Yesterday at work I got within ten feet of a mockingbird. He just sat there in his bush, looking at me as I got closer; totally unfazed. It was only when I got to about 8ft away that he flew off a little.
For my British readers, the mockingbird is a mostly grey-and-tan bird about the size of a blackbird. They are incredibly clever with their songs, and will string together bits and pieces of other birds’ songs, as well as other sounds like car alarms, mobile phone ringtones and mechanical noises.
This ability is how it got its name, I guess. Though whether “mocking” is the right word for this kind of imitation I’m not sure.
I started to think about it. “Mocking” is not really a word we use all that much. The idea is a staple of our humour, though; a puncturing of the serious self-importance of those we deem have too much by means of unflattering, exaggerated imitation. Most of the time, we treat it as hilarious. Even if we’re the butt of it, when it’s done gently we don’t really mind. We mock our politicians, our leaders, our religion, our sportspeople, our celebrities. We even mock ourselves. I do it myself. It’s funny.
So when you open up the Bible to the book of Proverbs and see some of what Scripture appears to say about “the Mocker”, it’s a little uncomfortable.
The Mocker is described as behaving with overweening pride. He’s a drunkard, a braggart, insensate and indisciplined. He’s related to that other character from Proverbs, the Fool, but he’s worse even than that one.
The Fool not only doesn’t know, but doesn’t want to, and will not be brought to knowledge. The Mocker not only refuses to learn, but runs in the opposite direction, belittling those who want to learn and hindering their access to knowledge. The Mocker honours nothing, reveres only themselves, treats nothing as sacred. No power in heaven or earth can compel them to do something they don’t want to.
The Mocker isn’t a nice person at all.
And yet mockery is a staple of our humour.
Is the Bible talking about the same thing as we generally mean by “mocking”?
Well, I’m not sure.
On the one hand, there’s certainly some overlap in terms of irreverence. There are times when what is intended as humour steps across the line and becomes hurtful, belittling, tearing down just for the sake of tearing down. The racist or misogynistic joke. The crass, insensitive comment. The attitude of treating something that’s important to someone else with contempt.
But on the other hand, the Biblical “Mocker” is not merely someone who delights in irreverent humour. His central characteristic is contempt – contempt for knowledge, contempt for authority, contempt for that which is sacred, contempt for others.
I sometimes wonder whether some of our lobbyists and activists aren’t in danger of becoming this sort of mocker. Sometimes it seems as though we’re only interested in the “facts” that support our case; we cherry-pick the data looking for that which agrees with what we already “know” to be true, rather than letting the whole truth speak. You can be biased without necessarily being a mocker, but if you give your biases free rein I suspect you’re not far from that unhappy character.
Strangely, most of our mocking humour probably isn’t “being a mocker” in the Biblical sense. There’s usually a difference between the humorous and the contemptuous, and we can generally tell when something is stepping over that line. It’s possible to do, but at least in the West we recognise a distinction.
Islam, particularly in its more fundamentalist expressions, doesn’t seem to have this distinction. To a lot of Muslims, things that we would consider amusing are actually perceived as insulting something sacred.
And this brings up an important issue. Offendedness is in the eye of the beholder. It’s easy to claim “I’m offended” when what we mean is “I don’t like this”. But the potential for offence is real, and I don’t have the right to tell you that you shouldn’t be offended by something. Making joking references to a white person “slaving away” at something may not be the same as making the same references to a black person, because the history is different. If something is really offending you, you didn’t choose to be offended, so I don’t get to tell you you shouldn’t be. That is in danger of the contemptuous attitude of the mocker.
I think generally, though, we can tell when someone is being humorous and when they are being contemptuous. And humour – even mocking humour – can serve a useful purpose. Elijah mocked the prophets of Ba’al. David taunted Saul’s guards after he cut off the corner of the king’s robe. Ezekiel and other prophets mocked the false prophets who presumed to speak in God’s name. Some of Jesus’ answers to the Pharisees’ trick questions almost have a sardonic or mocking quality to them.
Rightly used, mocking humour is for bringing down those things we are exalting overmuch, and for cutting our fears down to size. It’s the cure for hubris on the part of the one being exalted, and for idolatry on the part of the exalter. That which we cannot make jokes about is in danger of becoming an idol.
If there’s any doubt, it’s probably safest to assume that it’s mockery if we’re the speaker, and to give people the benefit of the doubt if we’re not. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t challenge the attitudes of racism, misogyny and prejudice when we find them, but neither should we automatically assume that the other person is making a conscious effort to offend, either.