Barney Frank and the Polemic Power of Laughter

Ridicule, says Frank, was one of his greatest weapons in Congress. The retired Massachusetts congressman shares how humor can help win friends and arguments.

Retired Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank was known in Washington for his political savvy, zealous dedication to financial policy, and razor sharp wit. In his recent Big Think interview, Frank explains the power of humor in politics and discourse. This lesson applies to all professions and ways of life. If you want to persuade, make sure humor is in your arsenal.


Frank breaks down the advantages of humor into two points. First, there's a ton of value in levity. Making people laugh means making people feel good and loyalty brews between people who enjoy each other's company. This isn't a groundbreaking concept by any means but Frank makes sure to point out that humor is an effective way to make friends when friends are needed. He would know. A Washington politician needs friends as sorely as anyone.

The second benefit of humor is in its polemic power:

"People say a lot of things politically. If you say something very funny it's more likely to be remembered and it can get your political point across."

Frank recalls a quip he made about President Ronald Reagan's efforts to defund programs that helped poor children. Frank referenced the president's stance on abortion and said something to the effect of, "I now understand the Republican view. In their head life begins at conception but it ends at birth." Frank notes his quip is remembered is for its form as much as its substance. If he had blustered and filibustered while densely articulating every possible permutation of his position, no one today would remember a thing he said. This is the power of clear and concise humor.

Finally, Frank discusses another form of humor that served him well during his career: ridicule:

"Ridicule is about the most powerful weapon possible rhetorically. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody likes to be made fun of. And if people are making an argument or taking a set of positions that expose them to ridicule, if you can make fun of them that's also very effective."

While it's not necessarily advisable to start employing ridicule during your middle manager meetings, it's certainly a means by which an effective wordsmith can sway opinion and behavior. One example that comes to mind is this Daily Show clip featuring fans of the Washington Redskins. Much of the polemic power of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert lies in their ability to make intellectual opponents look dumb. Whether this mode is nice or not (it's really not) is beside the point. Frank's goal when utilizing ridicule was always to emerge victorious in a war of words. That's why it's a weapon, not a parlor trick.

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