in a subtly disarming (because at the least partially self deprecating) fashion, like Louis C.K.

It should go without saying, but at issue here isn’t the legality of even vicious humor, as in the kind of sarcastic satire practiced by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. I happen to think that attacking by way of humor, no matter how bad the aim is, ought to be protected by the law. But that doesn’t make it ethically acceptable, nor does it mean that one shouldn’t criticize it. In the specific case of Charlie Hebdo, for instance, the little I have seen of the magazine is rather childish and clearly aggressive. It doesn’t enlighten, and it does seem to be aimed at the teenage level mentioned by Brant. But, given the choice between a society with even a single soul like those of the assailants in Paris and one inundated by Charlie Hebdos, I’d unquestionably and unhesitatingly choose the latter.

An additional issue that is not easy to settle is what, exactly, counts as punching “up” or “down.” Taking again about the case of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, one could argue that the cartoonist were punching down on an already beleaguered ethnic minority in France. Then again, one could also say that the target of the sarcasm was actually one of the most powerful and currently (please do note the temporal qualifier) harmful religions in the world. Moreover, when automatic weapons are raised against pencils I think that even an oppressed minority automatically forfeits the moral high ground.

We are left, predictably, with a complex landscape, were no hard and fast rule can be drawn, or simple demarcation criterion be followed. That’s the realm where wisdom comes in for people who wish to practice it. When we laugh at an ironic remark, or a sarcastic cartoon, it is left to each of us to pause and reflect on whether laughter was the appropriate response to the situation, given all we know of the individuals and cultures involved. It’s a call that requires us to summon our inner Socrates, and that makes us a better person every time we do it.

137 thoughts on “The philosophy of irony and sarcasm

  1. Coel

    Hi Robin.

    A counter productive step would be to make a cartoon of a Muslim man with a comical middle eastern accent …

    It’s not a middle eastern accent, it’s a British London accent (and yes, they really do talk like that). That’s because it’s a satire of the youtuber “Dawah Man” (real life Imran Ibn Mansur), a 25-yr-old Londoner.

    And, again, it’s not about a random Muslim person wanting to rape someone, it’s about an Islamist wanting to rape someone.

    It’s ridiculous to try to outlaw criticism of extremist Islamism by always re-interpreting it as being about peaceful and moderate Muslims.

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  2. Robin Herbert

    Er, who said anything about outlawing it? I said it was counter productive. It plays right into the hands of those who call Namazie an Islamophobe.

    Also, if Muslims see yet another Muslim rapist caricature they are going to say “oh it’s all right, it is just referring to Islamists”? It is like having a caricature with.an anti Semitic stereotype and saying, but he’s a Zionist.

    Further, the video mixes up things that ordinary Muslims are concerned about, like things that are Harm, or Islamophobe, with Islamist themes like “Jewish Media”

    Put it this way. Do you think Islamists are unhappy that there are videos like this?

    Think again.

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  3. Massimo Post author

    Dan,

    “To add policing oneself to this already heavy-handed regime — as you suggest — just means that there is no escape whatsoever, even inside one’s own consciousness, something that I simply will not permit”

    Well, you don’t have to. But it is my turn to find such an attitude strange. I would think that one’s moral health (yes, I think health is a good analogy) should be of one’s concern all the time.

    I find that my life’s quality s enhanced, not diminished, when I pay attention to the value of what I do.

    David,

    “I don’t think jokes or works of art can be morally good or bad any more than numbers can be light or heavy. It is altogether the wrong category. Only useless things are beautiful and all art is quite useless.”

    I think you are definitely wrong about this, and there is a large literature on the social and moral impact of art to back me up. It is most definitely not a category mistake, though of course some art can be morally neutral (hard to have a discussion on social issues looking at an abstract panting. But Picasso’s Guernica? That was the point!)

    “The difference is I can’t eat the cheeseburger and not eat the fat, while I can entertain the joke (and laugh at it) and not endorse the sentiment the joke expresses.”

    The analogy stands: if you care about your health you shouldn’t be eating the triple cheeseburger (and it ain’t that easy to trim the fact anyway), and you shouldn’t indulge in crass comedy that punches down.

    “This idea that telling amoral jokes makes people amoral is pretty unflattering to the audience. Who hears a “rape joke” (awful, all too familiar phrase) and suddenly finds rape less than abominable?”

    I honestly don’t care whether the audience finds it unflattering. And remember that I’m not arguing for banning anything, I’m talking from the point of view of an individual’s personal growth and health.

    No, one doesn’t suddenly find rape less abominable upon hearing a joke about it, presumably (though that’s an empirical question). But the point of joking about X is to make fun of, and therefore take less seriously, X. Which, in the case of rape, I doubt it’s the sort of thing we want to do.

    “Tipper Gore trying to protect the children from Doctor Who”

    I think you know I’m not into Tipper’s category. Just because some people have used a similar argument on the wrong target it doesn’t mean that the argument is invalid.

    And thanks for your words about NECSS. I’m treating it as one more exercise in Stoic self control…

    Coel,

    that accent certainly sounded middle easternish to me. But let me ask you: do you really think that an organization should never, ever, disinvite someone, no matter what that someone said between the time of invitation and the time he is going to speak? Ever? Or are we talking degrees here, and you just think Dawkins didn’t cross whatever subjective line there may be to cross?

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  4. Philosopher Eric

    Massimo for pragmatic reasons, I very much appreciate how concerned you are about civil discussion. This site would be far less useful to me, if you were to decide that it’s perfectly acceptable for us to “punch down” in our commentary with each other, rather than than “punch up.” In that case we could tend to become far too defensive to communicate effectively, and thus there would be very little potential for my own ideas to become understood. Nevertheless I’d hope for you to plainly acknowledge your own humanity as well. Why can highly insensitive jokes be so funny? Because they put others down, and thus elevate us. We are of course an extremely social creature, so it’s no wonder that we care so much about how we are thought of. But we need not feel guilty about enjoying (or even privately practicing) the degenerative sort of comedy that David Ottlinger was referring to, I think. We are simply human, after all. So let’s acknowledge this. Nevertheless in this specific forum, let’s try to “punch up” rather than down, in order to better understand each other.

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  5. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Massimo,

    It’s a London (or at least a British) accent.

    But there are subcultures within London/Britain. This sounds to me like an accent one would associate with a Muslim, possibly Pakistani subculture. It’s not unlike how within American cities black people and white people may have noticeably different speech patterns from each other (Ebonics versus “standard” or “establishment” English). Even within a racial group (white people, say) you might find recognisably Jewish or Italian-American accents. So accent doesn’t break down by geography alone.

    Or at least that’s my take on it. Apologies if I’ve got anything horribly wrong. I always feel a little bit awkward talking about stuff like this in case I inadvertently say something horribly offensive or racist.

    So it’s still open to charges of racism on the basis of accent, I guess. But, on the other hand, there are people who do talk quite like that, presumably including the individual being satirised, so is it racist to imitate him? I guess we would say it is in some contexts (e.g. blackface) but not others (e.g. imitating the accent of the French president in a political sketch). I’m not sure where one draws the line on that one. Punching up and punching down, presumably.

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  6. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    Or are we talking degrees here, and you just think Dawkins didn’t cross whatever subjective line there may be to cross?

    Yes, that’s it. I don’t regard the video as beyond the pale. Indeed to me the fact that people might find this video unacceptable is a far bigger problem for society than the video.

    Hi Robin,

    Er, who said anything about outlawing it?

    We are talking about “outlawing” in the sense of social opprobrium placing something outside the limits of acceptable conduct in mainstream society.

    We currently have a big problem with self-censorship by the mainstream media and by people trying to disallow criticism of extremist Islam and of the totalitarian elements within Islam.

    Thus one can criticise ISIS, but only if accompanied by loud declarations that ISIS is of course “nothing to do with Islam” which is of course a “religion of peace”.

    Any suggestion that aspects of mainstream Islam might underpin the extremist aspects such as ISIS and you’re shouted down as “Islamophobic” or told that one is being counterproductive.

    Or, to pick another example, if you suggest that FGM is related to Islam (which of course it is, by all the evidence) then plenty of people will howl you down and insist that it is a cultural practice that is nothing whatsoever to do with any religion.

    It is only religions, and specifically Islam, that gets this protection from criticism. If you criticised the Republicans, people would not point to a Republican-voting little old lady in Wisconsin who has never done anyone any harm, and claim you were smearing her, and being counter-productive by picking on her.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo mentioned Guernica on art having positive moral value. From the same era, on the flip side, think of one of Riefenstahl’s movies. Or, as far as nation-states’ take on art, with moral overtones,the Nazis’ attack on so-called “degenerate art.” Or the Stalinesque insistence upon “Soviet state realism.” In both cases, it was not just morally wrong to attack the artists in such ways; leaders of both countries were making moral judgments about the value of different types of art.

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  8. Coel

    Anyone can hear the gentleman in question for themselves by Googling “Dawah Man youtube”. And yes, he, a British-born Londoner, does talk like the accent in the video.

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  9. Daniel Kaufman

    David O wrote:

    You might answer that listening to such jokes may at least foster bad habits, like a lack of empathy. To an extent I may agree, but really how worried should we be?

    —————————————————

    I’m surprised you’re willing to concede this much. This is just the same old song people have been singing forever.

    Dungeons and Dragons was going to ruin kids’ mental health and turn them into psychos. Heavy Metal made kids commit suicide. Video games turn people into murderers. And now jokes and standup routines make people into racists/sexists/homophobes/ableists/ageists/poor-haters etc.

    These are the times when one really is glad that there is a layer of law, above that of the system of social mores and sanctions. As bad as things are now with this sort of out-of-control moralizing, it would be a thousand times worse, in the absence of free speech and other legal protections of the individual, against the sentiments that happen to be trending at the moment.

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  10. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo wrote:

    I think you know I’m not into Tipper’s category. Just because some people have used a similar argument on the wrong target it doesn’t mean that the argument is invalid.

    ————————————————————–

    For one thing, those of us on the other side of this issue are not just arguing with you, but with those who are making the sorts of arguments you are making.

    As for the second part, an informal reductio ad absurdum involves showing that a series of premises point towards an informal absurdity. And I think that all this worrying about peoples’ “moral health” for enjoying a standup routine or sketch certainly can be accused, legitimately, of pointing in such a direction.

    I mean, what really is the point? Specifically. I’ve worn out the tape of my copy of Delirious. I plan on buying it on DVD. I think it’s funny as hell. I think Sam Kinison is funny as hell too and enjoy his standup. I am also a father, a husband, a well-thought of teacher, a volunteer at my synagogue, a guy with good friends, etc., and etc. In short, I don’t think I’m a bad guy. So, what is this great moral harm I’ve done to myself?

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  11. brodix

    Dan,

    This goes to the point that there really are two valid sides to many arguments. Yes, the pendulum of reasonableness does swing back and forth, but to use the valid points of your side to argue the other side doesn’t have a viable point is as biased as the other side using their views to say you have no argument.

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  12. SocraticGadfly

    I want to approach this from a consequentialist rather than a virtue ethics point of view, in the first of what will be several brief comments.

    Even if I rightly consider myself enlightened enough not to be “coarsened” by punching down or whatever (more on this in next comment, or second-next), what about other people who aren’t? If I’m coarsening others’ ethics, by laughing at jokes that I know they take more seriously than me — not just the joke but the message behind it — then I have contributed to the coarsening of society. I’ve contributed, even if indirectly, to the hardening of stereotypes and more.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Massimo Post author

    Coel,

    “Indeed to me the fact that people might find this video unacceptable is a far bigger problem for society than the video.”

    Glad to know I’m a far bigger problem for humanity than Dawkins. Makes me feel good, actually.

    Eric,

    “Nevertheless I’d hope for you to plainly acknowledge your own humanity as well. Why can highly insensitive jokes be so funny? Because they put others down, and thus elevate us”

    Right. And I don’t think that’s good for us, that’s all. Envy is human as well, but I don’t think it’s a good trait. The point is to strive to be the best humans we can, not to indulge in unedifying behaviors on the ground that, well, we are only human after all.

    Dan,

    I thought you said we were going to agree to disagree, but I see you can’t let it go… Very well.

    First off, let me clarify that I reject the pejorative term “moralizing.” It seems a quick and dirty way to dismiss anyone’s criticism just because they are saying that perhaps there are better behaviors or things to do.

    Second, don’t bring up protective laws, because nobody on this forum has even raised the possibility of passing any law at all about any of this, and I very strongly and clearly rejected such possibility.

    “Dungeons and Dragons was going to ruin kids’ mental health and turn them into psychos … And now jokes and standup routines make people into racists/sexists/homophobes/ableists/ageists/poor-haters … I am also a father, a husband, a well-thought of teacher, a volunteer at my synagogue, a guy with good friends, etc., and etc. In short, I don’t think I’m a bad guy”

    And nobody said you are, though I’m not actually familiar with the comedians you mention, and I have no idea how your character is affected by watching them, if at all.

    But you clearly don’t like the health analogy, which I think it’s actually very good: again, I’m not in favor of legislating that people can’t eat junk food, but I think there is good reason to believe it ain’t good for them, and I personally try to avoid it.

    So let me try a different analogy: there was a time when I would come home tired, turn on the tv and then spend most of the evening simply surfing from one channel to another.

    It felt like eating junk food. It didn’t make me a bad person, but I wasted a lot of time getting nothing I considered good out of it.

    So I decided to unsubscribe from cable and watch only streaming programs. That meant no more surfing, and a much better control over what I am watching. For each show I have to pay, or I have to make a conscious selection, and I’m seeing no commercials and no junk. I think my life is better for it. That’s what I’m talking about.

    As for slippery slope, it’s an informal fallacy, as you know, which can be misused to ridicule an otherwise perfectly sound argument: http://philpapers.org/rec/BOUTFT

    Liked by 1 person

  14. SocraticGadfly

    Next, this issue of “coarsening” or whatever, in general. Per Kahnemann, humor certainly appeals to our “fast” thinking. Per Project Implicit, how do I know I’m not being coarsened unless I engage in some self-examination?

    “What’s Project Implicit?” some may be asking.

    “Glad you asked,” Steve responded.

    “PROJECT IMPLICIT SOCIAL ATTITUDES
    Log in or register to find out your implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other topics!”

    https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

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  15. brodix

    It is a three dimensional world that constantly changes, which we generally view as two dimensional, in static flashes.

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  16. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix: I’ve argued my side. Part of arguing one’s side is making the case that the other side is incorrect. So, I really don’t see your point, I’m afraid. Of course the other side thinks I’m wrong about this, just as I think they are wrong.

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  17. SocraticGadfly

    Third, and tangentially related to the “is ≠ ought,” and what’s funny and what’s not?

    I first saw Sam Kinison in college, 30 years ago or so, as part of one of Rodney Dangerfield’s young comedians specials on HBO. Some of his stuff, were I to rehear it today, I might still consider funny. Some of it not, and not just because it’s offensive. Some of it, and some of the stuff from other comedians on that series, per Massimo’s observations about Charlie Hebdo, I’d probably find puerile.

    That’s not to say that all things I found funny 30 years ago, even if less sophisticated forms of humor, I’d find puerile today. I still love the bad puns of Groucho Marx and of Hawkeye Pierce as played by Alan Alda, for example. (And, actually, many of them are pretty sophisticates, like some of Groucho’s running series of puns in conversation.)

    To the degree that some humor is, to me, puerile, though, to use a Christian biblical reference, I’d rather have solid food than milk. And per two comments above, on consequentialist ethics and humor, to make another biblical reference, I feel some responsibility to watch out for “weaker brethren.” (And, on a personal level, having grown up in a less enlightened family, I also feel the virtue ethics call to watch out for backsliding on my own part.)

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  18. brodix

    Dan,

    Incorrect, or just not entirely correct?

    I have to say I certainly find lots of things funny, that others don’t. Unfortunately I have developed a bit of a habit, at 55, of telling long stories that end with “but he died.” Having punched the reset button on my 9 lives a few times and having a fair number of scars, healed bones, as well as epilepsy to show for it, I tend to have a more light hearted view toward mortality than most others, especially the youngsters I am usually riding with. As the bumper sticker goes, “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

    Suffice to say, in the world I grew up in and live in, there are lots of crude jokes, but the ones I find the most humor in are those which skirt the edges of propriety, with as many layers of meaning as possible. I also have a daughter in college who is going through a more politically correct phase than I ever took seriously, so it gives me further perspective on it.

    So I’m not disagreeing with you, just saying it is a complex reality and there are lots of grey areas between all the black and white viewpoints.

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  19. Massimo Post author

    Thought some more about why I dislike the “moralizing” label. Typically moralizers, like Tipper Gore, or the anti-alcohol crowd of the 1920s, want to impose their view of morality by passing laws.

    I don’t. I just want to draw attention to the fact that some practices make for a better human life than others. Yes, we can disagree on what those practices are, but the general point stands.

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  20. ejwinner

    Well, the conversation has taken an interesting turn since I retired to bed last night. I generally don’t think about the ethics of comedy, except within the larger question of what a given culture deems proper to say, or not say, and in what context. In these terms, is an offensive joke any different than a direct insult? Not necessarily.

    However, given that we live in a capitalist society, where people get paid to say things – politicians, journalists, and stand-up comedians, for instance – the ethical focus of the discussion should shift, from the ethics of the saying, to the ethics of the hearing. If there is an audience willing to pay (or vote, which is a kind of purchase) to hear something said, there will always be someone willing to say it.

    However, now that we have refocused on the audience, a collectivity, we run into the problem that it is rare that the members of the audience all share the same motivations. They may, in small numbers, such as in the congregation of a local church. But more likely their motivations, expectations, and understandings would prove diverse in inquiry. So whatever we can claim of what might be the possible responses of the audience as a whole, in general, cannot be claimed of any one participant in that audience. It is entirely possible, eg., to imagine an atheist who frequents conservative churches because he/she finds listening to sermons pleasing, even uplifting – indeed, I had a friend like that, who occasionally attended Catholic mass because “the Catholics put on a good show.”

    So the question has become, what are the limits of discourse that are socially acceptable? Denying that there should be such limits ignores the patent fact that such limits exist. But they are not inflexible; they can be broadened or narrowed dependent on the willingness of the participants. Then the complimentary question arises – as a participant in possible audiences in this society, what is my own obligation to define, accept, or change those limits?

    The discussion here demonstrates that these questions are far more difficult than we would want them to be.

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  21. Daniel Kaufman

    Socratic: I started the survey, but quit, when it asked me things for which there is no reasonable binary answer.

    If only we could actually find out anything really interesting about anybody by pressing “E” and “I” keys. Alas, things are not like that.

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  22. ejwinner

    Coel,

    “f you criticised the Republicans, people would not point to a Republican-voting little old lady in Wisconsin who has never done anyone any harm, and claim you were smearing her, and being counter-productive by picking on her.”

    Oh, how little you understand American politics, esp. that of the Republican party! Yeah, some people would do exactly that.

    Be aware that for many Americans, “America” itself is a religion. And there are pundits and politicians here openly asserting that Muslims cannot be American, not because they are immigrants, because they can’t belong to that church, “America.” (They rarely say this in exactly this way, but they are insistent that there some views that so marginalizes the holders of those views that they cannot be considered ‘American.’ That includes Muslims, but atheists as well.)

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  23. brodix

    Ej,

    Which falls in the category of trying to define “America,” as opposed to explaining it.

    To be somewhat politically incorrect, I do think that when you go beyond the religious branding, to the essential nature and the history, it is reasonable to say “America” is based on the more bottom up, distributed form of monotheism, which borders on pantheism, that Christianity embodies, than the more focused and absolute model on which Islam is based.

    Remember that for its first four hundred years, Christianity was an underground movement, largely in conflict with the powers that be, before being co-opted by an empire in decline, while Islam was one of the more successful political and military movements in history and these two foundations are at the root of their dna.

    I suspect the New World would have been an entirely different place, had it originally been colonized by Muslims.

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  24. SocraticGadfly

    Actually, Dan, that’s the whole point. Per Kahnemann’s “fast” thinking, it’s looking for subconscious responses. So, it wants instantaneous reactions. As for the ‘non-binary,” at least when I took the tests, comparing two photos is pretty binary. A composite score of all reactions, though, is a sliding scale, not binary — and everybody here who has read Massimo regularly know that I heartily support analyzing most mental faculties in terms of sliding scales.

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  25. gstally

    We Americans love sarcasm and some of us carry out our own peculiar brand as a way of life. My longtime friend was teaching in Japan circa 2011 when she heard the news that there was a second tsunami coming. She groaned “Oh that’s just great news!” aloud in front of her coworkers much to their shock. One of them meekly approached her and questioned “Surely you don’t think the tsunami is good news?” The problem here is they couldn’t catch the tone of her voice so the humor was lost on them and that was something funny in and of itself, or at least we thought so. Just an example of how very simple and lighthearted sarcasm can be, as it often is.

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