Here’s a personal favorite from the logical fallacies list: Irrelevent Humor.
Nothing breaks up a difficult moment like a little levity; and nothing derails an argument better than an irreverent irrelevency.
Aristotle once said, “Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.”
We joke about the things we take most seriously. The British are particularly good at it, with religion and government being their chief targets. A sign that someone is living under the awful burden of the Law is his inability to laugh at the absurdity of life under the sun. Such people need to be lovingly liberated from bondage to sober relevence. Many “blog wars” could benefit from a healthy dose of humor to rescue their zealous writers from the awful burden of having to be right all the time. The same could be said of voters assemblies, synodical conventions, and corporate board meetings.
Irrelevent humor is humor for the sake of distraction, which is great if you don’t have so much as a pair of deuces in your hand. A humorous irrelevency, accurately aimed, can dismiss a tedious opponent and his tiresome argument without so much as lifting a finger. If you’re good at it, and your audience isn’t listening all thatcarefully, you might actually win the day and save your brain energy for important stuff. Trial lawyers use this tactic all the time with sleepy juries, as do adept politicians with sleepy voters, and clever pastors with sleepy parishioners.
Irrelevent humor is really a “logical fallacy” only if you think you’ve proven your point. You haven’t proven a thing; people simply forgot what the argument was because they were laughing too hard.
A classic example of irrelevent humor is the exchange between Bishp Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley over evolution. The bishop brilliantly asked his opponent, ‘You claim descent from a monkey; was it on your grandfather’s or grandmother’s side?” Huxley’s reply, considered a classic rebuttal, was that he saw no shame in being descended from a monkey, but he would be ashamed of an ancestor, who, despite his learning, sought to obscure the argument by means of aimless rhetoric and appeals to prejudice. Touché. (from The Adam Smith Institute)
One of the great benefits of a high-priced liberal arts education is the accumulation of a vast storehouse of irrelevent facts that can be summoned at a moment’s notice, often to great effect. Hey all those caffeinated hours steeped in Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Herodotus, Homer, Cicero, not to mention Locke, Hobbes, and Thoreau, had to have been useful for something. Comedian Dennis Miller made a career out of high-brow irrelevent allusions. The skillful use of humor can often pass off as intelligence in our less than literate culture. Blessed are the wickedly clever, for they shall win the popular mind.
Pres. Ronald Reagan is considered one of the top five funniest presidents in American history. The funniest, apparantly, was Abraham Lincoln. Pres. Bush is very funny too, but he usually doesn’t intend to be. We’re talking intentional irrelevence here.
When he was governor of California, Reagan met with a group of young protestors. Their barefooted spokesman told Reagan, “Governor, it’s impossible for your generation to understand us….You didn’t grow up in a world of instant electronic communications, of cybernetics, of men computing in seconds what once took months, even years, of jet travel, nuclear power, and journeys into space…” To which Gov. Reagan replied, “You’re absolutely right. Our generation didn’t have those things when we were growing up. We invented them!” (from Ronald Reagan Humor)
Martin Luther was a master in wielding wicked humor against his opponents. For a great example, read “Against Hanswurst” (that’s Duke Henry of Braunschweig as Harry Hotdog). Regarding Luther’s often coarse sense of humor, Roland Bainton (“Here I Stand”) notes, “Luther delighted less in muck than many of the literary men of his age; but if he did indulge, he excelled in this as in every other area of speech.” Remember that Luther wrote in a less sissified day than our own dark age mired in political correctness. I think he would have loved the idea of the Higher Things Theological Cage Match. In his day, they were called “Disputations.” Genuine smack-down theology.
Even the apostle Paul couldn’t resist a cutting remark when writing to the Galatians. Recall that some guys from Jerusalem had come to insist that Gentile converts to Christianity had to be circumcized under the law of Moses. Ouch! Paul vigorously opposed this notion (Thankfully! It’s hard enough to get them through catechesis!), marshaling several lines of argumentation in classic rhetorical style. Near the end of his argument, he uncorks this opinion of his circumcision-obsessed opponents: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12) Tell us what you really think, Paul. (OK, so it may not be the funniest line ever uttered in religious rhetoric, but hey, St. Paul wasn’t exactly known for his stand up comedy, either.)
So the next time you come to the debate table empty-handed, or your opponent needs to be lowered a notch or two and swatted like a pesky fly, try firing off an irrelevent humor bullet and see what happens.
Be careful, though. Some of us can be pretty quick on the draw.