Sticks and Stones and Jokes

The belief that words, especially if intended as humorous, cannot cause harm is counterfactual. And because it is counterfactual, it does harm in itself.

First, I’d like to point out that in many cases, even people who make this claim often don’t act as if they believed it: e.g. people who will defend the use of slurs because words are harmless will easily turn around and whine for ages about how being criticized is bullying. That’s not behavior consistent with “words don’t harm”, it’s behavior consistent with a belief that some words don’t cause harm, while others do.

Now, let’s look at the actual idea that words in general cannot cause harm. At the individual level, “verbal aggression, statements intended to humiliate or infantilize, insults, threats of abandonment or institutionalization” are all part of the medical definition of emotional abuse[1], and the CDC includes a number of verbal actions as constituting psychological abuse[2]. At the institutional level, the right to free speech is valued precisely because it is powerful; to believe this power only works for people’s benefit and never to their harm is to succumb to a Just World bias in which the Good Guys always win. In reality, any tool that can be used to threaten and discredit harmful institutions can also be used to prop them up, or else threaten and smear beneficial institutions (see: Fox News; all of it, on any topic. See also: Breitbart, O’Keefe, Rose)[3].

So, words can hurt. How about jokes?

First, use of disparagement humor can be a sign of underlying problems. People high in hostile sexism and men high in benevolent sexism tended to experience more amusement and less aversion in regard to sexist humor[4]. Furthermore, when people feel a valued social identity is being threatened, they will often resort to disparagement humor against a group that’s deemed an acceptable social target for harassment by their immediate social environment[5]. In other words, frequent appearance of disparagement humor in a community can be an indicator for community members holding prejudices against the disparaged group.

Beyond just being an indicator of prejudice, disparagement humor also creates new negative effects. A 2004 paper reviewing some of the literature on disparagement humor noted a number of effects, some in common with non-jokey disparagement, some specific to disparagement in the form of a joke. Reciting prejudiced comments (jokey or not) worsens one’s own attitude towards the group disparaged. Exposure to disparagement humor on the other hand doesn’t seem to affect the prejudices people hold; instead, it seems to affect how/whether people will act on their prejudices. The authors suggest that this happens because the degree to which individuals high in prejudice act on that prejudice depends largely on external cues of prejudice-tolerance, and the presence of disparagement humor creates the impression of such tolerance more easily than non-humorous disparagement or non-disparaging humor; but (of course) only if the joke teller doesn’t receive pushback[6]. Despite the above evidence, the trope that something cannot be harmful because it’s “just a joke” is widespread enough to even make it directly into the title of a paper which tests the “prejudiced norm theory” suggested in the 2004 review. It demonstrates that “[t]he acceptance of sexist humor leads men to believe that sexist behavior falls within the bounds of social acceptability”[7]; thus, sexist men behave in a more sexist fashion than they would otherwise. In one experiment, that meant the sexists gave less money to a women’s organization; in another, it meant they actively took money away from such an organization[8].

Of course, disparagement humor doesn’t just affect the jokesters and bigots; it also affects the people who are being disparaged and/or who reject the bigotry in the joke. For example, disparaging comments, joking or otherwise, can trigger stereotype threat in certain situations[9]. There’s also evidence that exposure to sexist humor triggers negative emotional reactions (e.g. disgust, anger, hostility)in members of the targeted group[10]. In addition, finding oneself in the presence of bigoted humor can, in specific circumstances, actually lessen one’s critical stance towards that bigotry: if one believes oneself to be someone who speaks up against bigotry but then doesn’t act on that self-image, the discrepancy can cause cognitive dissonance. When the discrepancy can be explained by external factors (e.g. reasonable fear of harm to oneself), then the discomfort is the only end-result of experiencing cognitive dissonance. The same is true if there’s an opportunity to plaster over the discomfort by reaffirming a different part of one’s self-image. However, when external explanations are lacking (e.g. one believes there’s no actual harm, and all it takes is growing a thicker skin) and there are no opportunities for (self-)distraction, the cognitive dissonance is resolved instead by trivialization: since one is the sort of person who’d speak up against bigotry yet one didn’t, then the instance mustn’t have been all that bigoted; or maybe speaking up just isn’t that important to fighting bigotry, after all[11].

So what’s the overall picture? Disparagement humor is an indicator for existent prejudice, both in the jokester and the social environment where it appears; it strengthens the prejudice in the jokester; it creates permissiveness for other bigots to act more bigoted; and it may create apathy towards bigotry in previously critical, non-prejudiced audiences as well as discomfort and a hostile climate for the targets of the disparagement humor. And those are just the effects in the few papers I listed (I had to stop going through more literature, or else never finish this essay). Bigoted speech is, in other words, an indicator and partial cause for e.g. the toxic rape culture environments we find in fraternities across the country[12]. That’s not harmless. Bigoted speech hurts, even when it’s a joke.

– – –

[1] McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine (2002). New York, NY, USA: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. [web]. Retrieved from here.

[2]National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (2008). Psychological/Emotional Abuse. [web].

[3]This point shamelessly borrowed from here.

[4]Woodzicka, J. A. & Ford, T.E. (2010). “A framework for thinking about the (not-so-funny) effects of sexist humor”, Europe’s Journal of Psychology, vol. 6(3), pp. 174-195. [pdf]. Retrieved from here.

[5]Pound, L. B. (2008). Jokes are No Laughing Matter: Disparagement Humor and Social Identity Theory. [Master’s thesis]. Retrieved from here.

[6]Ford, T.E. & Ferguson, M.A. (2004). “Social Consequences of Disparagement Humor: A Prejudiced Norm Theory”, Personality and Social Psychology Review, vol. 8(1), pp. 79-94. [pdf]. Retrieved from here.

[7]Western Carolina University (Nov 7, 2007). “Sexist Humor No Laughing Matter, Psychologist Says”. ScienceDaily. [web]. Retrieved from here.

[8]Ford, T.E., Boxer, C.F., Armstrong, J. & Edel, J.R. (2008). “More Than ‘Just a Joke’: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humor”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 34(2), pp. 159-170. [pdf]. Retrieved from here.

[9]Singletary, S.L., Ruggs, E.N., Hebl, M.R. & Davies, P.G. (2009). Info Sheet: Stereotype Threat: Causes, Effects, & Remedies. [pdf]. Retrieved from here.

[10]LaFrance, M. & Woodzicka, J. A. (1998).”No laughing matter: Women’s verbal and nonverbal reactions to sexist humor”, in Swim, J.K. & Stangor, C. (Editors). Prejudice: The target’s perspective, pp. 61-80. [book chapter]. San Diego, CA, USA: Academic Press. Retrieved from here.

[11]Rasinski, H.M., Geers, A.L. & Czopp, A.M. (2013).”‘I Guess What He Said Wasn’t That Bad’: Dissonance in Nonconfronting Targets of Prejudice”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 39(7), pp. 856-869. [pdf]. Retrieved from here.

[12]Chemaly, S. (Nov 4, 2014). “Still Think Rape Jokes Are Harmless Fun?” Role Reboot. [web]. Retrieved from here.

Richard Dawkins, hysterical dumbass.

[CONTENT NOTE: misogyny; harassment; rape; rape apologia.]

Richard Dawkins has been keeping himself very busy indeed during his stay as an involuntary organ donor in the Palace Abattoir. In response to a widely-read piece by Mark Oppenheimer about misogyny in the atheoskeptisphere, he has bravely taken to Twitter to defend his BFF Michael Shermer, the notorious subject of multiple accusations of predatory sexual behavior toward women. Shermer’s MO, as described in the Oppenheimer piece by TAM staffer Alison Smith, shares most of the typical hallmarks of an overwhelming number of rapists-at-large: boundary testing; planning assaults using sophisticated strategies to isolate victims; deploying psychological manipulation, e.g., power, control; and last but certainly not least, using alcohol deliberately in order to render targets more vulnerable if not outright unconscious. They calculate, quite correctly it turns out, that this particular modus operandi puts them at miniscule risk of ever being accused—let alone reported, investigated, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and jailed. Regardless of whether you believe Smith’s or other women’s accounts regarding Shermer, these are just facts, and this is how rape culture works in the real world.

But not in Dawkinsland, it doesn’t. Nope! Yesterday, in defense of Michael Shermer the Infallible King of Reason tweeted:

Officer, it’s not my fault I was drunk driving. You see, somebody got me drunk.” –Richard Dawkins

Astute readers will note that this is Richard Dawkins taking Smith’s allegations as true, knowing that by all accounts (including his own) Shermer was sober during the alleged incident, and then oh-so-very-cleverly sneering that she is responsible—by likening an alleged rape victim to a drunk driver.

Here’s Stephanie Zvan with a nice fisk:

He doesn’t appear to believe Shermer’s story, which is that Shermer had sex with Smith after she sobered up. Dawkins took Smith’s story as read, although he isolated it from Ashley’s story and Pamela’s.

Then he ignored the parts of that story that make Smith’s lack of consent and Shermer’s knowledge of it clear. He ignored that Shermer followed Smith away from the party. He ignored the promise to help Smith back to her room, only to end up in Shermer’s. Instead, he grasped the fact that Smith was drunk to the point of not remembering parts of the evening and used that to assign responsibility to her. He claimed Smith was responsible for the encounter despite the one fact that both parties agree on being that Shermer was sober.

He believed her story, not Shermer’s.

He believed she was intoxicated.

He knew Shermer was not, from all sources of information.

He believed Shermer deceived her in the process of getting her past the point of being able to consent.

Then he tweeted that she was responsible for the encounter.

Then he compared Shermer following Smith away from the party to Smith driving drunk.

Then he compared Shermer taking Smith to a different room than promised to Smith driving drunk.

Then he compared Shermer sexually assaulting Smith to Smith driving drunk.

I’ma say this once more for the cheap seats:


Fortunately, the vast majority of men do not rape. But those who do can always rely on victim-blaming shitweasels like Richard Dawkins to provide comfort and cover, so they can continue to operate unimpeded.

Then the Lord of All Logic tweeted this:

The REAL Rape Culture: “All occurrences of sexual intercourse are rape unless there is certified evidence to the contrary.” –Richard Dawkins

No, my precious little cupcake: All occurrences of sexual intercourse are rape unless there is consent. This is really not difficult for most people to grok. And I find it… telling interesting when people are so highly motivated not to grok it. Before he deleted this tweet (“claiming it was sarcastic. There’s no word on what part of it he didn’t mean, however…”), he responded to a follower concerned that he “might fall in trouble again with Feminists”:

With a certain kind of feminist, of course. Not with feminists who truly respect women instead of patronising them as victims –Richard Dawkins

This one sent PZ off on a righteous rant (which I highly recommend reading in its entirety):

Who are these mysterious patronizing feminists? They don’t actually exist. You are echoing a strategy of denial: you approve of feminists, but not the ones who actually point out sexist problems in our culture, or fight against discrimination, or point out that they’ve been raped, or abused, or cheated in the workplace, or any of the other realities of a sexist culture. This is what anti-feminists say: be quiet about the problems. If you mention the problems, you are perpetuating the sisterhood of oppression, you are playing the martyr, you are being a pathetic victim who must be treated with contempt.

But if no woman speaks out about the problems, how will we ever know to correct them? If we shame every victim for being a victim and daring to reveal her victimhood, it becomes very easy to pretend that there is no oppression.

Oh, silly PZ! You see, in Dawkinsville there are no “victims,” only irresponsible drunk drivers crashing themselves willy-nilly right into rapists’ penises!

But this morning’s tweet absolutely takes the cake:

Raping a drunk woman is appalling. So is jailing a man when the sole prosecution evidence is “I was too drunk to remember what happened.” –Richard Dawkins




Now, Twitter is a unique medium with pros and cons like every other; suffice it to say it does not particularly lend itself to schooling pompous assholes on the many wonders of reality. But I did my best:


@RichardDawkins false reports: est. 2-8%. Rape hugely underreported. 3% of rapist[s] do jail time. Now go away and learn how to think. –Iris Vander Pluym

(Incidentally, citations for these statistics can be found all over the fucking internet here and here.)

@RichardDawkins As if men are prosecuted when “the sole prosecution evidence is ‘I was too drunk to remember what happened.'” #dumbass –Iris Vander Pluym

Jeezus. “I was too drunk to remember what happened” is exculpatory evidence: it creates reasonable doubt and nearly always benefits the accused. That is why prosecutors almost universally do not take such cases to trial: when they do, they lose, and this is true even when they present heaps of additional incriminating evidence to a jury. Seriously, this has got to be the stupidest thing His Intellectual Excellency has ever said—and that is saying something, my friends.

PZ’s plea to Dawkins closes:

And could you please stop supporting reactionary anti-feminists? Thanks.

No, he cannot. Because the World’s Greatest Rationalist is a reactionary anti-feminist, and thus there is no reasoning with him.

[for Tony.]

[cross-posted at Perry Street Palace.]







Sixth article in Secular Woman’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month series

by Elsa Roberts, follow her on twitter

Rapists are monsters, evil. Child rapists are the king of that monster pack.

They never tell you that those monsters are good friends, a nice neighbor, someone with a good sense of humor, a person who will help a stranger fix a flat. Nobody tells you that.

They don’t tell you that they’re the person you fell in love with, your uncle, your brother, your father. Nobody tells you that.

These rapists, these monsters are someone else, not these people.

That child molester is someone else, not my father.

But he is my father. My father, who told me my feet smelled like roses; my father, who his nieces loved; my father, who taught me how swimming is like floating on air; my father, who bullied my brother; who shouted at my mother; my father, who raped my sister.

My father wasn’t a monster; flawed, yes, but not a monster.

But my father is that monster. Nobody tells you that.

Nobody told me, and now it’s too late.