The Higgs Field Fallacy

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.

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27 Responses to The Higgs Field Fallacy

  1. Theodore says:

    My issue with this is that I feel like the men were complaining because, if a similar joke were made with the punchline involving the rape of a woman, everyone would be offended, even though those two crimes are equal in severity. Like, I personally wouldn’t be offended at either joke, but it suggests a double standard if you find one offensive but not another.

    • Mildon says:

      I think this is it. It’s the double standard that gets people, not really the joke itself. I do see the humor in the joke and I can appreciate the creativity needed to come up with something like this, but if we reversed roles and it was a man threatening to carve out a woman’s vagina with a knife, nobody would find it funny.

      The fact is, men get their penises cut off all the time and it’s widely considered a joke for comics to laugh at, even on mainstream television, but there would be an outrage if someone tried to do this in regards to a woman being mutilated.

      On top of that, the real issue here seems to be that it was used by a feminist who claims to support equality but she’s clearly laughing at the idea of a man being mutilated when this particular individual is well known for getting upset over things much milder when directed towards women.

      Issues of humor and offense aside, it’s quite hypocritical and that’s what annoys people I think.

      • Panagiotes Koutelidakes says:

        It’s almost exactly that, with a dollop of something more: the fact that many of the people who will make the mutilation joke can be (and often are) the same people who freak out.

        Plenty of times I’ve commented on both aspects; i.e. that it should both be explicitly understood as a joke and that double standards such as this are dealt with as harshly as can be — not because the joke is the issue here, but because the treatment of the two jokes is vastly different.

  2. I feel like, for me, it also depends on if there is actually a joke present, or if the shocking idea is itself presented as if it were humor.

    In your example, you were using a play on words which was clever. It is clever with or without the idea of actual genital mutilation, that was just what the words in question lent themselves to.

    For contrast, I point out the “Dead Baby” jokes that every school child learns. Very few of those jokes are actually funny…instead they rely on the shocking imagery it evokes to create nervous titters or horrible laughs.

    I’m with George Carlin that there is no topic that can’t be joked about. There are, however, ways of telling the joke that are better or worse. I feel you fell on the right side of that line, but that line is, by definition, subjective.

  3. J. Ira Winder says:

    How do you think the “Higgs Field Fallacy” might apply to this politically incorrect gag by a bunch of MIT students, trying to donate the jackets of rival schools to the homeless?

    This might be a case where overtly elitist ‘out-of-touch-ness’ is what gives mass to the light, as you might say.

    (disclosure: I’m an MIT student and am having a hard time finding their ‘joke’ funny, mainly because I’m intensely concerned with our institution’s ability to relate to the rest of society. It’s also hard to shrug off since it could hurt the brand name of the institution I associate myself with.)

    • ZachWeiner says:

      Man, I’m sorta torn? I mean, getting people to pay for jackets is awesome, but jeez it smacks of noblesse oblige. My general rule is that if it’s helping, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. But that’s a pretty ugly horse’s mouth.

  4. Harry says:

    I think the issue is to do with whether or not the joke might reinforce some aspect of society which is already common and which might actively hurt people who’ve had experience of it.

    For example, cutting off someone’s dick is funny because it’s an incredibly rare occurence which everyone agrees is bad and which not many are likely to have experienced. More people will have been affected by murder, but jokes involving killing can still be funny as these do not normalize murder and the circumstances of murder in a joke are usually very different from the circumstances of murder in real life, and as such less likely to trivialize someone’s experience.

    Rape jokes are not funny because “rape culture” exists, many people have been personally effected by rape and joking about it trivializes what they’ve gone through, and rape jokes provide an outlet for mysogynists to normalize their behaviour towards women. Racist jokes, similarly, normalize racist behaviour.

    • ZachWeiner says:

      I generally agree, though I have a slight nitpick on racist/sexist humor, with the caveat you know that I don’t personally put it out. I don’t think a racist joke *must* normalize racism. In fact, often it does the exact opposite. It’s really context dependent. For example, I’m Jewish (by heritage). I can, generally, tell if someone means a Jewish joke as “fuck those guys” or as “I thought this joke was funny, sorry it’s off color” or as “isn’t it horrifying how racist this joke is?!” I think saying all jokes about something do x is inherently wrong. It’s like saying all speeches about something do x or all movies about something do x. A joke is a form of communication that can be used to do many things.

      In fact, I’d say one of the things I like about my generation (as I’ve experienced it, at least) is that we’re constantly trying to break down the idea of race by jokes about it.

      Now, I could be completely wrong, but I do think it’d be very hard to prove the point one way or the other.

      • Sue Doughnem says:

        I personally saw nothing wrong with the joke you’re referencing, but there’s another joke you did with SMBC theater some time ago that’s stuck with me.

        It’s this one:

        I’ve heard you explain your reasoning behind it before, and I can’t say I quite agree with you. I’d like you to explain it again, if you wouldn’t mind. The joke, in text, was the hypocrisy of an anti-gay preacher having (drug-induced) sex with a “tranny”—at least, that seemed to be the intended interpretation of the joke. But even though that was the intention, the joke can also be laughed at for shock value because sex with trans people or even just the concept of transness is highly taboo in our culture. I’ve (honestly) heard three jokes in the past three days from three different sources implicitly make this type of joke (in the case of one it was paired up with a “penis!” joke). The joke could also be taken as “the anti-gay preacher is hypocritical because he had sex with a tranny and they’re just really really gay men or something”. And I would also argue that the joke promotes the stereotypical association of trans people and sex—that all trans people (usually women) are sex workers or that sex is all they’re about. Trans people are hardly ever talked about in a context outside of sexuality.

        Now, you could argue that any joke is open to misinterpretation and the comedian cannot be held accountable for this, but I would counter that jokes are not made in a vacuum. When you make a joke, you have to mindful that you live a society hostile to many types of people and that, in the absence of ample defense for these people, many will take the type of joke you made as a validation of their own prejudices/stereotypes and run with it. What do I mean by an absence of ample defense? Well, most people have heard arguments against sexist, racist, and even homophobic jokes while few people have heard the same arguments against transphobic jokes. Other than the social stigma of gender variance to begin with, anti-trans sentiment is almost completely accepted in our culture and so any satire involving it loses its potency. The bigots you try to satirize don’t recognize the satire because trans rights is alien to them and you use the same language they would (“tranny”). They just see it as a shock value joke that validates their worldview. (Like I said before, this is especially true if you use the same language they would like the aforementioned “tranny”. You could probably argue that the preacher and his friend are bigots and would use that slur, but I don’t see them throwing around “faggot” in the sketch.) And so your joke negatively impacts trans people by unintentionally reinforcing the stereotypes and prejudices of the majority who are uninformed. I’m tired right now so I feel like I’m having difficulty getting my point across or I’m repeating myself, but I hope you see it. If not, I’ll try again tomorrow.

    • Blake says:

      Your invocation of the chimeric magic wand of “rape culture” as rationale for considering jokes about said topic as out of bounds is particularly amusing, since men comprise the overwhelming majority of victims of violent crime to something like 4 times the rate of women one must conclude our “man assaulting culture” could equally be used as an excuse to find these sorts of amputation jokes beyond the pale. Though I suppose that brand of victim culture isn’t likely taught in the hallowed halls of our modern poststructural/wombyn’s studies/semiotics classes.

      Anyway, presumably a joke about mutilating a woman’s genitals or breasts would likely be the height of hilarity to you then, right? It must be, if a given violent joke’s humorousness is as you purport, gauged by its improbability.

      No? It wouldn’t be funny? I wonder why that is. Do you think you could get away with making such jokes about women on a daytime talk show where a bunch of guys sit around and jape about an actual case of such violence, saying how “fabulous” they thought it was that she was ‘sliced up real good’; and then when prompted to give some semblance of an apology could only grudgingly manage to deliver a simpering non-apology the likes of which Rush Limbaugh would salivate in envy over? Oh, you wouldn’t? You would think it was a vile disgrace? Funny, that.

      The reason these sorts of jokes are considered humorous by the vast majority of the public, and elicit the sort of casuistic rationalizations of the kind on offer above only from the more thoughtful members of society, is that men are ultimately viewed by society as disposable and their emasculation, being related to that fact, inherently the object of mockery.

      No MRAs had a real problem with the joke in Weiner’s cartoon itself. It was an unremarkably cheap, dumb quip of which his strip has many of similar kind. Even Mr. Weiner’s oh-so-drole tweet to Watson saying that she should “cut [Richard Dawkins’] dick off and say [Andrea] Dworkin did it” in response to Watson’s latest invented outrage over something Dawkins didn’t actually say could be overlooked. What we mainly objected to was Rebecca “Help I’m Being Oppressed” Watson using such a tangentially violent but inconsequential joke as part of one of her insufferably self-obsessed “speeches”; when if the tables were turned, she would DOUBTLESS use the opportunity of just such a joke being made by one of her detractors to claim that she was being “stalked”, “harassed”, and “threatened with sexual violence”. In other words, she is a hypocritical, vituperative drama queen.

      • Panagiotes Koutelidakes says:

        I should have imagined that was the case, somehow.

        Watson is a vulture in far too many ways to enumerate; there are many times in which I simply cringe or sigh in defeat, when she is making any speech or other.

        More people should ask women’s opinions on what Watson says.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Rape jokes have more mass than male genital mutilation jokes because so many more women are raped than men, and so fewer men get their genitals seriously mutilated than women*–and the cavalier way we react to the latter isn’t a balancing factor, it’s a byproduct of the same strange way of thinking that underlies female rape culture. Think about WHY so many male rapes go unreported. Think about what’s so funny about the idea of a bad guy being violently buggered in prison or having his equipment lopped off. The idea that being raped makes you less masculine, and that that’s a bad thing for some reason. To be abused is to be female–you must have done something to deserve it.

    *Yes, circumcision is a form of genital mutilation. Yes, it’s a horrible thing to do to a baby. Yes, the traditions surrounding it are disgusting. No, it’s not the same as the procedures used on women. Get over it.

    • Quixim says:

      Well, I kind if think that “Get over it” isn’t a great response to the mass and societally accepted genital mutilation of nonconsenting infants.

      • Jonathan says:

        It’s not the same thing. It’s like trying to Dear Muslimah a black guy by showing him your fursuit and calling him “brother.”

        • Panagiotes Koutelidakes says:

          That still doesn’t address the facts; it’s like saying: “Well, there is plenty of wrong with what we do, but suck it up!”

          Why should anyone do that?

          Anyhow, the point is not to ask to stop complaining about rape jokes, but rather to stop contradicting yourselves.

    • Mildon says:

      Actually, when prison rape is counted men are more likely to be rape victims than women. I see you did address your claim that men are less likely to have their genitals mutilated but I’m puzzled as to why you would make this claim in the first place knowing it’s false.

      Just because they are “different” doesn’t mean they aren’t still mutilated, so there’s really no basis for the claim that women are more likely to have their genitals mutilated.

      • Radfell says:

        In this case, you’re diverting attention from the actual issue by claiming that “the frequency is what matters and men are mutilated more often than women.” That frequency statistic is true, if you count circumcision, which you do and which you should. However, it’s NOT true that more men get their penises chopped off than women get their clitorises chopped off. And between circumcision and female genital mutilation, only one of those is an actually life-changing, sexuality-killing mutilation with no health benefits and which causes sometimes extreme pain late into the person’s life and prevents them from having normal sexual intimacy. And it’s not the male version.

        So sorry if that ruins your argument, but the reason that female genital mutilation is considered a bigger deal than its male equivalent is because it is generally worse. Getting your penis chopped off might be *even* worse, true. But that happens with vanishing rarity throughout the world because there is simply no culture that thinks that is a good idea or wants to assert dominance over its male members through control of their sexuality. And circumcision, whatever you think about it, doesn’t actually cause that many issues for the person in later life.

  6. BuncyTheFrog says:

    Zach, I’m (kinda) in the MRM, and I have literally not seen an influential person in the movement attack your comic, but the way it was used. Rebecca Watson incidentally had it included in a slide of a presentation while saying that if she had daughters, she would raise them to be violent. That’s what the stink is about, your comic is just kinda caught up in the middle of it.

    I’m of the mind that you’re an equal opportunity offender, and I think that (most) of the people who have weighed in on this acknowledge that.

  7. AnJu says:

    By the way, I’d actually like to suggest an alternative name, which in my opinion portrays the phenomenon more accurately: The Collateral Resonance Analogy.

    Imagine information being like a wave function.
    Like sounds and toned, they can be changed and distorted, are susceptible to interference and resonance, and complexer wave functions are often simplified to process it more easily.

    Now, the idea is of course that your jokes, being messages and information, are processed by others in the way you meant it, that your waves resonate with one of the intended natural frequencies in their funny bones.

    Alas, your sounds of entertainment oscillate their way into a lair of unstable piles of unresolved complexes, of cognitive dissonances and traumas. As the rigid funny bone casually begins to laugh in vibrato, a phantasmal wound is shaken loose, bursting into the open consciousness, pulling along the white knights led by Don Quichote. Muffled by the stampede of donkey hooves, an ignored little chuckle dampens into silence, never heard or noticed, echoing into the void.

    If you’re not fed up with the analogy yet, here’s more!
    It’s like action potentials and a bit like Quantum Mechanics: The nature of the message depends on the main frequency: Would the natural frequency of your joke resonate primarily and crossed a certain threshold, it would have manifested as a ‘funny’.
    But in distortion and subject to differently distributed filters, BOOM!
    mad, bro.
    It’s like listening to dubstep on a crappy plastic laptop.

    Anyways, this was my view on the matter. I love using waves as analogies, as they are so prominently found in the fundamentals of reality, like in physics, math and neurosciences.
    I may have been a bit overly elaborate in my analogy, but I enjoyed it, I hope you kinda did too.

    People really shouldn’t complain so much and exaggerate the impact that jokes or any statements have. Often aspects of a matter aren’t noticed until they’re pointed out, or when people have developed the horrible habit of looking for them. (See the Southpark racism flag episode or how pervy teenagers laugh at everything that might be viewed as a sexual innuendo.)

    The only problem is when people are both naive and intelligent. Claiming the objective existence of a certain impact, referring to taboos and the sensitive issues for certain groups you not always know the exact situation of, they force you into doubt that arises from your inclination to be ‘nice’.

    In regard to the wilkie twitter issue :
    reinforcing sex & gender differences? Seriously?
    The only people who RELATE the joke to anything regarding gender issues are the trans* people and people who already have extreme opinions regarding gender issues.

    Furthermore, how about the way around? Is bringing up this moral matter in relation to the joke even proportional to the impact? Is it worth imposing a level of speech restriction on someone who intends to simply entertain people with a harmful joke?


    thats my view on the matter
    A daily reader

    • RandomlyGeneraterPoster says:

      That pretty brilliant :)

      ps: I can’t help but picture you as a student or professor (or at least a science enthusiast) so specialized in physics and waves, that you see them everywhere, like having sci-fi “wave-o-vision” goggles (which would be pretty cool imo).

      I think the two phenomenons actually coexist:

      - the Higgs Field Fallacy gives mass to something that so light it was pratically massless. It turns a lighthearted joke into a serious personal statement.

      - meanwhile, the Collateral Resonance Analogy gives (spawns/generates/emits) another meaning/message out of the original signal, by interacting with people’s structure/elements. It is also influenced by the initial vibration (= humour, joke), just like the vibration of the sound box spreads through the whole instrument, or like the vibration of the motor spreads through the whole vehicle [YES ! Managed to coin a car analogy, didn't thought I could make it :P].

      While the Highs Field Fallacy changes the gravity (well, the mass, then the current society being the gravity field, which get us the weight, aka “gravity”) of a message, the Collateral Resonance Analogy changes (or should I say, modulates ?) its content/meaning/intent.

      I’m starting to like sociological physics too much. STOP ME.

      • AnJu says:

        Haha thanks for your reply, I’m glad someone appreciates it.
        Indeed boths the Higgs Field Fallacy (HFF?) and Collateral Analogy of Resonance (CAR for your entertainment) have a certain synergy in describing this communication phenomenon.

        As for how you picture me; I’m actually a first-year Psychology student, with a passion for my so called Three Fundamentals: Math, Physics and Psychology. Why I call them the three fundamentals is a matter concerning a personal Theory of Everything, but thats another elaborate story. Maybe I’ll write about it some day on my blogthing if someone is interested lol.

        In any case, thanks for the compliment; I’m flattered you considered the possibility of me being a professor!

        Lastly… Sociological Physics? Im not sure if that’s a real thing, but it does sound interesting, dont stop! I might even set up something like that one day haha

  8. AnJu says:


  9. Omari says:

    All comedians have to deal with people getting offended at one point or another. If your joke is genuinely funny and it’s not about an event that just happened, f*ck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.

  10. tweed says:

    The problem I had with the joke is straightforward:

    Rebecca Watson used it in a presentation and laughed about it.

    This is a woman who believes rape jokes embolden men to rape. That to laugh or to make a joke about rape is be a rape apologist. She says jokes about rape and various issues she has can never be funny. She goes on crusades and calls people out for the type of thing she did.

    I get the joke and appreciate it. The issue is not so much your joke but the person who referenced it. Clearly men aren’t equal, because if any man in the MRA joked about female genital mutilation, even in a thought provoking and genuinely humorous way, the resulting shitstorm would block out the sun, people would lose their jobs, lives would be ruined, CNN would run a week’s worth of 24/7 coverage on it, and the legislature would consider passing a law outlawing hatred against women using this as an example.

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