Rhetoric, Logic, and Comedy

Posted on 19 January 2013

Comedy often contains social and political critique. You may be doing it and not even realise. You tell a joke about what dating is like, you end up railing against the stupidity of certain mores, and BANG you are making a social criticism.

Courses in rhetoric and philosophical logic are seen as dreadfully old-fashioned, but I would argue that everyone should at least dip their toe into these subjects. They are crucial for being able to fend off life’s idiots, in particular the powerful idiots. As comedians, I promise you, gaining some knowledge in this field will give you more material.

The media is rife with poor logic, and pundits regularly rely on manipulation and rhetorical fallacies. People love it when you pick some of these posers apart. In fact it’s useful to have comedians do so, because we are capable of making the issues accessible and give people the tools to more effectively thwart poor thinking.

Here are a few fallacies for which you might keep an eye and ear out.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

See, you aren’t entirely ignorant of this field. Countries regularly claim that two wrongs do make a right. Let’s say there’s a treaty to reduce arms or carbon emissions or whatever. Upper Slobovia refuses to sign because if the US won’t sign, why should we? They don’t argue that the treaty has a problem, they simply argue they have an equal right to do the wrong thing. How messed up is that? This is right up there with “He pushed me first!”

Slippery Slope

You hear this phrase spoken by politicians on a regular basis. If we do X, it’s a slippery slope to Y. If we legalise marijuana, it’s a slippery slope to legalising heroin. If we legislate for proportional representation in parliament, it’s a slippery slope to reverse discrimination. During the Vietnam war “slippery slope” was invoked concerning the need for Western involvement, only it was called the “Domino Effect”. According to pundits of the age, let Vietnam fall and all of Asia would fall into communist hands.

In these cases the argument works on fear, playing on the idea that given half a chance people will behave like reprobate children. They will endlessly push boundaries to an extreme and harmful conclusion. The aim for those who want proportional representation is social fairness—why would they want reverse discrimination?

What we need to remember is maybe that slope isn’t so slippery, and maybe things don’t always go from bad to worse. Perhaps a middle ground is possible. Maybe there’s no slope at all.

To validly use slippery slope, you must demonstrate a logical chain of events that make the connection between A and D. If you can’t show me good reasons why B and C are going to happen, I’m unlikely to believe A and D have anything to do with each other.

Straw Figure

Beware of this one in your own comedy. Straw figure is when you set up a situation such that you can easily knock it down to prove your point.

I remember being at a science fiction convention where a panel was talking about how crazy it is that people continue to believe in religions and an old man in the sky dictating our affairs. That’s the straw figure. “Obviously, these people are in need of a father figure”. And they knocked it down. “What about Buddhism? It has no god,” someone shot back. “It’s a minor religion,” was the response. How many Asians are there in the world?

Now whether or not you believe in a form of divinity, these people had not thought their arguments through. They had merely discarded their own mainstream conceptions of religion, but not religion as a whole. If you are serious about your position, then you put in the effort to get your facts straight and your argument carefully structured. Otherwise, you reveal your own ignorance. You can’t rely on “Well, everyone knows these people are stupid.” That’s known as the rhetorical fallacy of “Appeal to Ridicule”.

Appeal to Anonymous Authority

Shampoo and cosmetic advertising use this a lot. “Nine out of ten dentists say your teeth will be whiter and brighter using our product.” Which nine dentists? Who gave this survey? What are their credentials? How did they take their sample? How did the dentists determine what is “whiter” and “brighter”?

I remember walking into a bookstore where a woman was selling a large Tibetan salt crystal to another woman. She claimed that “scientific research” showed the crystal removed positive ions from the air, which are supposedly bad for your health. Which scientific research? Done by who? Did she even know what a positive ion is? You can generate them by rubbing a balloon on your hair. The salt crystal was five thousand dollars (truly), you can get a ground strap from Autobarn for less than twenty.

For a joke you can say, “Scientists predict that by 2121 everyone will have blue hair.” But the instant you are trying to make a serious argument, you either need to be an authority or refer to real authority. However, please go to town on people who cite mysterious someones to prove their points right. The hand waving needs to end.

Where to Learn More

Many more rhetorical fallacies have been documented. Reading through them is eye-opening. I found myself flabbergasted at how we are swimming in these fallacies everyday as we hear them invoked on the radio, television, and most especially online discussions. The Information is Beautiful website has created an amazing infographic outlining fallacies. They have created their own portmanteau word “rhetological”, since these fallacies have been variously described as rhetorical or logical.

Take a look at the list here: Rhetological Fallacies

The book I used to help me when I was putting together my PhD is Asking The Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking by M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley. It’s a slim book: only one hundred and seventy-six pages. It’s also well laid out and easy to understand with a lot of good information. Read it and start comically poking holes in all the hot windbags of the world!

Peace and kindness,


4 responses to Rhetoric, Logic, and Comedy

  • Jim says:

    I agree! People can’t be exposed to enough training in rhetoric and logic.

    I haven’t yet read the rest of your articles so maybe you’ve addressed this already; this reminds me of the important role of the court jester in medieval times for speaking truth to power. More than just entertainment, I see the role of today’s comedian as equivalent.

  • Katherine says:

    I am very much of the mind that our modern comedians are in a position to speak truth to power and speak truth to the masses. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are good examples of that.

    Thanks for chatting! :)

  • Jen says:

    I write a lot of social commentary and these are all of the things I tap into. Thanks so much for putting them into one place. It’s nice to have a reminder of all the different avenues to go down.

  • Katherine says:

    Hey Jen! Nice to have readers with interesting blogs of their own. When Pigs Fly < http://whenpigsflyblog.com/> is a lot of fun!

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