Learning and mockery

Mockery is a joy born of the fact that we imagine something we disdain in a thing we hate (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. XI)

Learning, Satire and Mockery

Mockery can play an important role in learning. Mocking something can shock a learner into re-thinking a subject, it can provoke arguments and discussions about a topic. The most obvious use of this is satire, which is mockery for a political purpose, making us think in different ways about important figures, making us see our politicians, our monarchs and presidents, our august leaders in a ridiculous light. Spinoza’s definition of mockery helps us understand why this is such a powerful affect which can nurture learning. This is because it is a “joyful passion” which necessarily increases our powers of thought, making us “imagine” that we “disdain something in a thing we hate”. I think it’s important to note that mockery has its origins in hatred of a “thing”. Now in the case of satire this does not necessarily mean that the satirist hates a “person”, rather the satirist usually hates an idea such as unfairness, hypocrisy, lying, privilege, and then uses a mocking representation of a person to explore this idea. So for example a satirical portrait of the British Queen might present the Queen as a tired, irritable old lady, showing that for all her trappings she is just a “human being” like the rest of us; the source of the hatred here is the concept of the “monarchy” of which the Queen is a representation. The “disdain” comes into the equation because all the “flummery”, the “wealth”, social status, the history and pomposity of ceremony associated with the Queen is “disdained”. The ideas of the flummery is marginalised, hardly regarded: it does not create the desired “affect” of “veneration” or “devotion” which it produces in many people. And so the mocking representation of the Queen disdains that flummery by dressing her say in the clothes of an “ordinary” old lady of her generation. Thus we can see when exploring mockery, teacher can explore this affect in many situations to help students gain an adequate idea of what exactly is the “imagined” object of the disdain in a thing we hate. Spinoza gives a “roadmap” for exploring humour.

Teaching and Mockery

The Teacher as the victim of Mockery

He also provides the teacher with a roadmap for thinking about the types of humour which happen in learning situations. In many times in my career I have encountered students mocking me, or mocking something in the classroom situation. Indeed every day, teachers never fail to encounter some form of mockery I think; there’s always some student or teacher laughing at something or other. It can be bewildering and upsetting for teachers and students to feel that they are the victims of this mockery. It is a contagious affect which is easily passed on from person to person. For example, when other students see the joy that someone is getting from disdaining a something in he/she hates, they often become victims of this joy too because it does increase their powers of action. So I’ve come across situations when a student will point out an item of clothing that you’re wearing is defective in some way – ripped or covered in ink – and they take joy in imagining that they disdain it because it indicates that you’re scruffy and incompetent. Ultimately though, the students who are really strident in their mockery of you in a situation like this are this way because they hate the “educational set-up”: they don’t like the subject they’re studying, they don’t enjoy being in the classroom, being told what to do etc.. And these students are always on the look-out to find joy in things they imagine they disdain: finding “fault” in order to generate the affect of mockery, which increases their powers of action. The mockery may not increase their “educational” powers of action, but it will increase their power over the person they are mocking, making them feel sad, thus “decreasing” the hated objects powers of action, i.e. the teacher. In these situations, Spinoza provides the teacher with a “roadmap” for gaining an adequate idea of what is going on. The teacher needs to learn what the object of the hatred really is, and try not to take the incident personally, because as Spinoza teaches us, there is nothing “personal” in the world of the affects; the affects are produced by a multitude of forces.

Bullying and Mockery

With his definition of mockery, Spinoza also gives us a powerful insight into how mockery can be a form of bullying. The bully increases his powers of action by imagining he/she is disdaining something in a thing he/she hates. Thus, we see bullies taking joy in imagining they are disdaining their victim in some way – their bodily shape, their clothes, their habits etc. – but actually lurking behind this disdain is an object of hatred, which may well be the bully’s “self-image” which the victim reflects back at the bully. In many cases, I have found that bullies mock people who actually remind them of something they hate in themselves: their ideas of themselves as being “stupid”, “ugly”, “unfashionable”, and “unlikeable”. Thus bullies find joy in disdaining those things that they see someone else that they actually hate in themselves. The bully’s riposte when questioned by the teacher for their mockery is invariably, “but it was only a joke”. Spinoza’s philosophy teaches us that this is an inadequate idea of the situation; lurking behind all mockery is a source of hatred.

Journey into Joy

When have you been mocked in your life? Using Spinoza’s framework, analyse exactly what was going on when you were being mocked; gain an adequate idea of why you were being mocked.

Why do you think mocking can be such a joyful experience?

What types of humour do you like and why? How closely related are they to mockery?

Learning, joy and absence

Joy which arises from the absence of the thing we hate (P47S) (pp. 110, D XXXII)

Longing is really a sadness which is opposed to that joy which arises from the absence of a thing we hate (P47S) (pp. 110, D XXXII)

Many learning situations produce the affect of “longing” because if what is being studied is difficult to understand many learners long for the “joy of understanding” which is absent. This is a very important affect for the pedagogue to adequate understand. A Spinozist pedagogy does not shy away from the cognitively challenging because gaining an adequate understanding of something maybe well be difficult to grasp because it means that the mind has to leave the “imagination” of the object of learning behind and be able to understand it through “reason” ( see The Purpose of Learning is To Conceive Adequate Ideas). I have witnessed this affect of longing for “imaginative understanding” countless times in my teaching career. Let me give you an example. I was working with a fourteen-year-old boy, A., who was studying the novel 1984. He had entered the classroom mocking his classmate, but then settled down to pay attention to the task, which was to analyse the use of language in the opening of the novel. When I talked to him it was clear he did not really understand the nature of the task or have an adequate understanding of what was happening in Orwell’s novel. I acted as a “scaffold for learning” (Victoria State Government, 2014) by re-telling the passage to him: “Imagine you’re Winston Smith climbing up the stairs, how is he climbing them?” A. looked at the passage and saw that Winston was climbing the stairs “slowly”. With further questioning, he realised Winston was ill (he had ulcer on his leg), he was poor (his flat was shabby), he was lonely (he was alone), and he was being watched (by Big Brother). I conveyed the affect of joy in my explanatory questions throughout; for example, “how would you feel if you were being watched through a television screen?” “That’s creepy!” A. said. With my help, the text became “alive” for A., it was no longer a series of words with a vague story about a guy who lived in a nasty society, but it was about someone who was ill, poor, suffering, the victim of Big Brother. A. began to empathize with Winston as the affect of joy acted upon him as he began to gain an adequate idea of the passage; this increased his powers of action, and he wrote in detail about the passage and the way Winston was represented. My scaffolding had helped replace the “longing” for “imaginative ideas”, and had enabled him to gain adequate ideas of the text. However, it wasn’t enough; I should have got A. to reflect upon the strategies of learning that had enabled him to gain an adequate idea of the text. He had become reliant upon the scaffold to gain access to adequate ideas of the text, rather than learning to scaffold a text for himself in his mind by asking questions. Therefore, in other lessons, he “longed” for me, the scaffold, the affective presence of joy. I enjoyed having this affect on him, and had not at that point in my career gained an adequate idea of how children learn; I did not nurture the “self-directed learner in him” (Watkins, 2003, p. 24). Indeed, I became too attached to a sense of my own importance in affecting A.’s behaviour which was often quite bad except when I “taught” him.

Longing and the Teacher

I have found that I have often longed to be at home when I’m at school. In particular, at the end of a school day, I have found that I have to “escape” from the school premises and get away. Schools are in so many ways the “opposite” of most other situations in modern societies. They are very unnatural places which generate the affect of “longing-to-be-somewhere” because the classrooms can feel like prisons, they are often lots of people – students and teachers – being very noisy, there are strange, unpleasant smells, there are unnatural pressures that you simply don’t get elsewhere. This “longing” does decrease your powers of action because there is a chronic absence of the things that you find joy in: a sense of autonomy, the idea of freedom to do what you want, a relaxed attitude towards when you do things, the ability to talk to someone in situations which are not highly pressurised etc..

Journey into Joy

When you were at school, did you long to be somewhere else? Analyse the nature of this affect using Spinoza’s definition of it:

Longing is really a sadness which is opposed to that joy which arises from the absence of a thing we hate (P47S) (pp. 110, D XXXII)