StreetWrites Workshop for Writing Out of the Margins


Ridicule (from A Glossary of Literary Terms by Robert Harris)
Words intended to belittle a person or idea and arouse contemptuous laughter. The goal is to condemn or criticize by making the thing, idea, or person seem laughable and ridiculous. It is one of the most powerful methods of criticism, partly because it cannot be satisfactorily answered ("Who can refute a sneer?") and partly because many people who fear nothing else—not the law, not society, not even God—fear being laughed at. (The fear of being laughed at is one of the most inhibiting forces in western civilization. It provides much of the power behind the adolescent flock urge and accounts for many of the barriers to change and adventure in the adult world.) Ridicule is, not surprisingly, a common weapon of the satirist.

Ridicule has wide appeal in all humor and comedy; it appeals to something basic in human beings, whether we are proud of that baseness or not. Even those who don't agree with the message of a satire may enjoy it when it's well done: Bob Dole claims to have enjoyed Saturday Night Live's spoofs of various Republicans, and even appeared in one of them along with the man who usually played him. (He did this, however, after he had already lost his Presidential bid.)

The esthetics of ridicule are similar to the esthetics of invective. Making fun of "Yo mama" is not considered as impressive as a more subtle approach can be.

As a persuasive tool, ridicule is much more effective than invective is. It is one of the most powerful tools of the common citizen against those in power.

Ridicule has some of the same drawbacks as invective. The excuse that makes most ridicule acceptable ("it was just a joke") backfires: it is usually not taken seriously as a persuasive argument. It is also discounted as argument on the basis that you wouldn't be throwing insults if you had any facts to hand.

Ridicule is most effective in a cumulative psychological effect, like that of the annoying commercial jingle that still makes you remember the brand name the next time you go to the store, and buy it. It one of the most common tools used to reinforce power and the stereotypes that support the status quo. Consider the effect of jokes about "welfare queens", "homeless drunks", immigrants who can't speak English, or illiterate blacks.


Discussion Questions
  1. Do you agree with Prof. Harris about the powers of ridicule?
  2. The literary forms known as "trolling" or "flaming", found primarily on the Internet, make much use of ridicule.
    1. If you have used ridicule in this manner, what was your intent? Did you accomplish it?
    2. If you have experienced ridicule used in this manner, what were its effects? How did you handle it? What do you think would be the most effective way(s) of handling it?
  3. The current Administration is providing comedians around the world with an easy target for ridicule. Do you think that the jokes portraying "Dubya" as extremely stupid have any real political motive or effect?
  4. Ridicule is also frequently used in jokes perpetuating some sort of stereotype: racist, sexist, ethnic, religious jokes, lawyer jokes, jokes by the Right ridiculing the Left and jokes by the Left ridiculing the Right and jokes by the Left ridiculing other parts of the Left. When does such ridicule cross the lines of acceptability, in your opinion? Why?
  5. Do you think ridicule has positive uses? What would you use ridicule for?
  1. Pick a target and ridicule it.
  2. How did you feel after writing?
Critique Guidelines
  1. As with the invective exercise, please don't get caught up in argument over the rightness or wrongness of the ridicule or its target.
  2. Was this strong ridicule or weak?
  3. As evidenced by the number of comedians using it, we find ridicule entertaining. Was this entertaining?



Rant Parody Technique Satire Old Forms & New
Invective Burlesque Irony Juvenalian Satire The Novel of Manners
Ridicule Travesty Hyperbole Bardic Satire The Picaresque Novel
  Mock Epic Understatement Lampoon The Wessitur
  Pastiche Oxymoron Sarcasm Other "Nonsense"
& "Nonsequiturs"
    Tone Horatian Satire

Write On!
Anitra L. Freeman

All contents and images are created and copyrighted by Anitra Freeman, except quotes from published material, which are attributed to the author and used only for educational purposes. Others may use this material, on request, for personal or educational purposes where no fee is charged, with credit to the author and a link wherever possible.

StreetWrites Workshop Exercises