Mocking As Respect

How can you tell which are the dominant ethnicities, professions, or genders? One easy test: in our society, dominant groups are ones that people are allowed to insult and lampoon. For example, you can get in a lot more trouble for making negative general statements about blacks or women than about whites or men. Maybe this fact can comfort dad today, as he gets his annual card mocking his role as father:

There’s a good chance if you receive — or give — a Father’s Day card this weekend, Dad will be portrayed as a farting, beer-obsessed, tool-challenged buffoon who would rather hog the TV remote, go fishing or play golf than be with the kids. Such cards are top sellers among the 87 million Father’s Day cards that will be given this year. …

About 25 percent of Hallmark’s Father’s Day cards are in the humor category, compared with 15 percent of Mother’s Day cards. Men also appreciate punch-in-the-arm, even immature, humor more than women do, companies say. …. You try to give mom a fart joke for Mother’s Day, it probably won’t fly very well, but with dad you can. …

Whyatt, the cartoonist, … said. “I’m sure there’s a way to make the new image of fathers funny as well, but it would be a shame to lose making dad the butt of the joke. Even though we’re all changing, hopefully we’ll still be able to take a joke.” (more)

Dads, the fact that you let them mock you, and show you can take a joke, is a good counter-signaling signal that you are loved and respected. Enjoy.

Note that while folks are eager to cut many public signals of which groups dominate, there is little push to cut this sort of signal.

Added 4p: I should note that in simple models counter-signaling there are three types, and the same signal is sent by the high and low type, which is a different signal from the mid type. So yes there are also low status groups today, like animals, which one is allowed to lampoon.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • Pingback: Social Extinction()

  • Danny

    I’m not so sure about this. In India today, as well as in Victorian England, cartoons mocking nagging or overbearing wives are/were common tropes. Yet it seems to me that women are/were lower status – not higher status – in those environments than in the modern West. Similarly racist jokes were more common in the west a generation ago, but I don’t think that was because minorities were dominant at that time.

    • IMASBA

      The idea only holds in “politically correct” societies and only for groups that have been so widely acknowledged (as recently as 20 years ago gays could be mocked in the US with no backlash from the majority, even though they were more oppressed than women and today it’s still more or less considered to mock atheists) as victims or oppressors that you really don’t need to look at mockery to know into which category a certain group has been placed. So ultimately it’s validity is very limited and pointless.

      Finally we should not overlook innate differences between groups. Men have always been more tolerant of insulting forms of humor: male friends can easily call each other things in jest that would cause female friends to never speak to each other again.

      • IMASBA

        Although when I say “pointless” I mean pointless for those able to easily pick up unofficial acknowledgements of groups, I guess if you are further out on the autism spectrum than the average person (which a disproportionate number of readers of this blog probably are) you may use patterns of mockery to decipher social status differences (if you are looking at a “politically correct” society).

      • I’m pretty sure that 21 days ago mocking gays could have gained you a lot of criticism. A lot more than from mocking men.

      • But gays tend to react to mockery—about matters other than being gay—more like women than like men. (Based only on personal observation.)

      • IMASBA

        You’d have gotten criticism for mocking gays 21 years ago in the US and more so than for mocking straight (white) men but not from a majority and less considerably less so than for mocking women or black people. We do not have an innate recognition of oppressed groups, it takes a form of collective acknowledgement to make it “not OK” to mock a group (for example Oprah telling people it’s not OK).

      • The point is limited in scope, but it’s nonetheless significant: we—subconsciously—have subverted what’s supposed to be a signal of egalitarianism into being its opposite: a counter-signal of high status.

        (It’s a good rebuttal to those giving severely limited creative powers to the subconscious.)

        I see explanatory value in point in your other comment that Aspyish folks need ostensible patterns to recognize status. LW is a purer Aspyish subculture than OB, and it may be that LWers submit to the karma system because they can’t intuit status. I’m wondering whether one aspect is that they are unable to use the usual cues to assess someone’s intelligence. (This also helps explain the Aspyish fascination with IQ tests.)

      • lalaithion

        Personal experience contradicts that, for me. My female friends have always been more of the insulting humor than my male friends.

  • We’re allowed to lampoon the powerful because it reinforces the official democratic ideology that our country is politically and socially egalitarian.

    (RH limits his test to our society, but he doesn’t explain why the ayatollahs don’t counter-signal by allowing mockery of themselves. Their ideology makes no egalitarian pretense.)

    Also, note it isn’t completely true in our society. It isn’t OK for Catholics to mock the Pope; mocking the President (the “commander in chief”) is questionable, the Tea Party having lost status point by engaging in Presidential mockery. (It wouldn’t be completely OK even if the President were white.) And mockery of God remains blasphemy.

    • Dave

      “mocking the President is questionable” — hardly. GWB was mocked mercilessly.

      • Ken Arromdee

        Because GWB was both a president and a member of a disfavored group (conservatives) and the gain in status of mocking a conservative outweighed the loss in mocking someone with power.

      • Ilya Shpitser

        Is any of this even falsifiable?

      • Ken Arromdee

        It’s an alternative explanation used to show that the original argument doesn’t prove anything. So it only has to be as falsifiable to the extent that the original argument which it rebutted is falsifiable.

  • I don’t know, I suspect gentiles mocking Jews would be considered somewhat offensive.

    I think in the medieval era there were designated holidays for mocking the powerful, in which a King of Misrule would be elected to turn everything upside down. And that the tradition goes back even to the Romans with Saturnalia.

    • Being a Jew isn’t high status. (Notice that a Jew has never been considered for POTUS.) Jews on average have very high status, but not by virtue of being Jews–except insofar as Jewish cohesiveness helps but that’s a different matter.

      • True, but I thought Hanson was also talking about average status. Also, bringing up the often high status of Jews a la Rick Sanchez does not go over well.

    • IMASBA

      I agree with Stephen Diamond. Being a Jew doesn’t automatically mean high status. It is true that Jews are wealthy on average in the US, but globally they are anything but high status and on status indicators other than money they rank low even in the US.

      • Jews tend to be wealthier than average abroad as well (six out of the seven wealthiest “oligarchs” in post-Soviet Russia). And the high status is about a lot more than money. They have a wildly disproportionate number of Nobel prizes, Clark & Field medals and pretty much any other indicator of intellectual achievement. There may not have been a Jewish president of the U.S yet, but at ~2% of the population that’s not too surprising, and they’re disproportionately represented in Congress and SCOTUS. Their prominence in media/entertainment is well known, as well as the upper echelons of academia. Pick any random list of “most influential” people, and it will be disproportionately Jewish. If I had to come up with an indicator of high status in which they didn’t do well, the best I could probably do is representation among the upper ranks of the military. It’s a high record of achievement indicative of both their high average IQ as well as what Greg Clark might call “moxie“.

      • Ken Arromdee

        They have a wildly disproportionate number of Nobel prizes, Clark &
        Field medals and pretty much any other indicator of intellectual

        Having an indicator of intellectual achievement generally isn’t high status. Nobel prizes specifically may be an exception, but being intellectual is usually either neutral or low-status. It may be high status among certain crowds on the Internet, but that’s not the same thing.

        Even the Nazis didn’t claim that Jews are stupid; they portrayed Jews as smart but conniving.

      • Intellectuals are high status. The closest thing to a societal exception would be Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and that was run by intellectuals! As for your latter point, social psychologists often ask people to evaluate groups along two axis which may be labelled “competence” and “warmth”. Jews are frequently rated higher on the former than the latter. Women as a whole may receive the reverse, and in our society that means lower status (hence Hanson’s post on fertility: the big problem).

      • Ken Arromdee

        If you want other examples, consider how intellectual achievement is low status among students in school. Intellectuals are enemies. People don’t trust them. Being an enemy may be higher status than being so low that nobody cares about you, but it’s not very high on an overall level. Again, don’t assume that because people here on the Internet respect intellectuals, intellectuals are respected by society at large.

        And to counter the Khmer Rouge example, consider the Cultural Revolution in China.

      • As we recall from the post on Four Loko, those of school age are all low status relative to their elders (and unless they’re some unusual prodigy, I wouldn’t consider them “intellectuals”).

        I was thinking of the Cultural Revolution, but Khmer Rouge seemed more extreme. Class genocide vs selecting enough scapegoats to meet a quota.

        Ancient China was more deferential to intellectuals, the Mandarin examination system was the center of status struggle. But the “estates” of France and castes of India also give high status to an intellectual class.

      • IMASBA


        Intellectuals just aren’t high status, at least not the majority that’s not very rich or famous. CEOs are more high status than nobel prize winning physicists and chemists. As for Jews, they’re mocked for lack of physical prowess and in many countries they are not held in high regard: those oligarchs in Russia are hated (some rightfully so) and are fleeing Russia. Ken Arromdee said it: portrayal as smart but conniving (and ruthless and physically weak, cowardly, incestuous and weird).

      • Most (non-famous) intellectuals are lower status than CEOs (whom I believe are also disproportionately Jewish), but higher than the majority of the population. I disagree on Nobelists though, those are much rarer than CEOs and scarcity is a big component of status. Plenty of high status people are hated (basically any prominent politician), lowest status people are unknown (at least as individuals).

        Interestingly, studying Jewish characteristics as a guide to success is in vogue in China, though westerners find that creepy.

      • Plenty of high status people are hated (basically any prominent politician), lowest status people are unknown (at least as individuals).

        The most interesting question arising from this discussion is how do you distinguish hated high-status (groups or individuals) from low status.

        For example, is a serial killer high or low status?

        To say he is low status contradicts your maxim that we ignore low status folks. To say he is high status contradicts the generalization that crime is low status.

        Or, were the Jews exterminated by the Nazis in Germany hated high status folks or low status? (They were thought powerful yet considered vermin.)

        One could puzzle over these questions, but I’m not sure there’s an answer. How did our forebears regard the status of enemies outside the tribe? The status concept would seem to have no point when considering folks (regarded as) outside the boundaries of the group’s norms.

      • Ken Arromdee

        Slaveowners don’t ignore their slaves (they ignore their slaves’ *wishes*, but that’s not the same thing). Yet slaves are low status.

      • They don’t pay much attention to them individually. (One reason for hiring an overseer is to avoid degrading associations and preoccupations.)

      • Per Eddie Izzard, it depends on how many people you kill. More seriously, modern versions of people “running amok” with mass killings in part seem like attempts to achieve a twisted kind of status in death.

      • Ken Arromdee

        As we recall from the post on Four Loko, those of school age are all low status relative to their elders

        They’re also low status compared to other students of the same age. Many people here are familiar with how jocks fare in schools compared to geeks. And google up “acting white”.

        And the Cultural Revolution was a clear case of killing intellectuals because they are intellectuals.

      • If you want other examples, consider how intellectual achievement is low status among students in school.

        It’s only low status when compared with athletic prowess. (I think ‘intellect’ is more tied to popularity in elementary school, before dating becomes the center of gravity.)

        Geeks are another matter: awkward and boring.

        [Why athletic prowess is so important in adolescent status is an interesting question. Given severe sexual selection for intelligence, why would physical strength and coordination be more important for dating?

        [My offhand guess is that assortative mating for intelligence limits its allure in dating.]

      • In places where intellectuals were killed for being intellectuals, it didn’t signify low status. Governments aren’t always scapegoating the weak when they kill; they may kill high-status enemies because they’re (potential) threats. Intellectuals get killed by oppressive regimes in societies where intellectuals have particularly high status!

        I’m mystified by Ken’s claim that intellectuals are low status. Part of the problem may stem from there being no recognized social grouping calling themselves “intellectuals.” If intellectuals have prestige, it is manifested by the prestige of intellectual professions. The broadest such profession is teaching, which enjoys moderately high status (#10 in a field of 45 occupations in one study). I’m sure that if you restricted the field to university professors (where the degree of intellectualism is obviously higher), the status would be higher. High but perhaps not very high. Certainly the greatest recognized intellectuals have very high status, but not the highest.

      • Michael Wengler

        Jews are not big in sports.

      • Sounds about right, I’m relatively ignorant about sports. But conversely, african americans are well represented in sports even while being regarded as “subaltern” or “the Other”.

    • Take a wild guess: what’s the only religious affiliation to improve your chances of getting a job offer if you put it on your resume?

      • That settles it: I was wrong that being a Jew isn’t high status.

        The reason mocking Jews isn’t PC is that Jews both have a particularly strong fear of stigmatization and the high status to enforce the ban.

      • Ken Arromdee

        I’d suggest that being Jewish isn’t itself high status, but it may be associated with other things that are. If you put on your resume that you are Jewish, the employer does a Bayseian update on the chance that you have one of those other high status traits. In a setting where someone can learn more directly whether you have such traits, being Jewish would not have such an effect–a resume is actually a pretty odd situation.

        Furthermore, just because something improves your chances of getting a job, that doesn’t necessarily make it high status. For instance, being obedient increases your chances of getting many jobs.

      • I’d suggest that being Jewish isn’t itself high status, but it may be associated with other things that are.

        I suggested the same earlier in the discussion. But have you heard of any other ethnicity (or religion) where the status associated of the group diverges markedly from the status of the individuals comprising the group?

        The reason it’s improbable is that we mostly form our ideas about groups based on experiences with individuals.

        I think underestimating the status of being Jewish (in the U.S.) is PC driven. To say Jews are successful (in part) because of their high social status seems to deprecate Jews’ talents and imply an unfair advantage, anti-Semitism being low status.

  • lump1

    This presumes as background a society that has internalized some kind of political correctness. But I’m sure that Robin can remember the days when black jokes, “Polak” jokes and misogynist jokes were in wide circulation. There are still places in Eastern Europe where it is not so rare to hear gypsy jokes in ostensibly polite company, and jokes that trade on various immigrant stereotypes. I do think that Robin describes a real pattern, but it’s a pattern in places like the US.

    • anon

      Nowadays it’s quite common for, say, blacks to joke among each other in a mock-offensive way. Countersignaling of this sort works quite well in a tightly-knit social group where the potential of taking offense is broadly known.

      But when a member of the ingroup jokes about a low-status outgroup, getting away with mockery cannot send the same signal. Instead, the dominating signal is that the outgrop is socially shunned to such an extent that their taking offense has few or no consequences within the ingroup.

    • IMASBA

      Yup, you need a society that has some form of “political correctness” engrained into it.

    • oldoddjobs

      Well as usual, Robin takes American culture to reflect all of humanity.

      • Michael Wengler

        Wogs begin at Calais. I was appalled when I went to the UK in the 1970s that a main radio station was full of vicious Irish jokes while the UK continued to colonize part of Ireland. I remember thinking it would be like filling the US air with gook jokes while we were still at war with Viet Nam. It does look like a post about the US not about people.

  • Cahokia

    As TGGP suggested, this theory collapses when it comes to Jews, the preeminent ethnicity in America.

    • jason

      Jews make fun of the quirks associated with Jewishness all the time, including even Jewish insularity. For example, on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm Larry gets rid of his divorce lawyer “Katz” because it turns out he’s misrepresenting himself as a Jew (memorable line: “I was Sweded!”). The trope of the superior Jewish lawyer is eventually subverted when the lawyer he replaces Katz with strikes a worse bargain, but the whole joke is predicated on what we all know is true.

      You could argue that only Jews are allowed to mock Jews, but I don’t find that to be true either. Gentiles can get away with playing with Jewish stereotypes if they do it with the right “intentional stance” or attitude, but most dare not try because it’s very risky business.

      • Mahmet Tokarev

        South Park and Family Guy trade heavily on Jew jokes. One of the co-creators of South Park is Jewish. I thought Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, was half-Jewish, but Wikipedia suggests he is 100% gentile. Still, I bet his writer’s room is heavily Jewish, or we wouldn’t see so many Jew jokes.

        On the other hand, Jewish comedians never seem too worried about mocking Christians or other non-Jewish groups.

  • Rdogs Akon

    It is perfectly obvious that blacks are socially and legally dominant over whites

    A black can jump the queue like a medieval aristocrat, and white people, like medieval serfs, will not stop him

    It socially acceptable for a black to be rude to a white, socially unacceptable for a white to be rude to a black.

    It is fine to make fun of low status white people: People of Walmart.

    Also rednecks. People love making fun of white people in Oklahoma.

    In Hitler’s Germany, everyone made fun of Jews, no one made fun of Hitler.

    When blacks actually were low status, people made fun of blacks. As their status rose to legal and social supremacy, people stopped making fun of them.

    whenever someone purportedly argued that George Zimmerman attacked Trayvon Martin, he would in fact present arguments and evidence that Trayvon Martin was entitled to attack George Zimmerman, which presupposes that blacks are entitled to attack whites, and whites are not entitled to defend themselves., as a Samurai was entitled to strike a peasant, and a peasant not entitled to strike back.

    • Cahokia

      In the right-wing media, there’s plenty of criticism of black urban culture.

      In the dominant liberal mass media, you are correct that white rednecks are the favored demographic target for derision.

      But, at the same time, the conservative counter-media favors that same heartland white demographic.

      Note that Jewish Americans are essentially exempt from mockery from both mainstream conservatives and liberals. Again, this undermines Hanson’s theory.

      • The consumers of rightwing media are lower status than the consumers of liberal media. Where the rightists signal their superiority to blacks, the liberals countersignal their superiority to both.

        (In terms of the simplified countersignaling model, blacks are lows, heartland rightists are mediums, and liberals are highs.)

      • jhertzli

        “Is that beany shrinking your brain?”

        … and, of course, Life of Brian.

  • jason

    is this post meant to be read ironically? moms are obviously higher status than dads and yet moms receive fewer mocking mother’s day cards, not more. i know your main point is that we can learn about status by watching who gets to mock whom, which i agree with, but in this case your model doesn’t match reality. more generally, humor isn’t really “about” status, so we have to be very careful about drawing any inferences from what we observe. status is only one relevant dimension among several, and it is seldom a determinative one.

    as for your claim that blacks and women get lampooned less often than members of the privileged class (…), i am not sure i agree. tosh.o is a very popular comedy program trafficking almost exclusively in racist and sexist humor. key and peele is another where the habits of ghetto blacks are routinely and openly lampooned. more subtlely, both shows poke fun at the silly rules about not poking fun. the cool kids know what’s up and they’ve known for awhile now.

    i sense a straussian point both here and on marginalrevolution today. you and cowen have been hanging out.

  • oldoddjobs

    “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

    “In our society, dominant groups are the ones people are allowed to insult and lampoon.”

    Both of these seem perfectly true given the right context. Guess that’s the problem with these kinds of statements. See Robin’s previous post on proverbs!

  • Danno28

    I’ve reflected on this post now, and I think (very unusually for Robin) it’s completely wrong.
    I think who you are allowed to mock is a sign of who you see as low status or low value.
    People in the comments point out – accurately – that Bush and Obama both get mocked. But Bush gets mocked by liberals to whom his conservative views make him low status, not so much by his supporters. Similarly Obama is mocked by conservatives to whom his liberal views make him low status, not so much by his supporters, to whom he would be high status.
    A few decades ago it wasn’t common to mock fathers/men. And it was more common to mock women/wives (the trope of the nagging wife in cartoons was an old staple that’s kind of died out in the West).

    And it’s pretty common – almost universal in fact – for the standard butt of jokes to be those considered low status. There are loads of examples of this all over the world, but they decline as the status of particular minorities rises. The decline in acceptability of racist jokes in the US has been matched by increases in the status of minorities.
    So my claim is that fathers being mocked is a sign that they are generally low status/low value. Now what is true is that some fathers outperform, and achieve high status. But I feel like that’s in spite of their being fathers. Certainly across the West fathers’ rights are taken much less seriously than mothers’ rights.
    And more generally I think if a particular group is being mocked, it’s a sign that they are low status rather than dominant. If people claim a dominant group is being mocked then from what I’ve seen I think they are wrong.

    • Mocking can be both a sign of respect and disrespect depending on the context. That is the whole point of the counter-signaling model.

      • VV

        The point is that in order to a model to be an useful explanation of whatever it tries to model, it must make falsifiable prediction.

        The problem with the signalling model, as you use it, is that it is unfalsifiable: you can fit any observation X into it, by coming up with a more or less sophisticated narrative of how X is a signal for some desirable property Y. Even when X doesn’t really look like a plausible signal for any desirable property, you can always invoke “counter-signalling”.

        That makes the model, or precisely the way you use it, largely epistemically worthless.

    • lemmycaution

      Good point. The key question is whether jokes increase or decrease as status changes.

  • Peter David Jones

    I think a distinction needs to be made between joking with (the butt is expected .to be aware of and enjoy the joke) and joking against.

    • Doug

      One issue with Dad vs Mom cards is that typically mothers derive a lot more self-actualization from their role as moms. Not only do fewer have careers outside the home, but women in general define themselves based more on their relationships. (Surveys indicate that during their hypothetical funeral women would rather have eulogies talking about their relationship, and men their achievements).

      It’s like making fun of your boss is probably okay if you’re making fun of him for not being able to work his smartphone (ha ha ha), but not okay to call him a grossly incompetent manager (*crickets*).

      • Peter David Jones

        Jokes made by inferiors about superiors have to be made carefully if at all. If they’ are in on it. If they are not, that is very different. Jokes between peers are different, and so are jokes by superiors about inferiors.

        A joke can be one of 5 or 6 different things.

  • GrimConch

    I think this is correct in the case of father’s day cards, being toward someone with whom you’re close. As a generalization though I think that if this were true then the comment section here wouldn’t be so divided. I don’t think counter-signalling can be so ambiguous.

    • It’s ambiguous to our conscious minds, yet our subconscious minds are able to distinguish.

      That’s the point!

  • JohnThackr

    Aside from the confusion between transvestites and transgender (transvestites view themselves as a different gender from whom they’re trying to dress like, so “passable” makes sense), here’s an interesting comment about who is acceptable to mock:

    The Cards Against Humanity people claim it’s about punching up vs. punching down, but in reality, there are low status groups and high status groups that it’s okay for them to lampoon. It’s middle status groups that it’s not okay to lampoon, and removing cards against trans groups is a sign of *increasing* status for that group, them moving from low to middle status.

  • Some general conclusions. To understand mockery, we’ve got to understand not only status but also hatred. There can be a loved low status being: a pet. Or there can be a hated, high-status being: Hitler when Germany was winning WW 2.

    What’s particularly interesting is that we find it difficult to distinguish high status enemies from low status people intellectually for the same reason that mockery is useful as a signal directed against enemies: mockery is a vehicle for lowering the status of “enemies” (because of the association between being mocked and being low status).

    What is “hatred”? You hate members of a deeply opposed coalition. Those powerful within these coalitions are high status but are subject to mockery by lower status individuals in the rival coalition. (Those lower-status folks are protected by their stronger coalition partners when they mock powerful rivals.)

  • Fraga123

    The truth is exactly the opposite.

    “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”