Sojourner Truth’s Strategic Use of Humor

Today is the 161st anniversary of Sojourner Truth’s speech to the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Though commonly known as the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, Truth probably never said those words. But the speech that she more likely delivered included several excellent examples of the strategic use of humor to achieve persuasive goals. In advocating for her rights as a Black woman, Truth met resistance not only from anti-abolitionists, but also from many white women actively engaged in the early women’s rights movement.

As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint and man a quart—why cant she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much,—for we cant take more than our pint’ll hold.

Truth demonstrated that her intellect is equal to that of a man’s, not by denying the offending claim, but by subverting it. She ironically accepted her opponents’ claim though the use of an analogy of measurement and comically reassured her audience that since women lack intellectual capacity, men have no need to fear them. By turning the hypothetical man’s argument against him, Truth demonstrated that she was far smarter than those who opposed equality.

I cant read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.

Without really conceding the argument that Eve caused man to sin, Truth asks that women be given equal rights in order to make up for that mistake. she couches this request in humor to make it more difficult for an ecclesiastical rebuttal.

And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?

Again, Truth displayed humor and wisdom telling her audience that human men played no part in the creation of Jesus. Based on these arguments, if there is to be any inequality, it is the women who should be full citizens and not the men.

The use of humor certainly carries risk. The audience may not understand that the speaker was trying to employ strategic humor. In Truth’s case, the humor may have been misunderstood by the mostly white audience. As Nell Irvin Painter points out in her excellent biography of Sojourner Truth, Delivered straight, these lines would never have elicited cheers and applause from her mostly white audiences. She spoke of sinful whites and vengeful blacks, but her humor let her listeners exempt themselves. They did not hear wrath against whites, but against the advocates of slavery. It is understandable, no doubt, that Truth’s audiences, who wanted so much to love this old black woman who had been a slave, found it difficult to fathom the depths of her bitterness.”

Rhetorical humor can open spaces of discourse otherwise closed, but it can also mask challenging beliefs. Today it is good to remember its use by a hero of social change in America.

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Twitter and comedy

Thanks to everyone who came out to my presentation, “Performing on Twitter: Comedians and the Rebirth of the One-Liner”, at the Rhetoric Society of America meeting in Philadelphia!

Obama’s turn for inappropriate commencement jokes!

In maintaining the goal of reaching out to their bases, Mitt went to Liberty and Barack went to Barnard. While I criticized Romney in the last post for not doing a better job with his speech to reach out to Christian conservative voters, Obama uses his speech, and his humor, to try to connect with female voters. Unfortunately, nearly all of Obama’s humor in the speech is about gender and some of it rather it rather ill advised. It’s not that he shouldn’t address these graduates as women, for this is a women’s college, but the choice of what to joke about at times seemed strange, marginalizing, and maybe even offensive. Let’s go to the jokes…

I will begin by telling a hard truth: I’m a Columbia college graduate. (Laughter and applause.) I know there can be a little bit of a sibling rivalry here.

Pretty good first joke. Obama went to Columbia College as an undergraduate completing his degree just before the College began admitting women in the fall of 1983. Barnard has a long and complicated relationship with Columbia and Obama’s joke recognizes that there can be tension between the two schools. It is reminiscent of a joke that President Kennedy made upon receiving an honorary degree from Yale: “Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the very deep honor which you have conferred upon me. As General de Gaulle occasionally acknowledges America to be the daughter of Europe, so I am pleased to come to Yale, the daughter of Harvard. It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” Where Kennedy wanted to acknowledge the rivalry between the two schools and even take a dig at his hosts, Obama’s strategic needs were different. He chose to use humor to downplay that his degree came from the more widely known, and at the time exclusionary, Columbia by framing it as “a hard truth”. It is important for speaker to explain their connection to the audience and, if that connection is the source of any tension, humor can be an effective way to dispose of it.

But I will point out Hillary is doing an extraordinary job as one of the finest Secretaries of State America has ever had. We gave Meryl the Presidential Medal of Arts and Humanities. Sheryl is not just a good friend; she’s also one of our economic advisers. So it’s like the old saying goes — keep your friends close, and your Barnard commencement speakers even closer. There’s wisdom in that.

Obama is smart to recognize previous Barnard commencement speakers, all women, and to praise them. In the last line he uses an unexpected shift of the phrase “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” to recast the “enemies” as “Barnard commencement speakers” whom he keeps close for their accomplishments and counsel. Humor can be used strategically to ingratiate oneself to an audience by praising their previous good works, in this case the quality of their choices of commencement speakers including, presumably, their choice of Obama.

We had the Walkman, not iPods. Some of the streets around here were not quite so inviting.

In talking about what life was like when Obama was at Columbia, he references changes in technology and in the neighborhood. This seems a reasonable way to seek credibility to speak about the students’ college experience, but it does reinforce the idea that Morningside Heights used to be scary, now it’s better, and everyone thinks that’s good. Of course it’s a little more complicated.

So far, so good. But here’s where I think Obama tries to make his case for his concern about “women’s issues” but fails to use humor strategically to make his points.

And I believe that the women of this generation — that all of you will help lead the way. Now, I recognize that’s a cheap applause line when you’re giving a commencement at Barnard. It’s the easy thing to say.

If you are going to say something that may seem trite, but still needs to be said, it helps to acknowledge to your audience that you know and they know and that you know they know what you are trying to do. Obama continues:

But it’s true. It is — in part, it is simple math. Today, women are not just half this country; you’re half its workforce. More and more women are out-earning their husbands. You’re more than half of our college graduates, and master’s graduates, and PhDs. So you’ve got us outnumbered.

This joke seems both masculinist and heteronormative. “Women are out-earning their husbands” defines women based on their place in a heterosexual marriage, even if their economic position in that relationship is improved. It’s true that those numbers are up, but in households where both a husband and wife work, only 29% of wives earn more than their husbands. But where women do outnumber men is in the voting booth. And even though getting women to vote for him is Obama’s main purpose for this speech, he fails to address that directly. Still, Obama would have been better served by addressing the role that these women will play in society, not in their possible future role as heterosexual wives.

I think of a friend of mine who’s the daughter of immigrants. When she was in high school, her guidance counselor told her, you know what, you’re just not college material. You should think about becoming a secretary. Well, she was stubborn, so she went to college anyway. She got her master’s. She ran for local office, won. She ran for state office, she won. She ran for Congress, she won. And lo and behold, Hilda Solis did end up becoming a secretary — she is America’s Secretary of Labor.

So this joke, another based on gender, is a bit better in that it’s the story of a woman who defied expectations. Still, the humor is based on an incongruity that reinforces gender roles (that when the audience hears “secretary” and “she” they assume a clerical position, not a Cabinet one). The audience did cheer and laugh indicating that they got the joke when Obama said Hilda Solis’s name. So while this joke reinscribed gender roles even as it tried to argue that they have changed, parts of the immediate audience enjoyed it.

Until a girl can imagine herself, can picture herself as a computer programmer, or a combatant commander, she won’t become one. Until there are women who tell her, ignore our pop culture obsession over beauty and fashion — (applause) — and focus instead on studying and inventing and competing and leading, she’ll think those are the only things that girls are supposed to care about. Now, Michelle will say, nothing wrong with caring about it a little bit. (Laughter.) You can be stylish and powerful, too. (Applause.) That’s Michelle’s advice. (Applause.)

I have left in the parts of the transcript that indicated applause and laughter. Some members of the audience seemed to like this section, but from watching the video I would say that the response was tepid given the size of the crowd. This part of the speech just seems very strange to me. Would Obama, in a speech to a male or a predominantly male college make any reference to the physical appearance of the graduates? I doubt it. See for example Obama’s commencement address at West Point in 2010. He singles out the top cadet and the valedictorian for special recognition, both women, but makes no mention of how they looked while achieving those accomplishments. Does the second part about Michelle help him connect with some kinds of women? Maybe, but not all and likely not many in this audience. Are these jokes aimed at the parents? Does he invoke Michelle’s name to lessen the sexism of his remarks? He does mention Michelle, by inference, later in the speech.

And later on, I met a woman who was assigned to advise me on my first summer job at a law firm. And she gave me such good advice that I married her.

She was so good at what she did, she was marriageable? So Michelle Robinson’s accomplishments (in this case having graduated from law school before Barack did despite being three years younger and being in a superior position at the law firm) are not mentioned so that the graduates can use them as an example for professional ambition, but they are laudatory because they serve as an example of how professional success can lead to marriage?

Grade = C+

Much of Obama’s humor in the speech serves to reinforce gender paradigms. He could have done a better job tying his humor into larger arguments about the importance of women and his differences with the Republicans by demonstrating that he does not view women’s primary role as only in relation to men. And the heteronormativity following last week’s announcement didn’t help.

Transcript of President Obama’s Barnard College Commencement Remarks

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Romney’s humor in the Liberty University commencement address misses the mark


Facing a potentially hostile crowd? Not sure if evangelicals are going to be with you in November? You have them captive in uncomfortably warm polyester for good 20 minutes? Maybe it’s time for some jokes.

Strategically there are several reasons Mitt Romney would want to use humor in his commencement speech at Liberty University. His most important goal was to create identification with his audience, many of whom view him and his Mormon faith with suspicion. As with many of Romney’s attempts to connect on a human level, his commencement address fell a short of a top grade.

Speaking of Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell, Romney said “I will always remember his cheerful good humor and selflessness. Several years ago, in my home, my wife and I were posing for a picture together with him. We wanted him to be in the center of the photo, but he insisted that Ann be in the middle, with he and I on the sides. He explained, by pointing to me and himself, ‘You see, Christ died between two thieves.'”

OK, not bad. Romney tried tried to claim commonality with Falwell and used Falwell’s joke to imply that they got along. the problem with Falwell’s joke in this context is that it may serve to reinforce the idea that Romney is not an honest businessman and a committed Christian, but someone who steals money from weakened companies and the nomination from a “real” Christian.

Romney also made some standard commencement jokes of the “wow, college takes a long time” and “your parents are so glad to be rid of you” variety.

“Some of you may have taken a little longer than four years to complete your studies. One graduate has said that he completed his degree in only two terms: Clinton’s and Bush’s.”

Romeny’s  speechwriters really need to work on this. There was so much more potential for this joke. accuracy is hardly the soul of wit, but I doubt a traditionally-aged college student told Romney that they started college during Clinton’s administration when they were a pre-teen. Plus it would be funnier to say “he completed his degree in only two terms: Bush’s and Obama’s. If you just taken a few more courses you would’ve made it to a third term: Romney’s.” Not that it’s my place offer advice to Romney’s speechwriters.

“There are some people here who are even more pleased than the graduates. Those would be the parents. Their years of prayers, devotion, and investment have added up to this joyful achievement. And with credit to Congressman Dick Armey: The American Dream is not owning your own home, it is getting your kids out of the home you own.”

Sure, give credit for the joke to bona fide conservative Dick Armey. And it’s also super funny because it reinforces the fact that graduating from college is not going to mean the students are out of their parents’ house. Romney’s recycled joke failed to recognize the difficult situation many of these students and their parents are in. The joke assumes that everyone owns their own home and that the graduates will be starting out on their own. Recent studies show that at least 30% will be heading back to live with their parents! It’s not that every use of humor needs to be 100% inclusive, but if you’re the guy who people think doesn’t care about poor people, it’s worth being a little careful.

“Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about life in four-year stretches. And let’s just say that not everybody has achieved as much in these last four years as you have.”

This is a good move for Romney to make considering that the immediate audience likely is not fond of President Obama. To find the graduates’ accomplishments superior to those of the president is an effective rhetorical choice.

“Promotions often mark the high points in a career, and I hope I haven’t seen my last. But sometimes the high points come in unexpected ways. I was asked to help rescue the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. I’m embarrassed now to recall that when this opportunity was first presented to me, I dismissed it out of hand. I was busy, I was doing well, and, by the way, my lack of athletic prowess did not make the Olympics a logical step. In fact, after I had accepted the position, my oldest son called me and said, “Dad, I’ve spoken to the brothers. We saw the paper this morning. We want you to know there’s not a circumstance we could have conceived of that would put you on the front page of the sports section.””

So one of your major accomplishments you didn’t even want to do since you were making so much money and you’re not a jock. But the Olympics were in Salt Lake City and you had to save them. And while your sons expect to see you in the paper, it seems strange in the sports section. Is that the strategic value of this part of the speech? Reminding your audience about the things that make you different (e.g., being Mormon, rich, asked to run the Olympics, frequently in the newspaper), but not in a way that helps them identify with you?

Perhaps the two most important strategic functions of humor in politics are to create identification and attack an opponent while maintaining the good will of the audience. Neither is expertly accomplished here.

Grade = C- (but that’s enough to graduate!)

photo from

Video of Romney’s speech at Liberty University

Text of Romney’s speech at Liberty University

The Republican Debate at Dartmouth

There were a few instances in which the candidates in the latest Republican debate tried to employ rhetorical humor.

Jon Huntsman seemed to be the most interested in using humor to score points. Responding to a comment made by Rick Santorum that “We need a bold energy plan — I put one out there — to drill — Pennsylvania, I don’t want to brag, Governor, but Pennsylvania is the gas capital of the world right now, not Texas”, Huntsman added after being asked different question about jobs (watch until 1:03)

“We need to regain our industrial base. I would, first and foremost, disagree with Rick on one measure. That is, Pennsylvania is not the gas capital of the country. Washington, D.C., is the gas capital of the country.” Jon Hunstman

This was a labored attempt to make a joke about Washington and establish himself as an outsider. It would have been better if the joke as been delivered right after Santorum’s comments (timing is everything, right?).

Later Hunstman used humor to try to score points against Herman Cain’s 999 plan:

“ROSE: When you mention a flat tax, does that mean that you look with some favor upon 9-9-9 that Herman Cain mentioned at the beginning of this conversation?

HUNTSMAN: I think it’s a catchy phrase. In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it.”

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