I’ve been troubled by the deluge of laughing-at-stupid-people infotainment, entertainment (whatever it’s called), and so I’ve been reflecting on my own habits of mind. This self-reflection reminded me of one my favourite passages from Hobbes’ Leviathan, and that a little well-placed self-deprecation is unlikely to go amiss.
“And as to the faculties of mind, … I find yet a greater equality amongst men, than that of strength. For prudence, is but experience; which equal time equally bestows on all men, in those things that they equally apply themselves unto. That which may perhaps make such equality incredible, is but a vain conceit of one’s own wisdom, which almost all men think they have in a greater degree, than the vulgar; that is, than all men but themselves, and few others, whom by fame, or for concurring with themselves, they approve. For such is the nature of men, that howsoever they acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; yet they will hardly believe there be so many as wise as themselves; for they see their own wit at hand, and other men’s at a distance. But this proveth rather that men are in that point equal, than unequal. For there is not ordinarily a greater sign on the equal distribution of any thing, than that every man is contented with his share.” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Part 1, Chapter 13, (2.).
I’ve not yet worked through arguments for and against laughing-at-stupid people phenomena. On the one hand, these phenomena, which aren’t new but for the media, might have an cathartic effect or be an effective means of protest. On the other hand, these phenomena might be divisive and inflammatory. But on the big toe of one foot, these considerations are not mutually exclusive. And on the big toe the other, it’s not clear where one ought to make the cut. My husband suggests a cut might be made between ridicule aimed at one’s motivations, and ridicule aimed at one’s position as a means of bringing to light an absurdity. But wherever the cut is made, I suggest it begin from the position of humility Hobbes sketches. Why? If I am laughing, or prancing around in high dudgeon, I’m a participant in the game. And participants don’t make the best analysts.