pthd, pthd, pthd — Meep meep!

A friend of my said, in the course of a conversation of a political nature, that, since politics is in its current state with the strength of extreme characterizations of partisan positions, providing ample fodder for humorists, Colbert is successful; and he would not be as successful if this were not the case.

My first thought was this was a tautological (petitio principii, begging the question, or circulus in probando, circular reasoning) because it sounded like he was saying, “Colbert is successful in the current circumstances that allow him to be funny, but under different circumstances, he would not be successful.”  The circle would happen by unconsciously accepting the assumption that the requirement for his success is due to the extremes in political positions, actions, statements, etc.  If there were not extremes, which create comedic fodder, Colbert would not be “successful.”

But I wasn’t sure, so I peppered him with an opening salvo of queries. The exercise was to try pealing back the layers of assumption for some sort of insight into why he would make such a statement and reveal what he was “really saying.”

Note: when I say “humor”, I mean humor, comedy, and satire; by humorist, I mean humorist, comedian, and satirist.

The Dust Cloud

I began to parse the component thoughts (with unfortunate “leading of the witness” to expose the layers) this way:

  • Colbert is a political humorist.
  • The strength of polar political agendas exaggerates the differences between parties, making political fodder starkly available.
  • Starkly available fodder makes humor easier than if the fodder were not so available.
  • Without such strength and stark availability, Colbert would not have as much success as he has now. Why?
  • Pealing back a layer: Colbert taken out of the political “venue” (context) would not be as successful because …
    • Pealing back another layer: his humor is based on politics, and without that base, he has [nothing].

Note that the “pealing back” does not appear to be nice, sequitur links in the reasoning chain. That is because, before arriving at these points, one or more leading questions were involved to elicit them. I had to put in “[nothing]” because that’s where the line of reasoning ended. It wasn’t as elliptical as it was simply absent. But notice the ellipsis after “successful because…” Here was a link in the chain of my friend’s argument that appeared to have been truncated for brevity’s sake, or was it an obscured assumption?

When questioning the basis for success in the political, my friend emphasized that he had said “as successful” related to an as-yet undefined comparative. Without the comparative “as” that should have followed, it was like one had mistaken the optical illusion of layered rocks for solid ground when actually you were walking off the cliff of a canyon. Filling in the comparative, “he wouldn’t be as successful as he is because” means: he has attained a level of success and his success wouldn’t rise to that level under other [political] circumstances. Now we have a bridge.

In another layer peeled back: given that politics is politics regardless of a qualification of “strength,” Colbert would probably still be successful (read: funny), just not with the same “success” (read: following, money, both?) in another, non-political context. Some drift in reference for success/successful. Drift occurs easily and often due to an approximation or unsurety of focus. Such drift puts one’s argument at risk of committing a fallacy of equivocation (in substance) and a fourth-term fallacy (in form).

Trying to narrow the focus with only the acknowledged blocks, it seemed to be that Colbert is funny because of politics.

Settling Dust

In my mental paradigm, humor is a skill composed of elements that are only apparent given the ability acquired by training or some outlay of time and energy (talent notwithstanding). But it was as though my friend was thinking of humor as a solid object of funniness that, when joined to a human, creates a humorist. “Ability” was not a factor. (An attribution of substance or reality to a  mental construct often results in the fallacy of Reification, or Hypostatization.)

Thinking aloud, I expressed that a skilled humorist is such because he can see nuances of, typically, human weaknesses as well as can set up caricatures that are easy to visualize, injecting that with satire, sarcasm and other appreciated forms of “humor,” storytelling (setting up a scene to highlight a trait to be the focus) with dramatic elements encapsulated in a “style” that reinforces the humorist’s “onstage” persona. The content of the humor is not relevant to the skill except where the content’s humorization involves nuances specific to its domain.

So if it is not true that politics is the cause or the occasion of Colbert’s apparent ability, then what is?

I issued this challenge: What if we uprooted Colbert from politics and isolated him in a non-political context. #1, could he be successful? #2, could he be “as successful” as he is now?

We resolved that uprooting a person from one context and setting him down in another, as with any human, would require adjustment BUT that the skillset would remain relatively unchanged.  Of course, he would have to study the new context to understand the material available within its domain, which would require time to ramp up. So during the ramp-up period, he may not be “as successful” as he is at his current, political-context level.

The Soul of the Matter

Now with all the substantive exploration out of the way, the reason for the Colbert statement in the middle of a partisan conversation was still a mystery.  And after arriving at our resolutions by filling in the links to the chain of reasoning, we were still left with what he really intended.

At the first utterance of the Colbert statement, I sensed there was something about it that smacked of circumstantial argumentum ad hominum, arguing for something by personally attacking the opponent or suggesting the opponent’s circumstances bias an outcome.  Since Colbert is on the liberal side of the political spectrum, somehow his success is due to liberal “success” (which supports my friend’s “context” of strong, current political heat). I’m still not sure, but my sense is that the Colbert statement was a cutting down of a “liberal” proponent (political opponent in this case) as being less apt to be worth anything under the circumstance of a less “liberal” powerbase.

Is Colbert’s success due to the US having a liberal administration, which was voted in by a population (at least 51%) inclined toward the liberal (for whatever reason), which forms the audience (the market), which consumes Colbert’s material?

Then maybe it’s a “straw man” argument, where Colbert’s success is a symptom of support that could wane with a weaker partisan foothold; and “defeating” Colbert is a type of “defeat” for the current administration?

I’m not sure, and probably can never be after polluting the possibilities with the leading questions I was asking and the ponderings aloud. In any case, politics will (probably) always be around, and the Colberts of the world will always have that “venue”.

So we began discussing what fallacies are and having support for one’s conclusions, or a basis for one’s beliefs. When out of the blue …

“It’s only my opinion.”


WHAT?! (audio: screeching of tires for an impromptu, hi-speed stop. Scene: a cloud of smoke & dust arises, obscuring the audience’s ability to see the consequence.)

The general consensus in the definition of ‘opinion’ includes the notions of “belief” without “proof” or “certainty.” But when you’re in a conversation and a statement is made as though it were fact, and when effort has been expended to evaluate the bases (as being less than substantial), its late qualification as being “only an opinion” feels like equivocation at best, prevarication at worst. Saying something like, “Well, the argument really isn’t an argument as much it is just me expressing an opinion” begs the nature of “argument.” (I won’t even touch the “expressing” part.)

A discussion is a consideration or examination (of a topic) by argument, where argument is the case made to substantiate a point with reasoning or providing reasons/facts to justify a conclusion. The motivations generally ascribed to vocalizations in the context of a discussion involve shades of “persuasion” (with the end of inducing belief or concurrence). [Note: I will not go into the concept of implicature in this article.]

The weakest of those shades would be just a simple vocalizing of whatever thought happens to cross your mind and that involves something more than merely passing gas. Even that weak utterance still involves some intent for “sharing” the thought in the first place, no matter how weak. Using this as a basis, we might hypothesize: if you utter a statement, you either have a motivation or you have a case of Tourette Syndrome.

Check for Paint

So here we are, merrily cruising along at 75 MPIH (miles per intellectual hour), 5 miles-per over the speed limit, and suddenly a wall appears ala what the Roadrunner would do to Wile E. Coyote with his painting of tunnels on a wall. “I’m just expressing my [belief without proof or certainty].” CRASH! The road of discussion was an illusion.

I guess I should resolve to first ask my potential conversant if his/her statement is being presented for evaluation — or stop before what appears to be a tunnel to check for paint.

One Response

  1. Regarding implicature, I found a wonderfully concise definition in a comment on the CrookedTimber blog by Bloix:

    There is concept in linguistics called “implicature,” which distinguishes between what an utterance, taken as an intended communication made in good faith, implies or suggests, and what, as a matter of strict logical construction, it literally asserts regardless of the good faith of the speaker.

    Here’s a little something Bloix points out:

    Lawyers, ad men, PR men, and speech writers are skilled in the exploitation of implicature. They are able to craft statements that will be taken by all ordinary listeners to mean one thing, but that do not strictly assert that thing. A common example is the non-denial denial, but implicature is also used to imply affirmative statements that are known to be false.

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