A little while ago, I did a comic in which the joke was a lady saying something like “if you don’t agree that math is gender neutral, you will be!” while brandishing a knife. Interestingly, this got some trans advocacy groups AND some mens’ rights groups mad. For the sake of this argument, I’m more concerned with the latter.
The claim being made was that the joke mocked genital mutilation. I suppose this is, strictly speaking, the truth. The joke is that this lady will cut your dick off for reasons that are amusing because of a pun on “neutral.” I can’t deny that it’s a joke that involves the idea of cutting someone’s dick off, but I don’t agree that this is necessarily a serious matter. I was trying to figure out the exact reasoning, when I happened to come across a passage in a book of funny etymology stories.
The story was about military K rations. More interesting to me than the etymology was a joke from the author, who presumably spent some time in the military. The joke went something like this: “K rations served the dual purpose of feeding soldiers and making them angry enough to kill.”
That is, of course, a joke about killing a fellow human being. I think I can safely say I’d rather have my dick cut off than be killed, which suggests to me that one is more serious than the other. Yet this joke is considered so tame that it appears in a cute illustrated book with the unintimidating title “Who Put the Butter in Butterfly?” So, I’m assuming that most people would not take it as advocating or trivializing murder.
And then I realized what the problem was. We’re really talking about a particular straw man argument, in which a statement intended as a joke is taken to be serious. Because something that is light is made out to be massive, I thought it might be funny to call it “the Higgs field fallacy,” since the Higgs field gives rise to mass. It’s possible it already has a name, in which case forgive me.
The essence is this: Sometimes jokes are meant to be serious and sometimes they are not. This is the advantage and disadvantage of being a comedian – you can choose whether your past statements are serious or not (and so can other people). We sometimes assume that all statements carry weight, when in fact many really, truly, seriously don’t. When your parents taught you to play Hangman, for example, I’m guessing neither of you felt like you were mocking capital punishment.
It is perhaps unfortunate that communication is imprecise, resulting in light things seeming heavy to one person and vice versa. However, this is a condition of signal transmission in this universe, so there’s not much sense in fretting over it.
Now that I put a name to the fallacy, I can think of lots of instances where I’ve come across it. It’s a great debate tactic, because in casual language we often laugh at the dreadful. But, if you’re in a debate, and someone does this, all you have to do is keep a serious face and say “Well, I’m glad you feel you can laugh about it.”
What’s particularly strange is how often we invoke this fallacy on public officials. When a public official uses a non-PC term we’ve used or heard a thousand times in private company, we get mad. Or if a public figure makes an offensive joke we’ve told or laughed at a thousand times, we call him an asshole. Why? Well, our jokes are massless. To theirs, we give a Higgs field.