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NICHOLAS KRISTOF AND Richard A. Friedman offer advice to Joe Biden in advance of tonight’s presidential debate, September 29, 2020. Kristof and Friedman recommend humor, ridicule, and mockery. 

Nicholas Kristof, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, has been a regular op-ed columnist for The New York Times since 2001. He writes in The New York Times, September 27, 2020, “Authoritarians are pompous creatures with monstrous egos and so tend to be particularly vulnerable to humor…. To beat Trump, mock him!”

Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College. He writes in “How To Debate Someone Who Lies,” The New York Times, September 25, 2020, “The first weapon may be the most effective: humor and ridicule.

Schadenfreude worldwide. Image from Huffpost.

Here are tidbits gleaned from their insights, together with several of my favorite examples of humor, mockery, and ridicule.

Image from The New York Times, September 26, 2020. See also ETYMOLOGY—RIDICULE, DERISION, MOCKERY.

Are the Stakes Too Serious to Laugh? Kristof says no: “One of the most successful examples of laughtivism came two decades ago when university students took on the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Milosevic committed genocide and isn’t an obvious target of humor—but the students’ wit helped topple him.”

Kristof continues, “A typical stunt: They taped a picture of Milosevic on the side of a barrel and invited passers-by to take a swing at it with a baseball bat. The resulting photos of the police ‘arresting’ the barrel and hauling it away were widely publicized and made Milosevic seem less mighty and more ridiculous. In 2000, Milosevic was ousted and handed over to an international tribunal to be tried for war crimes.”

On Countering Lies. Psychiatrist Friedman writes, “A derisive joke can defuse tense and outrageous situations.”

Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez from The New York Times, September 25, 2020.

Friedman continues, “In 2007, for example, protesters dressed as clowns confronted a ‘white power’ march in Charlotte, N.C., holding signs that read ‘wife power’ and throwing white flour in the air. It made the white nationalists look ridiculous and avoided a violent confrontation, which would have served the interests of the racists.”

My favorite response to Trump’s being “a stable genius.” Sandy and Richard Riccardi perform their rendition of “A Musical Instrument.”

Truth Sandwiches. Friedman notes, “Some of the president’s lies are not served by humor; Mr. Biden will have to confront them head-on.…” A lie, Friedman advises, should be confronted with truth, but offered in what cognitive scientists call a “truth sandwich.” That is, in rebutting a lie, surround it with truth. 

Friedman offers an example: “The fact is that more than 200,000 American have died—even if the president falsely suggests the number is lower. But let’s focus on the grim truth: More than 200,000 of our loved ones died from coronavirus, many because of the president’s deception.”

Truth sandwiches are effective in correcting falsehoods because people tend to remember the beginning and end of a statement, not what’s in the middle.


Performing to a Non-Crowd. Friedman notes an inherent Trump shortcoming in the debate: “President Trump will not have a live audience to excite him and satisfy his insatiable need for approval and attention, which means he will be even more vulnerable to a takedown. True, no one will be there to laugh at Mr. Biden’s jokes, but it doesn’t matter because the goal is serious: to expose the truth and unnerve Mr. Trump by getting under his skin.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020  

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