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Miss Conduct

Advice: When making fun of public figures crosses the line

It troubles me when friends mock politicians’ physical qualities and mental faculties, even when I don’t like the politician.

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I’m not a fan of our current leader, but lately I’ve been really bothered by friends' joking about his size, possible mental health issues and dementia, and physical challenges. I’m all for mocking his choices — the hairstyle, the tan, the shoe lifts — but mocking someone’s physical qualities and mental deterioration troubles me. These jokes disparage all people struggling with similar issues. How can I push back without alienating people I generally agree with?

E.H. / Somerville

Let me — like a good candidate for office — use your question as a jumping-off point to discuss a broader mandate! It’s a good season to review how we talk about public figures, especially politicians.

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You’re on the right track with “criticize choices, not attributes.” Another key principle is “punch up, not down” — and while mocking the powerful is by definition “punching up,” you don’t want to cock your arm so far back that you elbow the person behind you in the face, you know? Tortured metaphor though it may be, this is what you’re talking about.

Making fun of other people’s bodies is bad, full stop. Even if the person whose body you are making fun of frequently does the same. It’s a mode of discourse that needs to be shut down, not engaged with.

The same goes for criticizing public figures in racist, sexist, ableist, or classist terms. Not for the sake of the politicians themselves, or for regularly scheduled maintenance of the high road, but because you have friends who belong to those groups. They are listening. It doesn’t matter how aligned you are politically, or that they hate Candidate X or Incumbent Y as passionately as you do. Call that politician “old fart” or “crazy witch” — you’ll be looked at differently.

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This is where “it’s OK to criticize choices” doesn’t go far enough — it doesn’t address the language of the criticism, and it doesn’t acknowledge that not all choices get treated the same. The style choices of women and all people of color, including Indigenous people, in this country have been literally policed. There is a difference between criticizing a comb-over and criticizing braids, because historically and in the present, the consequences of wearing comb-overs and wearing braids have been very, very different. And it’s not only about race — I’ve met many people who would nod vigorously along with the last two sentences and then dismissively remark about people who went to state schools or haven’t traveled overseas.

When someone uses such language, it’s not always worth it to engage, but when you can, “It’s not the X that’s the problem — lots of good people (possibly including my friend or me) are X, too,” gets the message across.

Discussing a politician’s physical and mental health, though, is legitimate. Holding political office requires intellectual nimbleness, curiosity, empathy, self-control, and considerable physical and emotional energy. Talking about a politician’s apparent function in those domains is a judgment on job fitness, not on human worth or social acceptability.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.