Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rhetoric I: General Principles

Video version:

Inherent to any argument is an audience. Either a specific singular opponent in the moment, a readership, or some particular group of people you wish to reach. Audience often dictates argument; the way in which we go about trying to convince others of something is informed by who we believe we are talking to in that moment.

Here is where writers have to make a moral choice to appeal to the best of us or the worst. We can choose to preach to the choir, rally a mob, cater to the lowest common denominator, or engage with the most rational and thoughtful.

Preaching to the choir is easiest. You don't have to think about the substance of your arguments at all; just say things that you know your faction already agrees with and watch them lap it up. When in doubt, resort to jokes and name-calling. Even that can be passed off as an argument on Twitter, Fox News, or The Daily Show.

Arguing for the mob is similarly easy. All one need do is give people justifications for whatever emotion or cause you wish to use. There is a lot of this going on with the whole Mike Brown debacle in Ferguson. Protesters there are saying that, regardless of the evidence, it is the duty of the grand jury to indict the officer that shot Mike Brown. They threaten to shut down the city if this does not happen. The arguments used by the leadership of this mob talk of "historical injustices" and the unfair treatment of blacks by the police. You can judge for yourself whether or not these are rational justifications for ignoring the facts of a grand jury investigation.

Catering to the lowest common denominator is about simplifying an argument to make it palatable to the largest group of people possible. It focuses on the 50th percentile of intelligence and knowledge of relevant issues, a group that doesn't require terribly sophisticated argumentation. This strategy is used by politicians, and was employed to sell everything from the war in Iraq to Obamacare. It involves a lot of misdirection and lying by omission.

What all of these approaches have in common is that they tend to employ a lot of logical fallacies. Here's a good refresher from our friends at /pol/:

Logical fallacies are shortcuts that feel like good arguments but actually aren't. The problem is that they require active thinking to identify. With practice you get good at it; you can catch people employing one mid-sentence and be ready to counter. Unfortunately, 50th percentile and below people don't tend to be great critical thinkers.

Writers employ logical fallacies and lazy argument styles either by choice or by default. Either the writer is too cynical to try to appeal to rational, clear-thinking people, or too lazy. I gauge the quality of a writer or speaker by their fidelity to reason and their refusal to resort to arguments that, while perhaps more effective at ginning up the masses, are mendacious at their core.

In my own writing, I try to be neither cynical nor lazy. If I fail, I hope to be called on it.