Ever heard the expression "the joke's on you"?
I once attended a debate between two biblical scholars where one scholar held liberal views of Scripture and Christianity, while the other was an evangelical and quite conservative both biblically and theologically. The liberal scholar came across as personable and humorous; his arguments, however, were less than cogent. In contrast, the evangelical theologian presented stronger arguments, but seemed stiff in his mannerisms and verbal expression. Guess who most people thought won the debate?
Humor and rhetorical skills engage audiences. Good speakers are wise to incorporate both in their public speaking. Yet, Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) once said that flowery speech is not necessarily the sign of a careful mind. A clever and well-delivered joke can draw people in, but it can also serve as a powerful diversion. In dialogue, humor should not be used as a replacement for cogent reasoning.
Diversionary Humor or Ridicule Fallacy
Inappropriate humor or ridicule takes place often in public debates. Logician T. Edward Damer describes this fallacious form of reasoning in his excellent critical thinking primer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments:
This fallacy consists in injecting humor or ridicule into an argument in an effort to cover up an inability or unwillingness to respond appropriately to an opponent's criticism or counterargument.
At times, telling jokes or mocking your opponent serves to win an audience's approval. Yet in reality this tactic is just an attempt to ignore or discredit one's opponent and the arguments he or she presents. It is an effort at diversion and is logically fallacious because a public speaker has an intellectual responsibility to respond to the content of his opponent's argument.
Humor and even ridicule (when it is done in fun and good taste) are not always out of bounds in a public debate, but they should never take the place of good reasoning. Logic is all about presenting sound and cogent arguments for one's positions and beliefs.
If you find yourself the target of diversionary humor or ridicule during a debate, I suggest telling your opponent that you appreciate their sense of humor, but now that the jokes are out of the way, you are still waiting for a serious answer to your argument.
For more about the importance of logic and critical thinking, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.
For a great handbook in dealing with logical fallacies, see Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments by T. Edward Damer.
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