Ross CarrollJan 6, 2022
Ridicule in Enlightenment Britain
Princeton University Press 2021
Political Theorist Ross Carroll takes the reader through Enlightenment conversations about the use of ridicule and laughter in politics and political engagement in his new book, Uncivil Mirth: Ridicule in Enlightenment Britain (Princeton UP, 2021) explores, as a framework, two schools of thought on the place of ridicule in political engagement, Thomas Hobbes and those who took their approach to understanding human nature from Hobbes, and the Third Earl of Shaftsbury, and those who followed his arguments. Carroll dives into these two approaches to the use of ridicule, unpacking not only the ideas around how ridicule can be used in politics, but also how it might be managed appropriately, noting the dichotomous approach to ridicule as part of the Age of Enlightenment and Reason. The Hobbesian school was concerned with the corrosive impact of the use of ridicule since it can communicate contempt. The Shaftsbury school thought that ridicule could be used in an emancipatory way, as another means of engaging with political opponents while also undercutting the political claims of those opponents. Carroll traces these debates and those involved in them, while also providing a fascinating “case study” of the use of ridicule by Scottish Abolitionists. This particular chapter, focusing on the work of these polemicists, explores their use of ridicule “to expose defenders of African slavery as not merely mistaken but contemptable, and their arguments as absurd.” (Carroll, Uncivil Mirth, p. 152) This was an ambitious political project that took ridicule as the weapon or tool to attack the Atlantic slave trade and the immorality of slavery. Uncivil Mirth concludes with Mary Wollstonecraft’s commentary on the use of ridicule in terms of political education, and her own use of it in deconstructing sentimental teachings to women.
There is a tension at the heart of the argument about ridicule and politics, namely that it can and often does make the political personal and the personal political. Thus, long before Second Wave Feminism would coin the adage that the “personal is political,” the British and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and political activists were wrestling with how to manage the personal and the political, especially through the use of ridicule and laughter in politics.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @gorenlj.