A Theory of Rhetorical Humor in American Political Discourse

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2007-11-27

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This dissertation offers a theory of the strategic use of rhetorical humor in political discourse. This theory accounts for the differences between intentional and unintentional humor while creating a structure for the identification of humorous utterances. The largest gap in the current state of knowledge concerning rhetorical humor is a lack of understanding regarding the connection between humorous attempts and persuasive situations. This area of concern is answered with a classification of the rhetorical strategies of humor. I propose three nested categories for the identification of actions that have amusement or laughter as an expected response. These three categories in order of increasing exclusivity are the risible, humor, and rhetorical humor. The risible includes all stimuli that create amusement, regardless of intention. The risible is not limited to, but includes, those situations in which the speaker did not attempt to use humor but the audience was amused. Humor is a linguistic act on the part of a speaker that carries with it the intended effect of producing a state of amusement or mirth in the audience. Rhetorical humor is a linguistic act on the part of a speaker that carries with it the intended effect of producing a state of amusement or mirth in the auditor for the purpose of bringing about a change in attitude or belief.

The theory presented here contends that rhetorical humor can be used to achieve nine strategic objectives for the speaker. The employment of these strategies is demonstrated through an examination of significant speeches by President Bill Clinton, Governor Ann Richards, and rights activist Sojourner Truth. With the development of a theory of rhetorical humor in political discourse and its application as a critical heuristic this project contributes to our understanding of rhetoric, political discourse, and that most human of experiences, humor.

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