Laughter and Seriousness

Laughter and seriousness are the manifestations of two antagonistic psychic states. Laughter is a manifestation of a positive emotion, such as joy. Laughter is the opposite of tears and grief, which are manifestations of negative emotions, and also the opposite of seriousness, denoting calm, S. Pathos.

Laughter is a major instrument of discourse disorientation and destruction, S. Orientation; Irony. Laughter and entertainment are classed along with rhetoric, whilst seriousness and austerity are associated with argumentation. In a debate, laughter and seriousness correspond to two antagonistic positioning strategies: if the opponent jokes and laughs, let your answer be stern and to the matter; to an austere technical discourse, answer with a smile and make a pun everybody can understand.

Hamblin mentions three standard ad fallacies of entertainment, which occur in two different discursive and interactional organizations (Hamblin 1970, p 41).

1. The arguer as an entertainer

Ad ludicrum, Lat. ludicrum, “game; show”, which Hamblin translates as “dramatics”.
Ad captandum vulgus, Lat. vulgus, “the populace”; captare, “to seek to seize”.

Rational criticism rejects discursive histrionics, which spare no form of public speech, even conference communications. An address is transformed into a performance. Such shows were put on first by the ancient sophists as staged in Plato’s Euthydemus, S. Sophism. The arguer becomes an actor, “playing to the gallery” or “to the crowd”, referring to an actor whose demagogic play appeals to easy popular tastes, S. Ad populum.

2. The arguer makes fun of the opponent

Ad ridiculum, Lat. ridiculum “ridiculous”

This latter kind of talk is quite distinct from the former. Hamblin uses the labels “appeal to ridicule” and “appeal to mockery” (ibid.). Strictly speaking, this is a kind of refutation by the absurd, whereby the advanced proposition is rejected by indicating that it has unacceptable, counter-intuitive, amoral and laughable consequences, S. Absurd. The ridiculous is not necessarily comic, and laughter may be sarcastic rather than joyful.

Hedge’s seventh rule explicitly excludes laughing about the opponent, “any attempt to […] lessen the force of his reasoning, by wit, caviling, or ridicule, is a violation of the rules of honorable controversy” (1838, p. 162); S. Rules. This is a special case of the prohibition to substitute discourse destruction to argument refutation, S. Destruction.

Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s book, The Comic of Discourse (1974), is devoted to the comic exploitation of argumentative mechanisms as jokes.