06/25/2013 12:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Taking Joy in the Stupidity of Politicians: A Modern Ritual

America is country where there's always some social conservative or extremist liberal saying something so crazy, you can't but help feel very moral and sensible by comparison.


Every week there's a shocking gem in the news about a hypocritical, racist, sexist, idiotic, or anti-science statement made by a politician -- see sexist comments by Fox News anchors for a recent example.

Sometimes these gems make us angry, but often they just leave us laughing as we take pleasure in the stupidity of these politicians. But these stories give Americans more than just laughs. The joy goes much deeper.

The blunders of these hypocritical and backwards politicians provide those in either opposing parties with instant shots of moral superiority.

Accordingly, we need to be careful in how we treat these stories. News outlets and clip shows like The Daily Show don't publish these stories just to jack us up on laughs and moral superiority; these stories get airtime because they often represent true and noteworthy problems in society.

So how do people react when they feel morally superior?

Stanford University researchers have found that people tend to react in two ways to gaining a sense of moral superiority.

The first is "licensing," in which the feelings of moral superiority make people feel licensed to slack on acting moral. The feeling of moral superiority leads people to feel more comfortable about acting in a selfish or racist manner, or failing to do anything about actual problems in the real world.

For instance, some people may feel morally superior by buying green and accordingly they may relax their moral standards in others areas.

The second is "commitment" in which people feel recommitted to their moral ideas and double down on pursuing the right moral end.

We must remember to "commit" rather "license" as we laugh at these misguided politicians. The dishonesty and backwardness of others should remind us how important how important it is to be honest and fair.

Politics often feel like a game, where the goal becomes "just be better than the other guy." When the "other guy" is a collection of dishonest incompetent politicians, then being better than the other guy becomes a very low bar to aim for.

The goal of politics and policy should be to make the best laws that promote freedom, happiness, and general welfare. And importantly the goal is to make the best outcomes not just think about the best outcomes.

So every time another sexist social conservative speaks like he's from the early 1800s or a liberal takes things just too far, take the time to laugh and then take the time to think about how one might, even in the smallest way, contribute to actually fighting against the stupidity.

One way is to post articles about bigotry or social issues with a statement that you do not stand for it. It shows any of your followers that this should not be tolerated and research shows how effective we can be in influencing our peers. It is a good step. However, think of going the next step.

For instance, let me call out all my fellow "socially conscious" men out there. Next time you are playing pick up basketball or golf and someone says something purely sexist, homophobic, or racist, call them out on it. Don't stand for it. Be the change you believe the world needs.

Don't just be an audience member laughing and agreeing with Jon Stewart's ideals of equality. Instead be a person who expresses those ideals and acts on them.

Let's keep laughing, because dammit these politicians can be funny -- but ultimately, let's not just laugh and feel moral, let's actually act moral.

Cartoon created by Maddy Trower. Trower is a graphic artist and a member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight with article author Troy Campbell