Saturday, 11 September 2010

Knee Jerks

(What follows are some musings on the consequences of immediate emotional responses)

When I was in Comprehensive school, one of the more enthusiastic teachers in the maths department attempted to encourage more enthusiasm for his subject by putting up a poster in his classroom window saying ‘MATHS IS FUN!’ A decent attempt, but lacked any supporting evidence (and before any mathematicians read this and start raving, this was no-doubt the fault of the curriculum)

The English department in the building opposite, seemingly under the impression that pupils had some say in which lessons they attended (which, in fairness, usually was the case, but due to the rampant truancy problem rather than any official policy), were clearly offended by this. They retaliated by putting up a poster of their own, simply saying ‘ENGLISH IS FUNNER!’ This tells you everything you need to know about my school.

This was a good example of acting on a knee-jerk reaction and looking like an utter tit as a result. So I did learn something, which was appropriate as it was a school

Knee-jerk reactions are very common, more so than ever these days, what with the ever-increasing options available to express your opinion, e.g. pointless long-winded blogs.

A lot of news these days seems to be centred around scandal-provoking non-stories that exist purely to exploit and perpetuate knee-jerk reactions, e.g. The Koran-burning plans of the Florida maniac who usually has the audience-pulling power of an accordion-playing busker on a wet Tuesday morning, or the plans to build a mosque on a ground zero that exists in a dimension accessible only via right-wing pundits, or the fact that two overpaid performers were a bit cheeky to an old famous man who wasn’t listening at the time, in fact anything involving the words ‘Muslims’, ‘Cancer’ or ‘Immigrants’ seems to be a decent provoker of emotional responses.

Provoking a strong knee-jerk response in someone will potentially entice them to find out exactly what it is they’re reacting to, presumably so they can work out just how outraged they need to be and so are better equipped to ration their outrage for day-to-day occurrences, like being given the wrong change when buying milk, being splashed by a car driving through a puddle or witnessing a different coloured person living a normal life when yours isn’t as ideal as they’d like. In order to find out more about the knee-jerk inducing thing, they will hopefully purchase the item that tells them about what it is. Hence, as far as the media is concerned, this is a lucrative strategy.

I’m used to knee jerk reactions, doing what I do. When people hear that I’m a neuroscientist, they often assume (correctly) that the field involves animal research, so I am therefore morally inferior to a typical torturer or murder (I’ve genuinely been told that). When people hear that I do comedy, the knee-jerk reaction is ‘you'd better not talk about me on stage!’ My knee jerk response in this situation would usually be ‘I won’t, you’re predictable and boring’. But I don’t say that, because when people have their knee-jerk reactions criticised, they risk becoming rather unpredictable.

Every comedian has to deal with knee-jerk reactions on a constant basis, as an audience member could shout out or heckle at any moment if you say something they take exception to. It could be just that it’s not as funny as they would like, or you could mention a sensitive subject which they feel shouldn’t be joked about, no matter that you mention it in order to say something they totally agree with; the knee jerk reaction responds to words and phrases and basic stimuli, application of rationalisation would kill it.

I have been on stage and mentioned that ‘I met a gay man recently’, which I had done, and this fact was relevant to the joke. Before I got to complete it though, a woman stood up and declared that I was a homophobe. This annoyed me, because I’m not. When I met the gay man in question, I was able to resist the urge to lynch him from the nearest lamppost. Conversely, telling the same story in a pub to my friends, the same phrase ‘I met a gay man recently’ provoked a similar knee-jerk but polar-opposite reaction in a complete stranger on a nearby table, who pointed out that it was only incredibly good fortune that I wasn't sodomised in the street. Charming chap.

I bring it up because I've been getting a lot more traffic here lately, possibly because science-themed blogs which feature confusing sentence structure and half-assed attempts at pith humour are currently fashionable? Whatever the reason, it's appreciated, so thanks for that? But it's been especially interesting to see how some of my more popular posts such as the homeopath job application or guide to skeptic dickery have been getting angry responses. See for yourself, it's quite entertaining.

I'm guessing I got a lot of knee-jerk reactions. I've had people telling me that I'm useless, stupid and wasting time. This from the people who felt it worth commenting on or emailing the author of a purposeless blog? I've been linked to from conspiracy theory and pseudoscience websites, and God only knows why. They clearly haven't read or understood my blatherings, they must just see some words they like and make knee-jerk assumptions that I agree with them. But in general, people who have certain viewpoints or beliefs have seen what I have written and decided it's unacceptable, and felt compelled to point this out.

I still fail to see how me writing down the pointless musings that dribble from my cortex and essentially kicking them out into the online void can be seen as something so upsetting. It strikes me as the equivalent of scrawling a rude word on a scrap of toilet paper and flinging it into the sea; maybe it is offensive if you happen to find it, but why the hell would you take it so personally? But maybe it's understandable. Nobody likes having their beliefs or opinions 'publically' mocked, it's basically an indirect way of being called an idiot, and nobody enjoys that. So they feel compelled to respond.

But once people have stated their grievance/argument in public, any attempt to point out why it's wrong (assuming it is) is just another method of calling them an idiot, which will invariably cause further anger and cause them to rigidly stick to their original (wrong) opinion in order to save face and salvage their pride. Further criticisms reinforce this behaviour, and the cycle may never end.

You can't stop people from having knee-jerk reactions, but you can stop yourself from acting on them, and that may limit their propagation

Although, I say it's inadvisable to act on a knee-jerk reaction, but last night I went to the pub and a guy came in who had clearly modelled himself on Hugh Jackman's portrayal of Wolverine. Hair, sideburns, clothing, he may even have had a fictional metal grafted onto his bones as far as I know. My knee jerk reaction was to get a photograph, but decided that may prove offensive and upsetting if I was caught. By the time I was drunk enough to think it actually would be worth it, he'd left.

I shall regret this always.

email: humourology (at)

twitter: @garwboy


MatíasG said...

You're very funny indeed, but don't you dare mock my GOD, he's made of spaghetti and is a very angry god!

Anonymous said...

Whenever I hear the (much-overused) term "knee-jerk reaction" it makes me squirm. I guess it's just a... reflex?

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