What should we talk about today?
Well, somebody on Twitter asked us to talk about sarcasm. So I’m going to
start with a disclaimer. I think that you and I are very un-sarcastic people
and we have not thought a lot about sarcasm, don’t have any theories of it.
We are just going off the top of our heads, so listen at your own risk.
We are not so practiced at it. We certainly hear it from other people.
Right. We are not only not practice that, we are also – we also haven’t
thought much about it. So, we may not …
Right. Now, one thought I’ve noticed is just that sometimes people attempted
to accuse me or other people of hidden motives or hidden agendas in our
conversation and that I feel like the less often I ever used a sarcastic
mode, maybe the more I could claim that I wasn’t doing it in any one case
because if you are sarcastic more often, then more often people could
attribute sarcasm in any one thing you say and then the more they are able
to interpret what you said in other ways than you may have intended. And so
if you are trying to be defensive against accusations of hidden – bad hidden
intentions of what you say, staying away from sarcasm is a safe approach.
And I think that fits with this larger theme that often sort of people in
power or elites or who are accepted are just allowed a wider range of humor
and expression, and people who have to play it safe are often having to be
defensive and formal and sort of neutral and then they are often accused of
just being humorless and not very lively because they are being defensive by
being neutral and trying to avoid things like sarcasm and humor.
Yeah. I mean I don’t know how all that fits because I think you are – like
often when there’s like that stuff that the elites are allowed to do, the
lucky elites, I am in that category of the lucky elites that get to do
stuff, but I don’t think that I – I’m just not very inclined towards
sarcasm. So maybe I could do it if I wanted to but I’m not inclined to talk
in that way. And I think that you are a little bit inclined to talk in that
way actually. So one thing that’s interesting, I was just talking about this
is that many people I think would prefer not to be sarcastic. That is I
think that if you did a survey and you were like do you wish you were less
sarcastic than you are? Quite a few people, maybe you among them, you’re not
very sarcastic but I’m just saying you are a little bit and maybe your own
preference would be just to not be sarcastic at all, but it actually is a
little hard to control. That is, we are a little bit inclined to be
sarcastic. And so, where does that come from? Maybe you can introspect for
us personally. I mean I could give you an example. Like recently, I was
looking for – you had a blog post where you were like – you sarcastically
said something about like people who are like real communism has never been
tried or something. But it was like a dismissive sarcastic version of that
thought. It wasn’t like, “Well, that seems like an implausible claim. Here
is why.” It was like, “Uh, sure!” Right? The sarcastic version of it.
So there is you sort of maybe against your own will being sarcastic. So
that’s happening. And so the question is like why are you drawn, how aware
were you to being sarcastic? Why does that happen?
So I’m tempted to frame it in terms of conflict. That is, sarcasm is a kind
of conflict. It’s an expression of a conflict in some way. And so, to say
you were in a – being sarcastic would be to admit you are in some sort of a
situation of conflict and maybe ex ante we want to seem as if we are seeking
conflict. If conflict comes our way, we may feel justified or obligated to
respond but we are not the sort of person who seeks out conflict. No. That’s
the sort of thing other people force on us.
But like it seems to me that the sarcasm also creates the conflict.
Could you say, “Here’s why this view is incorrect,” instead of dismissing it
sarcastically? It seems to me that sarcastic response is partly like you
don’t even respect the view enough to sort of engage directly. There’s
something indirect about sarcasm, right?
And disrespectful. I agree. But – so that’s a sense of – we often frame
conflict in terms of they started it and then what we are entitled to do or
perhaps even required to do in the face of they are starting a conflict and
if they start the conflict and they are disrespectful, maybe we will feel
it’s OK for us to also respond with something conflictual and disrespectful.
But then we always want to blame them to have sort of done it first.
OK. So it’s like a kind of revenge.
Where in – because sarcasm tends to evoke humor, right?
That is, it tends to be eliciting a humorous reaction, having been a humored
reaction from the audience.
Right. So think of a high school cafeteria where a food fight starts. Now,
if nobody was doing anything and you just suddenly threw some food at
somebody, that would be quite socially unacceptable. But if other people was
throwing food at you and Sam threw something in you, you might feel entitled
to throw back at him and it would be pretty funny. We would all laugh at
these various splats of food at people, at least when it was other people.
But it’s still something we wouldn’t want to claim to have started. We
didn’t start the food fight but we might feel it’s OK to continue it at
least in some form.
So you think that the humor somehow indicates that you didn’t start it?
No. No. No. I just meant that often we like to fight with humor. That is, if
we are going to fight, doing it in a way that it’s entertaining and funny so
it takes the edge off a bit. And in fact, we often use humor as a way to
fight. That is, we often use the pretense of humor, “I was just joking.
Can’t you take a joke?” in order to sort of kind of poke at people in
allowed ways. So …
Right. So maybe it’s like there’s – what sarcasm allows you to do is to
fight with someone but also to claim that you are not taking that seriously.
And entertaining people with it. That is …
Entertaining is involved with not taking it seriously because if something
is not serious, it’s supposed to be entertaining.
Right. But I think there are two effects there. One is it’s more OK to fight
if it’s not serious as you’re sort play fighting and the other thing, it’s
more OK to fight if you are doing it as a show to entertain others.
I mean right. Yes. Somehow, like the thought that other people are going to
laugh at this sort of validates it.
Like sarcasm can fall flat when the group is like, “That’s just not funny.”
And so in some way, the group – the audience needs to kind of affirm that
it’s play by laughing at it.
Right. In fact, I mean that seems powerful like, “I’m going to make a little
fight, well, I want it is an immediate validation of that from the
audience.” And making it humorous so that they laugh would be an easy
straightforward way to do that.
OK. So that’s like – so that then is more complicated, right. Because it’s
like in addition to disavowing the seriousness of the fight, you are also
getting allies at the same time, “I’m not fighting but we are all going to
get this guy.”
Right. Or this is an acceptable teasing among – well, we are allowed to do
some level of teasing and this level is allowed and I’m going to get the
validation. And other people say, “Yeah, that’s allowed teasing.”
Right. So being able to entertain other people is sort of the prize for
having a judgment of this is acceptable. You’re allowed to disrespect
someone in this way.
Yes. And we certainly see like among comics, say, whether we allow them to
talk about sensitive subjects or even offensive subjects, it depends on how
just skilled they are at being comics.
Right. Can they sell it? Yeah. Right. So – but like in a way the question
is, OK, so the fundamental phenomenon is like a form of conflict that is not
overt, or a form of conflict that is itself disavowed?
Well, disavowed as serious or illicit I guess.
Yeah. But like clearly, to disavow it as serious is somewhat to downplay its
character as a conflict, right?
Or as a conflict that would justify escalation on their part of something. I
Right. Right. And so, is it just like, well, it’s like a free hit?
I think so. That is, I do think that within the space of jocular humor, we
are allowed a certain range of free hits as long as they are taken lightly
and in humor and done well. We are just kind of allowed to throw a little
bit of mud at each other in that way.
And like what’s the value of doing that? What’s the attraction of throwing a
hit at someone? I mean I get what the attraction is of them not being able
to hit you back.
But what do you get out of that?
So in Age of Em in some blog post a long time ago, I discussed swearing and
the functionality of swearing. And so I say that in small work groups which
they are sort of pushed to the edge of their capacity, they really need to
judge each other’s sort of “how close to the edge of cracking are they” and
their sort of emotional tone and whether they can handle it. And so in that
context, swearing and joshing and teasing are functional because you are –
so for example, in such work groups, typically someone’s nickname will be
their most embarrassing feature, shorty for someone tall or whatever or
short or whatever that is. And that’s part of the acceptable teasing such
that when you’ve had enough, they tease you about this and then the other
thing and you’re on the edge and you crack a bit and you’re going – I mean
that’s – that’s just the thing, how people behave, right? If you give enough
little teases and enough little cuts while they are stressed and tired, they
often just retaliate a bit. And you can use that to judge who is how close
to the edge and that’s important in a work group that just has to keep
people near the edge of what they can handle and keep it going. And so at
least in smaller work groups, it’s functional to tease and a bit insult and
use swear words that push people. So I think you and I both watched The Bear
recently, and that displays that typical scenario of people pushed to the
edge, needing to deal with each other and often sort of reaching the edge of
their emotional limits and expressing that and other people sort of judging
and knowing when to back off or whatnot.
I think it’s so different from sarcasm. So like here, let me give an example
from The Bear. So remember that woman, I can’t remember the name of the
characters, but the woman chef who has been with the restaurant for a while.
And then she calls the main character Jeff. You notice that – she calls him
Jeff, right? His name isn’t Jeff. But she calls him Jeff I think because he
insisted that everybody called everybody else chef. And she is, well,
deliberately mispronouncing it and calling him Jeff.
Right. That’s a bit like sarcasm.
It is a bit. So that’s – it is a bit, right? But it’s partly – so partly
what she sort of conveying there is I think it’s absurd in this like Chicago
sandwich restaurant that you’re making us all adapt this formality of we
call each other chef. But I’m going to make fun of you for that but also, I
kind of accept it and I get that that’s what we are doing and I’m not going
to be in open rebellion against it. So there’s a way in which what teasing
does is it sort of recaptures the unity of the group after the conflict and
I think sarcasm doesn’t do that. Like in the blog post that I was describing
where you were like, “Oh, how ridiculous these socialists are,” you weren’t
like, “but in the end, we are all friends.” Right? It was like, “No, we are
not friends, they’re my enemies.” That was the sense that one got. And in
these groups, “in the end, we are all friends.”
So I accept that observation as, there is a space of things like sarcasm but
maybe sarcasm isn’t well-represented by the function of these other things.
Sarcasm is a bit different. So let me refer to the famous Mike Lewis, a
philosopher, very famous philosopher, “I cannot refute an incredulous
Which philosopher is this?
Isn’t it Lewis?
Uh, you said Mike Lewis.
“I cannot refute an incredulous stare.” OK. I have not heard that quote of
his. But …
OK. But it’s referring to the fact that, I mean, I often come across this
because I’m often overlapping with contrarian groups who have contrarian
theses. And quite often, the way other people react to a contrarian thesis
is by dismissal. And sarcasm and humor is often a way to express the
dismissal. That is, people are often looking around the social group saying,
“Do I have to take this seriously or is it OK if we just laugh about this
and basically agree this is not serious enough – good enough to be worth
engaging?” And sarcasm can be like a probing at the edge of that.
Yes. So my initial take on sarcasm is just when you want to dismiss a view
but you don’t have an argument against it. Right? So that’s useful …
Also, I mean I also define it as you don’t want to go to the arguments
against it. I mean you have them but you just don’t want to go there. I mean
you do or don’t have arguments against but you’d rather just pick a
different way to react to this thing.
Right. Or maybe you think it’s not worth arguing with.
Right. Or you wouldn’t want to give it the respect of taking it seriously.
Right. So it’s like you can’t refute – the reason you can’t refute an
incredulous stare is because the person who gives you the incredulous stare
has already decided that you’re not worth talking to. That’s what the
incredulous stare is.
Right. And his point is you haven’t offered me an argument. You just made
this other move to decide that this is silly or not worth engaging.
But just the fact that you haven’t offered me an argument seems to me not
sufficient. You can refute someone who hasn’t offered you an argument if you
can like get them to talk to you, right? But it seems that the incredulous
stare is worse than someone not having offered you an argument. It’s someone
who say, “I have it and I won’t. I’m not going to.”
Right. I don’t intend to at least. That’s my move.
So you can’t – the idea would be you can’t refute someone who has declared
that they think you’re not worth engaging with, which seems false to me as a
claim because of course, you could change their mind. So you maybe could
refute. You just can’t refute them if you take seriously the commitment
implied in the incredulous stare, which you probably shouldn’t in many
So this does highlight in a sense a danger of sarcasm and humor more
generally. It’s this powerful ability to close off arguments or discussion
and people’s willingness to accept such moves depends on the ability of the
person making sarcasm. So a poor awkward piece of sarcasm wouldn’t
necessarily function to close off the conversation but an especially witty,
clever one might. And that’s a power that witty, clever people have to close
Right. I mean that seems true. I mean it just seems like witty, clever
people have a lot of powers when it comes to conversations.
In the first instance, getting anyone to want to talk to them. If you are
just dull and boring, nobody would ever want to talk to you, and that’s like
a power that you lack. Right?
Right. But it might be interesting to notice there is a set of exceptional
sarcasms that are the ones that you invoke to prevent people from cutting
off your conversation.
Yeah, that’s true. So that’s like revenge-driven.
Right. Exactly. So I was thinking like the – I guess when people say, “When
I get new information, I change my mind. What do you do, sir,” as a way to
rebut somebody who is trying to dismiss you for having apparently changed
your mind? But …
Right. I mean I don’t see that as more legitimate than any other kind of
sarcasm like maybe there is something better you can do with getting a new
information besides change your mind. For me, I often don’t change my mind
when I get information. I often stick to what I thought before because I
would have – this is lying to me and maybe I have a reason to stick to the
thing I thought before. Sometimes I like Odysseus and the Sirens, I would
tie myself down to my previous view and say, “No matter what else you find
out, just stick to this.” Sometimes that’s the way to go. So sarcastically
dismissing that possibility seems unfair in that case as in any other.
Right. And sometimes people might dismiss something on the basis of
authority. And then people will sarcastically say, “Authority hasn’t been
very reliable,” that they will say in a sarcastic way, “Oh, you wouldn’t
believed these people about that, would you?”
Right. And sarcasm often seems more acceptable. People really like punching
up and they don’t like punching down. And so, it’s often more OK to use
sarcasm against people in power because it seems OK to be mean to people who
are powerful I guess.
Right. In some sense, we just hold higher people to stronger standards of
argument or reasoning or whatever and we just allow lower people to just be
sloppier or more unfair if you will in the kind of rhetorical moves they
Right. I mean this is almost like – I don’t know if it’s holding the higher
people to higher standards. It’s like saying, “Well, their pain and
humiliation doesn’t count for anything.”
Right. So I mean the aversion to sarcasm is on the one level, it’s hurting
someone’s feelings presumably and then it’s about whose feelings are allowed
to hurt. But it’s also about sort of just dismissing the conversation or
just moving out of some sort of reasoning mode and into some sort of just
fun taunting mode or something.
Like the people that you’re – you’re not allowed to be sarcastic to
children, to like …
That would be terrible. That would be perceived as – I mean except maybe if
it was like children young enough to have no comprehension of it and then it
was for the sake of an audience. People – actually, parents sometimes do
that with their kids. They sometimes speak sarcastically to their kids in a
way that they are sure their kids would not understand but as a mode of
entertainment for the other adults. So maybe it’s OK to be sarcastic to kids
if you think they have no hope of understanding you. But I think once they
like have a hope of understanding you, you’re not supposed to do be
sarcastic to them.
So there are some movies that I like a lot which show basically a teacher
trying to manage an unruly class and they show a lot of interesting social
dynamics there and they sort of show that the main function of school is to
take socially unruly people and teach them to be manageable. And then the
job of a teacher in that situation is to manage this class. And so, what
often happens is students will use sarcasm as a way to express their
unwillingness to defer to the authority of the teacher, “No one is going to
use this crap. Why are we learning this?” “You don’t know any more than
anybody else.” “My Uncle knows more than you.” Things like that. And then
the teacher is held to a higher standard if they come back with the same
sort of cuts, that would be seen as inappropriate and I’ve often seen like
cases where teachers were fired or something for like responding with
sarcasm to children of the same degree that a child attacked the teacher
with because they’re in fact, just not allowed. The teacher is held to a
higher standard. But still, teachers often have to have a mild form of
return sarcasm because like they often play this audience and so, just like
with the comic will deal with a heckler sometimes by outheckling the heckler
and having a more funny heckler back at the heckler than was given, but they
have to be gentle with that because again, there’s the status difference. So
the same with teachers, teachers often have to come up with sort of a mild
rebuttal to the heckler which makes the class laugh and reasserts the
Sometime last year, I taught a class of fifth graders and before I did it,
the teacher was like, “Have you done this before? Do you have experience
teaching kids?” And I was so dismissive. I’m like, “I’m a teacher and I have
kids like what’s the problem?” And whoa! It was very different. I mean about
3 minutes in, I was like – in my head, I was saying, “What’s wrong with you,
people? Why aren’t behaving? It’s my turn to talk like be quiet! Like stop
moving and don’t – like what’s happening?” I just wanted to control them and
be like, “Be quiet all of you!” And I had like no ability at all to do it. I
just didn’t know what to do to like make them be quiet and listen to me and
make them like raise their hands and stuff. And it’s like this is all the
preparatory work has to be done on children before they get to me.
In college, they would all behave very nicely. But like I didn’t have any of
that teacherly sarcasm to like put them down. I was just like looking at
them and be like, “Can you stop talking?” I just didn’t know what else to
say. So yeah, so maybe in some contexts, it’s like a gentler form of
violence or something. It’s both for the teacher and can be a gentler form
of violence than just saying, “Stop it.” And for the student, it’s a gentler
form of than saying – than actual over disobedience, right? That’s sort of
like the case of Jeff.
Right. So I mean you can think about a sparring of a certain sort. So I mean
there are many classic scenes in which a fistfight breaks out but
beforehand, they’re doing verbal sparring. Right? And verbal sparring is
sort of setting up the situation for – I mean often they might like – verbal
sparring – typically, verbal sparring is probably enough and they would go
away. But sometimes the verbal sparring isn’t enough. So you could see it as
a sort of pre-fight.
For a fight, yes.
Fore-fight. Fore-fight. Yeah. Maybe that’s what sarcasm is. Maybe it’s
It’s like a gentler form of fighting, a form that’s accepted as having less
damage and that may – so like in animals and humans actually, often the way
two animals fight is first, they will do a display, which they are trying to
show who is stronger and then if one of them convinced that it’s stronger,
the other will just back down. They don’t actually have to fight. And you
could think of verbal fighting as the same, is in that range, if I could
just win the verbal fight then we don’t have to do another fight. You can
acknowledge, OK, I won the verbal fight. And the audience might say,
basically convince you that I won the verbal fight and then we don’t have to
Right. And that corresponds to like maybe in some cases, you’re being
sarcastic about something but the person can sort of call you on it. Like if
somebody – like in your blog post where you said something like, “Oh yeah, I
guess the real socialist has never been tried,” or whatever, like if someone
had called you on it and been like, “OK, what are your arguments?” I think
you probably would have just been like, “OK, that’s fine. I’ll give you the
arguments.” Right? So they could have and you would have been willing to
move into let’s take this question seriously and actually argue about it.
But in a way, what you were saying was, “Look, we don’t need to. We can just
dismiss it. Right?” You might be willing to like reorient and have the
battle if you needed to.
But you’re like warning anyone who approaches you, “Look, like if you do
that, I’m probably going to wipe the floor with you so you probably want to
stay away.” But if someone does it then you have to play, right? And so,
maybe sarcasm like makes – it might make sense for people who are pretty
sure they can win those fights or pretty sure that they can stay out of them
I guess. And maybe I’m not in either of those categories.
Right. I think – I mean a play fight or a pre-fight can show us our personal
relative abilities, it can also just show the sympathies of the audience,
right? So with humor, we can just see who laughs, how much, and which side,
and then we can both see who is audience supporting here. And in some sense,
that’s more acceptable as a way for the audience to weigh in. Right? I give
an argument, the audience is like, whether they would say, “Oh!” or “Wa-uh,”
I mean that’s kind of awkward.
It’s kind of both, but yeah.
Right. It’s more natural just – when you say a joke, for everybody to laugh.
And now, you can just more easily measure which side the audience is
inclined toward, much more than with argument.
An interesting thing about that is that with an audience, if your effect on
the audience were – like 20% of the audience thought it was super funny and
like 80% of the audience thought it wasn’t funny and were annoyed at you,
you’d still get like quite a bit of laughter, right? So it selects for the
Although people are allowed to say, “Booo!” or, “Aww!” You know what I
It’s true. But like it seems to me it takes a lot of people to say “boo”.
And laughter is a much more involuntary. Like boo is like a thing you choose
to say. Whereas, laughter is something involuntary, and that seems important
to me about sarcasm that the response, in so far to doing it in front of a
group, like the response that you’re eliciting is an involuntary response.
So there’s an intermediate – interesting intermediate response, which is the
Yeah. Yeah. OK. The groan is like that was not – like a dad joke or
Right. But it’s still kind of accepting. I mean groan is saying not great a
joke but OK for effort.
We are going to permit it. Yeah. We are going to permit it. Arnold, my
husband, has dad joke handshake. When my kids make what he considers to be a
dad joke, he will like shake their hand as a sign code that he accepts it
and that it was a terrible joke.
But now, I’m starting to rethink this joke issue because like most sarcasm
isn’t actually so funny that it makes you laugh. That is, sarcasm – there’s
a lot of stuff that people say – I’ve learned this, especially learned this
from online – I would tend to say something is funny if it makes me laugh.
And there are like many things that make laugh. In fact, just thinking about
them already starts to make me laugh. But to really say something is funny,
they don’t actually mean it makes them laugh. And sarcasm doesn’t tend to
make people laugh but they somehow think it’s amusing anyway.
So I think sarcasm is closure to exaggeration. And I think we can understand
it maybe better as exaggeration. So what one way we often respond to
somebody else’s position is to make an exaggeration version of it or an
exaggerated version of their argument and try to knock that down. And then I
mean of course, it’s widely understood I guess that that’s knocking down the
easy thing, a straw man, but there is this widespread tendency to try to
pick straw men to knock down. And in some sense, sarcasm often is about an
exaggerated version of something basically.
Creating the straw man.
Right. But I think there is an acceptance for that. I think there is some
sort of a widespread taste for, a desire to, say, “This is getting
complicated. Show me in simple version. Let me at least think that one
through.” And so, people are OK with like hearing the simple version of each
side like OK, I wonder if we took your side as the worst extreme, what would
that look like? And we are interested in that at least. So I think it’s not
entirely invalid, although it’s also somewhat unfair and presumably the
person isn’t actually defending the most extreme version of it.
Yeah. I mean one of the questions that it raises for me is like how fair do
you have to be in arguing? That word shows up a whole lot.
Oh, the argument, as though like arguments were like some of a duel where we
like agree to the rules of the duel.
Yes, of course. Yes.
OK. So you think that. See, I don’t much think that. Think that there are
such rules and that it’s like – take a view, right? Suppose someone had
someone has said P but suppose I think I can say something interesting by
distorting what they said into Q? I mean I’ve said something interesting.
Wasn’t that worth it?
Well, is the point to entertain or the point to address their actual claim?
My point is to learn something, whether you address their claim or not,
whether you entertain people. Why do you have to address their claim?
Because you might think that’s sort of the setup of the situation. Now, you
couldn’t defy that setup of a situation and you might think, you should just
be more explicit about that. You could say, “Yeah, you want to talk about A.
I don’t want to talk about A. I want to talk about B.”
Yeah. So this is – that’s what this whole setup of situation thing just like
seems made-up. It’s like somebody is telling me – somebody is like trying to
pressure me to thinking that we are playing a certain game where I never
agreed to be playing that game but like here are the rules that we’ve all
OK. So say like two people are like having an argument and I say, “You want
to fight?” And he says, “Yeah, I want to fight.” And we both put up our
fists and then like he’s standing next to his friends and he moved here, I
moved here, and then I punched his friend.
I said, “Ha ha ha,” and I ran away. And you might be, “You agreed to fight
me but he didn’t agree to fight you but I don’t care who agreed to fight me,
I wanted tp punch him and I did. And I got away with it.”
That’s exactly – like if two people agree to fight and then yeah, and then
one of them does something and they’re like, “No, that’s outside the rules
of fighting.” But that just seems to like a made-up thing that somebody said
because that’s what they were expecting. But how can there even be rules of
fighting? I mean I get that there can be if you’re in a professional boxing
match or something but if you have genuine animosities towards one another …
Well, we have many social norms and they’re often regarding fighting. In
fact, they are especially regarding fighting I think. Yes, we have many
social norms regarding fighting.
Sure. I think that you can say that there are norms, like there are
restrictions like don’t go for the eyes or something. There are restrictions
that we generally agree to socially. But there is something very different
that you are saying when you are saying it’s not fair. You’re sort of saying
there are norms internal to fighting that it’s not a proper fight.
I think when we refer to norms, we do refer to the idea that they are the
right norms. I mean we usually treat our norms as if they were good nroms,
they were the right norms. They aren’t just random norms we happen to have.
They are good norms. They are the appropriate norms. They are functional and
Right. But I think there’s a difference between the norms internal to an
activity and external norms that we generally have. So like with baseball,
if you were to only run on two of the bases instead of three, that would not
be a fair way of playing – I think there are three or four. Anyway N minus
one. I mean you skip one of the bases, right? And that would not be fair,
right? But if you like punch someone during the game or shot them with a
gun, you’d be violating like the laws of the land. You’d be breaking a
different sort of law. And it seems to me that we treat the laws of a fair
fight as though they were internal, as though it was like the rules of
baseball. Instead of saying, “We want to put some restrictions on fighting
because we don’t want it to go too far.”
Yeah. I think some norms are just independent of the situation. And then
there are other norms that are depending on a situation. So I think we just
have norms that are more invoked. They show up in a certain situation and
you have to have some context that says the situation is the appropriate
situation to invoke this norm and that it wouldn’t make as much sense in
So is that let’s say with sarcasm, it’s appropriate in certain situations,
maybe for a certain people of the relevant level of eliteness and ability to
So for example, I think we have norms about what it’s appropriate to say to
a stranger on the street or somebody you had no interactions with. I think
we might say it’s appropriate to ask for directions or to politely praise
their dress or something like that. But there would be some other
conversational moves that would just seem to be rude and inappropriate to
approach somebody as a stranger on the street. But they might be appropriate
rules in a conversation after we got them going for a while and established
Yeah. But that seems to me to cut across the sarcasm and non-sarcasm because
I can imagine like you could sarcastically be like, “Yeah, nice weather we
are having, huh?” when the weather is actually terrible, right? That is, you
be permitted to use sarcasm.
Right. But not directed at them. So I think like starting a fight with a
stranger on the street.
Oh, sure, sure. But sarcasm I think is almost never directed at the person.
Like it’s almost always this side-long glance or you’re – it’s a glancing
blow performed for another audience. OK. Let me throw a case at you that you
might think is not related. But I was – we did a podcast on Utopia and it
was striking me that actually a lot, and I had some examples that I can’t
remember now, but a bunch of descriptions of Utopias are actually all like
Swift or something, Gulliver’s Travels. Descriptions of Utopias are actually
satire. They are like as though this were Utopia. Right? The Good Place is
like that too.
So one of the prominent ways in which Utopia gets presented to us is in
satirical mode in which we are supposed to be like actually this is the
opposite of a Utopia. And I was thinking that like maybe satire is similar
to sarcasm. It’s just like on a bigger scale. And so we can think about when
do we have satire and like it strikes me that it may be that this is like a
way that we manage a concept that we need but that we don’t know how to
directly put before us. We have trouble saying what a Utopia is but we have
less trouble sarcastically saying what a Utopia isn’t.
Right. So I think satire and sarcasm are often exaggeration. And I think
sometimes we accept an exaggeration if after some presentation, we sort of
recognize a pattern that we think probably does apply in the real world. So
let me take the example of somebody who is macho, say, and really proud of
their sports car. And so one common satire is they feel inadequate and they
have a small penis or whatever. And that sort of depiction of them as
insecure could be an exaggeration but it’s a satire that you might recognize
and go, “Yeah, but there’s some truth in that.” And then you kind of accept
it as an acceptable satire if you kind of recognize that yeah, these people
do seem a bit insecure. They are not maybe being insecure in the exaggerated
way the satire depicts but …
So it’s like a caricature or cartoon.
Yes. But then the purpose of a cari – your cartoon is often in fiction, it’s
to make an exaggerated version of something that lets you see a pattern that
you wouldn’t otherwise see. And then infer back to a more mild versions of
it that they probably also exist and are useful to think about.
So I feel like there’s like a constant war between the people – everyone’s
general inclination for things to be simple and to grasp the thing via its
simple presentation and then everyone always being like actually it’s more
complicated and there are all these complexities.
And so like the question then about the appropriateness of sarcasm, at least
in this – in the exaggerated cartooning caricature form, would just be, is
this an occasion in which such a simplification is acceptable?
Yes. And it’s usually acceptable if they make more simplifications of one’s
rivals and enemies than the one’s allies. So that’s a common issue in
political discussion. People are often offering these simplified cartoon
versions of their enemies, like caricature racist and the caricature sexist
or the caricature progressive. And whenever people see something that fits
that pattern, they like to point to the exaggerated version of it. And many
memes are kind of based on that exaggerated version of a character.
Right. So like Leon Kass has this idea about like the wisdom of repugnance
that sometimes we recoil from something and our disgust reflects like a
deeper wisdom that we have that goes below – beyond our reason that this is
like really unacceptable. And you might think that sarcasm is the attempt to
tap into that or something like that, getting people to recoil without
thinking from something. Tapping into some aspect of it that allows them to
recoil from it. And that at least some people believe, I don’t believe this,
but some people believe. Well, sometimes the appropriate thing is not to
think about it, but it’s to look at a sort of a caricatured version of it, a
simple version of it and just see that those simple features give you reason
not to think about it any further but just to dismiss it.
Right. So let’s take a concrete example of the recent FTX stole money and if
you were, as I actually was recently, involved in an internal conversation
in some organization who gets this money, and you say you should give it
back, you might be trying to help people see in their mind the caricature of
the situation, how other people from the outside would see it. And in some
sense help them see it through sarcasm of like, “You got stolen money and
you’re going to not give it back? What does that look like to you?” And to
say, “Well, yeah, you see all the complications but like why don’t you see
it from a distance here and see how other people will see this as maybe a
way to …” because often, it’s not just useful – simplified versions do give
you insight of things but they also especially could be insight into how
other people will see things.
Right. So maybe it allows you to detach from the features of the situation
that pertain to you specifically where you’re going to be inclined to blow
these ones up like, “Oh, but think about what I could do with this money or
how I could help people with this money or whatever.” And you want to get
them to attend to different features of it like, “This is stolen money.” And
so, you’re using sarcasm to reorient them in relation to the phenomenon.
Right. You’re trying to say some elements are just primary here and if we
just focus on those and ignore the rest, maybe that is useful and maybe
that’s how many other people will see it. Maybe it’s how you should see it
with some moral principle or something.
Right. But also like I could imagine doing all of that without sarcasm, that
is be like, “Look, let me simplify the situation. Here is what’s really
going on.” But it seems to me that, to get back to our element of
fore-fighting, which I still think is a good analysis of sarcasm, that part
of what’s going on is that you are putting yourself in an adversarial
position in relation to the group by telling them, “You guys are a bunch of
thieves.” And so, you are trying to do that in a way that has a bit of a
joke with it so that it doesn’t blow up into an all-out fight.
And you might be warning them that, if they keep going this direction, they
might hit a real fight. And that might be a way of foreshadowing a fight by
putting it in a fight style discussion.
Right. So you are like warning them that a fight is coming, not even
necessarily with your but with others. And so maybe the case against sarcasm
would, suppose we agree for a moment that this may or may not hold water,
but that sarcasm is for fighting, is a form of fore-fighting. I bet there
are other forms. That it’s a verbal form. And then there’s a question, do we
ever – actually, do we need to do a verbal fore-fighting? What if we just
get to the fight? Because that’s my view like let’s just have the fight.
Let’s just figure out what’s right and just directly have the fight and not
avert it through this little dance. Whereas like with foreplay, I mean that
sounds fun. It’s play, right? Do I want sex without foreplay? No. Let’s have
the foreplay too. Or foreplay for conversation. OK. But it seems to me like
forefighting could just be eliminable and we could just have the fighting.
So like the idea with the animal displays is that the fighting is much more
destructive than the trying to show who can jump higeher or yell louder and
it’s cheaper, less destructive to do the fore-fight, and if the fore-fight
can prevent the fight then that’s better than the fight. The fight is
So that’s – but that’s just what I think is wrong. I think that the fight is
productive and all the stuff you do instead of the fight including physical
fighting which doesn’t resolve the actual underlying issue, which is that
you disagree about something, even physical fighting is just fore-fighting
relative to the ideas, if you’re fighting over ideas, right. And so, I feel
like we just do way too much fore-fighting. And once we get to the resolving
of the ideas, nobody gets hurt in that part, in the real fight.
I just don’t think most people see it that way. Certainly most animals of
the wild will see it that way.
Well, animals in the wild on this view can’t fight. They can’t do real
fighting because real fighting is fighting over ideas. And animals can’t
talk to each other so they can’t fight about ideas.
OK. But the fights they can have are pretty damaging so they hope for a way
to avoid that.
So yeah, I would recommend sarcasm to animals, right? If they could do
sarcasm, absolutely. Like fore-fighting makes sense when the fighting is
more destructing than the fore-fighting. But my claim is that at least in
many contexts, the fight would be – the battle – if in so far it is a battle
over ideas, it would be less destructive than the fore-fight which hurts
people’s feelings and doesn’t resolve the intellectual issue.
I mean just most people are willing to win “fights” that don’t resolve the
intellectual issue. That’s just a pretty common human phenomenon. They …
Sorry. Go ahead.
They were happy to have their side win the city council votes or they are
happy to have their spouse not go out somewhere they didn’t want them to go
out. I mean the people are just fighting over various things that happen in
their lives and they want to win those fights and they don’t have much care
what ideas they represent necessarily if they can win the fights.
I disagree that they are happy. I think they are happy for a very short time
and then maybe to like win something else because there has not been any
real winning. It’s like a symbol of winning, and people are satisfied with
symbols for like only a little bit of time. And that there is something
really, really satisfying when you actually understand something. And you
can even turn out to be wrong. You can even be defeated. But when you
actually understand it, there would be no appeal of going back to your old
position and trying to win.
So I think you recently saw Andor.
So we can see in Andor depiction of this terrible bureaucracy that the
rebels live under and our hero lives under as an exaggerated satire. I think
the factory floor that guy sits in does not look terribly as a productive
factory floor and it seems like there’s a bunch of ways in which they have
exaggerated this repressive environment. But they do it for this sort of
rhetorical effect of making you at least be able to see that sometimes you
might rebel. I mean Andor helps you see why you might – there would be some
situations where you would really hate the empire and really want to rebel,
even if it’s not very realistic.
Right. So like I think the idea of like the fight between good and evil,
it’s sort of like we designated one side as evil. They have no-good ideas.
That’s in the premise, right? It has just been presupposed that there’s
nothing to actually fight over. So that’s the fundamental presupposition of
all of Star Wars is there is nothing to fight over. There’s no difference of
ideas. The bad guys have no ideas. They have nothing that’s possibly of any
intellectual value, nothing of any organizational value. There’s nothing to
learn from them. We just kind of smooch them. So we just had to have like a
genocidal intention in relation to the dark side. And then we need to like
feel good about genocidal intention so it would make them like really big
and powerful and have really mean-looking and stuff so that we can like be
genocidal towards them. But that itself is a caricature or a satire or
something of a fight. In a real fight, your opponent tends to be like a
person with ideas, who thinks that they are right about something and they
are probably – there is something that they’re on to in thinking what they
are thinking. And in so far as you cast them just as evil, you have
caricatured them and you’re missing something about them. It’s just a
presupposition of Star Wars. You’re not missing anything about the dark side
if you think that there’s no absolutely no value in anything they think or
say. That’s just given. But that’s just almost to say that there’s nothing
to fight over.
So I think it might be fun for you and I to consider sarcastic description
of academics of intellectuals as we think of arguing with each other. So
when someone not very sympathetic to academia or at least critical of
academia and wants to depict academics supposedly having these deep debates
about real issues, they depict them as mainly focused on pride, say, “I’m
the big shot and you’re trying to take my position away, and I’m going to
defend my big shot position.” They depict academics as having really quite
shallow, selfish motives for their intellectual debates. Doing that
sarcastically in a way that then many people can recognize as perhaps a
theory they find plausible about academics, which then reduces their respect
for, interest to listening to academics. That’s the thing that happens. And
often, they are really quite funny actually. I’ve laughed at such things.
I tend to think they are really mean.
Yes, they are both mean and funny. But that’s the nature of – meanness is
often funny. I mean that’s why we let people get away with it. And often,
marginal groups like academics are in some sense, we are OK to be mean to
them. Of course, they’re high marginal groups. There is small and there is
presumed high so they’re an valid target, right?
Certainly, a lot of sarcastic depictions of teachers, right?
Yeah. Right. I hear it from my kids about their teachers at school. I’m sure
I would hear it from my students if I were a fly in the wall. Yeah. OK. But
– so yes – I’m not sure what I suppose to conclude from this fact that there
are sarcastic descriptions of academics.
Well, that is, we can present – we try to present ourselves in this noble
And there are these other less noble depictions of us that people use
sarcasm to make vivid and this is a function of sarcasm that’s helping
people to see and envision simplified, unflattering view of certain
characters, right? They characterize us.
Yeah. But I guess I think there are real questions about the value of what
academics are doing, about what kinds of conversations we are having with
one another and which kinds should we be having. All of that is avoided by
the incredulous stare, right? That is, we can’t – I can’t engage with that.
OK, they are doing this caricature but that’s not helpful to me, nor do I
know how to respond to it. I guess if I were that teacher, the good teacher
in the fifth grade classroom or something, I could like say something
appropriately mocking that would then quiet it down and then use that as an
opportunity for having a real conversation. But otherwise, I’m not sure what
I’m supposed to get from it.
Well, I mean we are just reviewing some of the functions of sarcasm and I
mean this is just confirming our previous discussion. Many times, people
want to be able to see a sort of unflattering view of people and then in the
conversations, they don’t necessarily want to go further into your defense
of academics or whatever. They want to sort of settle the issue right then
and go on to other things. And this just lets them do that.
I have this one of my columns for The Point is about how art is foreseeing
evil. And so maybe sarcasm is also foreseeing evil. That is, it is kind of
It’s like a little mini – little micro art that does something in an artful
way and then because you’re in that artistic context, what’s now permitted
is to show the viciousness of something.
So one just scene came to mind, in Indiana Jones, probably the first movie I
can’t remember which, but there’s this wonderful scene where they’re in some
town and they were about to have a fight and people come out with their
knives and our hero pulls out a gun and shoots and that’s over, right?
You would be like, “That’s not a fair fight!”
Right. But it’s sarcasm about previous movie scenes where what you see, two
sides with knives just presumed, OK, that was the status of this fight I
guess. We will see who wins with the knives and it’s saying we are just
making these arbitrary presumptions, or there are just all these ways in
which, like, there are these tropes and then sarcasm lets you see the trope,
and lets you recognize it for maybe being somewhat arbitrary.
Right. Right. But that is just a way of seeing like, “Oh, there’s this silly
trope.” That is, you are seeing that – you are not just recognizing it.
You’re dismissing it or seeing it as bad.
But it helps us understand there are in fact many silly tropes out there.
And often, it’s hard to like expose them or really make them clear of silly,
like sarcasm is often a very effective way to just show how silly they are
in a way that it lets you dismiss them quickly effectively because people
go, “Oh yeah, that is silly.”
So why wouldn’t you just be able to be like, “Yeah, it is a trope,” without
Well, because it’s a lot more entertaining and funny to make fun of it,
right? So I mean in some sense, we enjoy like dumping on things, right? So
it’s certainly on Twitter a lot. I mean basically, when you just – well, you
could on hand just have a fair criticism that people say or you could like
have a fun dumping where you are sarcastically showing their faults and then
we can all enjoy how much we agree that this is silly, or be of derision,
and we get to laugh and feel camaraderie because not only is it wrong, it’s
silly wrong. But we can pretend like it should never have been taken
seriously and it was never justified in even being in the category of things
we should have considered, because it’s just so obviously wrong.
OK. But then that’s just a matter of like we are holding – we are doing –
the sarcasm is like the entertainment glue that like glues that thing to
your attention or something. But – and there is this point about the simple
tropes exist and then I get you to pay attention to that by making it
entertaining in a certain way.
Right. But also like, I met a higher standard of dismissal in some sense,
right? I can lower this thing more by meeting a higher standard. Not only
can I rebut it, I can do it in a simple fun way that just makes it obvious
all at once that this is silly.
I’m inclined to think that what’s fun about it is that you’re showing the
badness of something in an artistic way. That is, maybe what’s fun about it
is a lot like what’s fun about art – is we get to look. Normally, you don’t
get to look at badness and really concentrate on it. And we get – sarcasm
allows us. It indulges us in that sick passion that we have for looking at
Right. So this is – I mean this is interesting about like stereotypes in
humor. That is, humor just generally gets a lot of leverage out of making
exaggerated stereotypes of things. And then we’ve got a bunch of groups of
people we have decided nobody is allowed to give exaggerate stereotypes of.
And now, the scope for humor is declining but then they’re always going,
“You got to give us somebody that we are allowed to make exaggerated
stereotypes of,” and that’s maybe the rich or maybe Republicans or whatever.
And then we got this world where only some people are allowed to be the
target of exaggerated humorous stereotypes and there’s a bunch of things
that are crossed off, although easier to have increasing – somebody is going
to want to, “Wouldn’t it be fun to take them down too?”
I think it will just be a matter of skill levels there too. So like if
you’re good, you can make fun of anybody. But it’s just the bar for a skill
goes up. We should probably stop because we are at an hour.
Yes, that is true. But nice talking.