We’ve touched upon the subject of ridicule and its relation to argumentation here. I was briefly discussing there how a traditional account of ‘the use of ridicule in argumentation’ (viz. Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969) was inaccurate both in (1) its depiction of what is it that is ridiculous and (2) in its explanation of how is irony functioning within (along?) the ridicule usage. The main criticism towards (1) was that the scheme of ridiculing, supposing we work with one such scheme, must be about commitments and not about propositions and their truth-value. It is in this sense, among others, that one could interpret Bergson’s “Il n’y a pas de comique en dehors de ce qui est proprement humain” (Bergson, 1924, p. 11). Nonetheless, Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca’s idea of ‘inconsistency’ is something worth preserving. We will not deal in this post with the second problem, the one pertaining to irony (although one can find further discussions about irony here and here)
Let me then add something to the discussion about ridicule. In Reconstructing Argumentative Discourse (Eemeren, Grootendorst, Jackson & Jacobs, 1993, pp. 97-99), the authors use the following text to illustrate the way in which the pragmatic aspects of a conversation must (or better yet “cannot but”) pre-determine the dialectical analysis of that conversation. A, B, C and D are four young male roommates. I’ll quote it in full:
|01 A: We have eight ounces left. That should last us for a couple of days a least |
02 B: Heh yeah, I guess so.
03 A: Twenty-four days I would estimate.
04 B: Eight ounces?!
05 A: Sure. We smoke a lid in two or three days.
((Intervening discussion deleted))
16 B: That’s like- that’s like drinking eight or nine kegs every week.
17 C: Or smoking two packs of cigarettes every day.
18 D: EHHH-heh-heh-heh-heh
19 B: Yeah(.) Only I don’t smoke two packs of cigarettes every-
20 C: Three? Four?
21 B: No. Not nearly that many.
The authors’ analysis of this transcript is quite elaborate and serves the purpose of illustration well. For instance, one could reasonably ask questions such as “How can we justify the analysis of 16 as an argument, and not just a purely informative comparison?” or “Could we reconstruct this conversation as exhibiting a difference of opinion? How come?” Answers to this kind of questions are given and this eventually amounts to a theoretical account of the relation between the real and the ideal sides of argumentation (i.e. an argumentative reality vs. an ideal model of reasonable argumentation).
For what interests us now, we can look just at the passages which bring up the subject of ridicule and its role within such conversations. The significant lines are B’s comparison in 16, the response in 17 and, although the authors don’t refer to it, the questions in 20.
Eemeren et al. (1993, p. 99) start from the idea that “drinking kegs of beer had a strong stereotypical association with the social life of ‘fraternity boys,’ a life-style and class of persons held in deep contempt by all four roommates.” This could indeed be a good starting point. According to this interpretation, what B does in using this comparison is to ridicule A, C and D’s behaviour by comparing it to that of frat boys. “B is arguing that smoking marijuana is morally objectionable in the same way that drinking kegs is morally objectionable, and it is therefore an activity worthy of the same sort of ridicule.” (ibid.) Up to this point, little can be added. The use of the word ‘ridicule’ in this situation might seem like an overvalue if we note that there’s no laughter involved, no joke being told. I will come back to this.
The second instance we will extract is what the authors have to say about C’s counter-argument in 17 (which does raise some laughter!). Here, C is attacking B’s legitimacy of advancing the criticism that he advances since he too is a smoker. “C’s argument alludes to B’s own peculiar substance abuse” (ibid.) Insofar as it is also hindering the conduct of the discussion, the authors claim, it is also a fallacy. This is not of import now. What matters indeed is that the specific type of fallacy the authors recognize (the tu quoque variant of an ad hominem) is very much in line with the idea that inconsistency is a big part of what makes up ridiculing.
The authors make no reference to 20, but it could be easily reconstructed among the same lines. Taking into consideration the point of the reply (establishing B’s moral character), B’s answer in 19 is obviously a way of making evident that he in fact is in the position to raise such and such objection because he smokes less than two packs a day. C is being ironically inquisitive as if it is already established that B smokes more than two packs, the only thing left unsettled being the actual limit (“Three? Four?”).
What about laughter? I think that, in analysing humorous communication (to coin it as broadly as possible), one shouldn’t always look for laughing scenes. In our situation, it is perfectly normal that – although ridicule is present in at least two of the sections considered above – nobody laughs, since nobody, except for the involved parties, is present. There’s no detached audience that can prey on other people’s inconsistencies (although D seems pretty outside the scene and uninvolved). What one should search for is signs of non-bona-fide communication. And of those we have plenty. The first one is observed also by the authors when they notice that “The factual accuracy of the comparison [in 16] is not intended to be an issue.” (p. 99) Signs are also present if we think that C’s question (“Three? Four?”) are also not uttered ‘in good faith’. Their understanding involved recognizing that the speaker is not merely asking for information but ironically suggesting the answer, which is contrary to the ‘normal’ (unmarked) manner of formulating questions. Incidentally, C’s question are an example of Searle’s irony-as-indirectness, but this only because their non-bona-fide-communication mode concerns speech act conditions. The fact that C responds to B’s non-bona-fide switch is a sign that B’s fraternity boys allusion can justifiably be reconstructed as a ridicule usage.
What does all this add to our discussion of ridicule? As to theoretical depth, not much. But it does clarify a point which the pragmatics of humor is very keen on stressing, namely that non-bona-fide communication is not in opposition with bona-fide communication, but that they can concur, in the same pragmatic organization of an argument, towards the goal of the speech act being performed. We are not, in other words, simply “either serious or in jest”, but ridicule is instrumental in getting arguments across. I believe this has a very simple explanation – although some theoretical accounts must be taken for granted in order to support this idea and of course not everybody might care much for such stipulations – namely, the fact that, in ridiculing, speakers do two things at the same time: they argue and they produce comic. The former activity is the one being analyzed in Eemeren et al. (1993). The latter could be explained semantically without ‘disturbing’ the dialectical reconstruction.
 A frat boy is “a college kid who thinks he's better than everyone else because he is in a fraternity. Some college kids are frat boys even though they aren't in a fraternity. Frat boy behaviour is typified by drinking shitty beer, hitting on high school girls, making fun of punks, and wearing boring clothes.” (urbandictionary.com)
 This latter is an illustration of the fact that non-bona-fide is not merely composed of breaking Grice’s Cooperation Principle, but can also be achieved on other levels of discourse – i.e. the commitments and intentions of speech acts.