Laughing at Yourself

XKCD is usually pretty cute, but this morning the author chose to poke fun at Objectivists.  The title of the strip today is “Sheeple” and it features five people in a subway car all thinking, “Look at these people. Glassy-eyed automatons going about their daily lives, never stopping to look around and think! I’m the only conscious human in a world of sheep.”  But when you mouse over the image, the alt text says, “Hey, what are the odds — five Ayn Rand fans on the same train! Must be going to a convention.

Nick S over at The Progress of Civilization is already calling to boycott the strip.

Other Objectivists have expressed some reserved bemusement over the jab.  One of my Facebook friends remarked, “Uh…did the xkcd author see us at OCON in Boston? Not a very favorable statement about Objectivists, though. :(”

Humor is all about the metaphysically insignificant.  It’s about things that really just don’t matter.  If something is actually holy or sacred, you don’t make jokes about it.

I made a joke recently about Ayn Rand.  I was with a bunch of Objectivists at dinner and someone, I think Diana, made a sarcastic comment about Ayn Rand hating children and I said, “I believe she actually ate babies.”  This garnered laughs around the table.

I think Ayn Rand was a genius.  She her accomplishments are nothing short of pure genius.  To say that I regard her as a hero or a saint (a saint insofar as an atheist can regard anyone as a saint) seems like an understatement to me.

But I made a joke about her.

Now, Ayn Rand never held any hostile feelings toward children.  She opted not to have children, but didn’t have any particular regard for parents.  Having children is a purely optional value to her.  And yet a great number of people accuse Ayn Rand of being everything from being a dour, children-hating moralist to being an outright fascist.  In spite of the fact that there isn’t a single statement by Ayn Rand which supporting these accusations, people just keep saying it.

That’s what makes my joke funny.  It’s completely and utterly untrue.  In reality, my joke was about the people who say these false things about Ayn Rand — but would you know that if you didn’t know that I’m an Objectivist speaking to other Objectivists?

This XKCD comic could be seen in the same way, though, the lack of clear indicators  direction one’s thoughts toward Objectivists (The people on the train might simply be fans of The Matrix.) and the fact that the author of XKCD has given absolutely no indication that he’s an Objectivist nor that his strip is directed toward Objectivists… well, there simply isn’t any indication that this comment is a cast-off joke made by someone in the know.  No, this comment has all the markings of someone who is truly snarking at Objectivists.

But it’s so damn stupid.  I mean, Objectivists don’t think that way.  There isn’t a single character in an Ayn Rand novel who is shown thinking, speaking, or behaving in a way that implies that they are the “only conscious human in a world of sheep.”  In fact, an examination of characters in Rand novels shows that the source of a great number of their problems seems to be an unwarranted extension of the benefit of the doubt toward people who really are unthinking sheep.  So, if this is a caricature of Objectivists shouldn’t they be giggling, wild-eyed optimists?

Sadly, I think this joke is mean-spirited.  This is disappointing because XKCD comics are usually pretty cute, thought-provoking, and even insightful.


  1. C. August July 16, 2009 8:45 am

    Hmmm…. that’s too bad, and I agree with you in your evaluation of the point of the strip. However, in the pantheon of stupid/nasty things people say about Objectivists, this one isn’t too bad.

    Now, if someone said that Ayn Rand ate babies… damn, would I be pissed!

  2. Trey Givens July 16, 2009 8:48 am

    Definitely not. It’s just snotty and rude is all.

    We should find that guy who said Ayn Rand ate babies, though, and string him up!

  3. Tom Jones July 16, 2009 1:24 pm

    It’s a shame because I really liked XKCD. I always judge a thing by its contents and not its maker’s intentions, and I don’t consider the hover caption to be part of the comic. But nevertheless, the artist still insulted me, and that makes me disinclined to continue reading his strip.

    Such a shame.

  4. Chuck July 16, 2009 1:40 pm

    I think it’s inaccurate to say you told a joke about Ayn Rand. Your joke was about the morons who think she hated babies.

  5. softwareNerd July 16, 2009 2:03 pm

    “…if this is a caricature of Objectivists shouldn’t they be giggling, wild-eyed optimists?”

    That depends on where the author is “coming from” (i.e his own philosophy). If he’s jaded, and thinks optimism is silly, he’d joke about that.

    This author appears to start in a nihilist/subjectivist place. Knowledge (at least moral and philosophical knowledge) is subjective to him. He would not even call it “knowledge”. To him, other people are not so much wrong for what they believe as much as because they believe anything strongly. If they agree, it must be that they’re sheep.

    So, to him, 5 people, all thinking “those people are sheep (not thinking for themselves)” is ironical and funny.


  6. Trey Givens July 16, 2009 3:18 pm

    Chuck, I actually said, “In reality, my joke was about the people who say these false things about Ayn Rand — but would you know that if you didn’t know that I’m an Objectivist speaking to other Objectivists?”

    I think you probably would if only because my remark was so silly that not even her enemies would seriously contend that Ayn Rand ate babies.

    I think Tom Jones and Software Nerd both make good comments here. Objectively, without any knowledge of the comic strip writer, this strip is the voice of a subjectivist and it’s mean-spirited and rude.

  7. Julie Amo July 16, 2009 11:35 pm

    I have to admit that I’m not well versed in Objectivist principles, although for the past couple of years a dear friend has been coaching and encouraging me to adjust my vision of life into a more objectivist direction. So I’m a rank novice. A pupil if you will. I have not read all of Rand’s publications, and yet much of what I have read is indeed powerful and thought provoking. Even to the point of me raising my fist into the air whilst exclaiming, “hell yeah!”

    And it was this same friend who linked to this thread and asked for comments and discussion.

    I looked at XKCD’s comic panel and actually found myself somewhat amused. Because the stick figures in the drawing have so few individual characteristics, (most notably the lack of facial features) it was easy for me to identify the characters portrayed as actually being automatons. Showing them all thinking the same thing at the same time just emphasized the point.

    And there’s an element of truth. We all at some point ride the subway, or the bus, or stand next to someone on the elevator, and we don’t talk. We hardly even make eye contact. We’ve become a society of strangers even if the faces are familiar, and belong to people we see every day. For if we did actually talk to each other; we would know each other’s individual names, and identities, and histories. In effect it would be impossible to be automatons.

    Of course this was just my first impression. The subtext came across as a jab to be sure, and yet, I’m left thinking, “How do Ayn Rand followers identify each other as such? Is there a secret handshake, or signal to which I haven’t yet been made aware of?

    It seems ironic because the automatons as depicted by the author could not possibly know anything about the others as insinuated by the subtext.

    So the author poked some fun at Ayn Rand or Objectivists. Big deal. I think many cartoonists look for that “joke within a joke” and because they’re misinformed, or uneducated, or even uncaring…They at times offend. That’s just the way it is.

    I think if you find this comic offensive, by all means you should contact the author and express yourself. Offer up ARI materials. Explain why you feel offended. Encourage him to direct his humor into a different direction. It seems harsh though, to call for a boycott. I mean, how many panels has this author written? And of all of those; how many do you really deem as offensive? What’s the ratio?

    Perhaps with just a tweak of encouragement, this author could be turned into a ally as opposed to being put into some kind of defensive position. And a defensive mind is a hard thing to turn.

  8. Trey Givens July 16, 2009 11:47 pm

    The comic would be mildly amusing if it were left as a generalization about people on the subway. The alt text, however, steers the jab toward Objectivists in particular. Without the alt text, the uninformed reader might be provoked to think, “Gee, I give so little thought to my fellow man whilst on the subway. I could be the subject of this joke, but I will avoid it by being a little more thoughtful.” With the alt text, however, the uninformed reader is left thinking, “Yeah, that’s not me at all. It’s those fascist Objectivists who think like this. They’re such sheep!”

    The reason it matters is because it’s not so much a good-natured ribbing as it is a mean-spirited snark.

    If someone wishes to attempt to change the author’s mind about these things, I think they should try. I don’t see any real harm coming of it. Unfortunately, judging from his past strips and this joke, I doubt his mind could be swayed on this matter.

    Of course, I’ll be the first to point out, he probably regards Objectivists being miffed by his “joke” as evidence toward the truth of his jab. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  9. Jim May July 17, 2009 1:09 am

    I wouldn’t bother talking to the author about it. I’ve read enough of his words on his blog and through the strip to expect that he would be capable of this sort of thing. He is the highly educated, compartmentalized sort of geek who believes in global warming and certainly voted for Obama.

    Having worked in the games industry (and now working in it again), I am quite familiar with have encountered this sort of person — in the persons of game programmers, of course. Unless you are very well educated and fast on your intellectual feet, enough to chase them through the tortuous conceptual salads they can weave, you’ll just make them worse.

    Frankly, I don’t think that Randall Munroe has any specific issues with Ayn Rand or Objectivists, and on the xkcd forums, the discussion was fairly civil for the first page, at least (but, as expected in any forum where Ayn Rand is discussed, it’s grown to eight pages, so I imagine there’s a lot more heat further in).

    It might be “mean-spirited”, but out of necessity I tend to evaluate these things by a relative standard. This was a very mild bit of snark as such things go, and unlike say this sort of idiot who slips in a snarky aside in what is otherwise a serious post, xkcd ic a comic strip.

    Pick your battles. This doesn’t even qualify as one IMO.

  10. Sean McMullin July 17, 2009 2:54 pm

    L. Ron Hubbard and his Scientologists often do this sort of thing. Someone mentions scientology in a bad light, and they attack via the media, and they sue, trying to silence the “critic”.

    People who write comic strips do it for many reasons…one of them being to make social commentary on issues.

    You could say that this is “mean spirited”. I do not agree or disagree with that statement. What I am seeing is a social commentary about Objectivists, nothing more. Not a seething attack, or an attempt to besmirk Ayn Rand’s character or her memory.

    We, as human beings, often joke about things that we do not fully understand…it is a way that we cope with that which is different.

    To sound out about this, and to make you objections known, is a good course to chart. Another way would be to encourage dialogue about the issue(s) that the strip brought up.

    To call for a boycott, for something this small, is not neccessary and IMO just makes the person calling for it look like a narrow minded fool who is overly sensitive about what happened.

    • Trey Givens July 17, 2009 3:39 pm

      Another thing to be cautious of here, Sean, is drawing a comparison between Objectivists and Scientologists.

      There are a great number of groups who object to being mocked. Choosing one of the most apparently silly groups isn’t going to help you find a sympathetic ear in this discussion.

  11. Trey Givens July 17, 2009 3:12 pm

    You’re seeing a commentary, but what is the comment being made?

    The comic is mocking the mentality some people have that they’re the only thinking humans while everyone else is dull, unthinking sheep. And then he ascribes that mentality to Objectivists.

    While I can believe he lacks an understanding of Objectivism and I am not prepared to call for a boycott over this, I don’t think anything is to be gained by white-washing his meaning nor the offense given here. In fact, I’d argue that doing so would undermine the goal of educating him and others about the truth of Objectivism.

    I reiterate a point I made in my post: If something is important, sacred, or holy, then it’s not funny. Its nature of being important precludes it from being funny in that way.

    It’s wildly popular in our modern culture to laugh at important things, but such laughter only serves to undermine the importance of the values in question.

  12. Rachel July 24, 2009 7:50 pm

    My comment is rather late. Also, I left it in response to Jason’s Sheeple post over at Erosophia, just now. But I’ve been thinking about this for the last week-plus and want to inject a different perspective:

    I have found the artist’s reaction to Rand fans to be not uncommon among many of the more intelligent people I’ve encountered.

    It concerns me that someone is giving them this impression. Is it youthful Objectivists? Future pseudo-intellectuals in the process of becoming embittered with rationality? Libertarians? Who?

    I think there is a more important issue than that this influential (among a certain stripe of geeks) artist is obviously choosing to allow his evaluation of Objectivism remain at such a shallow level.

    I think we need to try harder to show people the immediately practical value of rationality, that far from leading to a disconnected, disaffected alienation, it is the source of emotional thriving and social success.

    How can we expect rationality to be widely accepted if all we do is argue about impersonal, distant political issues?

    (Disclaimer: By no means am I suggesting that defending individual rights in our country isn’t important, nay vital. But politics isn’t as visceral as daily emotions and social interaction.)

  13. Will May 9, 2010 11:02 pm

    “In fact, an examination of characters in Rand novels shows that the source of a great number of their problems seems to be an unwarranted extension of the benefit of the doubt toward people who really are unthinking sheep.”

    I believe that’s the point of the strip: “Objectivists are people who believe that problems can be avoided or solved by NOT extending the benefit of the doubt to people who SEEM like unthinking sheep.”

    • Trey Givens May 10, 2010 10:08 am

      But that’s not what Objectivists are. It would be malicious to walk around with the assumption that everyone around him is an unconscious sheeple person. There’s no indication in the strip what makes these people think that about the people around them. I don’t know how you could make a reasonable claim that someone SEEMS like a sheeple person when you have no information but their appearance to go by.

      If you looked at Stephen Hawking and didn’t know who he is, you would say that he seems like a handicapped person, not a genius astrophysicist.

      It’s better to extend the benefit of the doubt toward people you don’t know and about whom you have little or no information.

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