As America's ongoing adventure in health-care legislation illustrates, our public square can produce some loud, emotional arguments. But it would be a stretch to call the incessant volley of epithets and doom-saying that have characterized the health-reform saga a "debate."
Traditional debate, wherein one posits a claim and attempts to make a persuasive case with logic and examples, whether deductively or inductively, has come to seem as quaint as an 8-track player in our tweety-speedy demimonde. Even our political "debates," which ape the formal structure of more rigorous rhetorical face-offs, are more tailored to the coining of killer sound bites and "gotcha" moments — and, lest we forget, the cultivation of on-camera gravitas — than winning on the merits.
Blame the 24-hour news cycle. Blame niche broadcasting, wherein Americans get an alarming portion of their daily information from shrill, ultra-partisan voices they already agree with. Blame the Internet and diminished attention spans. Or, if you prefer, blame an education system that fails to teach critical thinking. Whatever you blame, one thing's clear: Without understanding the fundamentals of persuasion, we're less likely to BE persuasive — and more likely vulnerable to specious argument.
I'd add that even hardcore marketing types can benefit from a bit of forensic exercise. After all, we're in a new era of selling; to survive, brands must form direct, long-term relationships with consumers using social media — and that requires establishing trust. Making your case without trickery (and giving your audience credit for knowing the difference) is imperative in that effort.
Call me quixotic, but I believe a rhetorical renaissance is possible. As a small step toward that goal, I'll be offering up the first in a series of primers on rhetorical tactics and what are known, in debate circles, as "logical fallacies," the debater's equivalent of dirty pool.
Call me quixotic, but I believe a rhetorical renaissance is possible.Some of these are fallacies of relevance (in other words, the premise is irrelevant to the conclusion); some of presumption (i.e. they begin with a false assumption); still others, which I'll tackle in a future issue, are fallacies of ambiguity (they muddy the waters, much like former President Clinton's infamous remark, "It depends on what the definition of 'is' is").
In formal debate, participants gain advantage by calling out their opponents' use of logical fallacies, ideally in both Latin and English. (Doing so on comment boards, on the other hand, might prompt a string of expletives.) Even if the idea of formal debate gives you hives, being able to identify these flaws can help make your writing more precise, persuasive and, dare we say, honest. Here are a few of my favorites:
Ad hominem (personal attack): "Senator So-And-So states that bill X should be passed into law. But he recently admitted to an affair; do we really want to pass a law that's endorsed by an adulterer?" This fallacy of relevance, a transparent attack against the man (which is the literal meaning of ad hominem), might not sway you. But think about how often the character, behavior or affiliations of an advocate are used to dismiss an argument without logically examining its merits.
Ad misericordiam (appeal to pity or misery): "Consider the ordeal that is my client's life — abandoned by his crack-addled mother, raised in a brutal orphanage and assorted halfway houses, beaten and sexually exploited all his life. Therefore, returning him to the prison system would be a grave miscarriage of justice." This appeal, another fallacy of relevance, does nothing to establish the defendant's innocence but attempts instead to play on the sympathies of the jury.
Tu quoque (you too): The wrong thing I did is OK because someone else did it (a fallacy of presumption): "Some customers have complained about our policy of arbitrarily increasing interest rates without notice. But they should be aware that this is common practice in the credit-card industry and that our rate hikes were, in fact, lower than those instituted by many of our competitors." That don't make it right, jerks.
Begging the question/circular reasoning (petitio principii): Another fallacy of presumption. This type of argument takes the claim it seeks to prove as a given, or otherwise leaves unproved the question it begins with. "Begging the question" doesn't mean asking a question but rather that one has simply re-stated his "question" or argumentative premise as though it had been proven (some folks are quite dedicated to clarifying this, as this BTQ site demonstrates). I frequently see a bumper sticker bearing the message "Jesus Is God — Read the Bible." This slogan may be a tidy summary of a belief, but as an argument it's a perfect example of circular reasoning: Jesus' divinity is affirmed by the Bible, which is the word of God, which we know to be true because ... well, because it says so in the Bible. I dream of making a bumper sticker with the assertion "I'm God — Read This Bumper Sticker," but I don't want my car keyed.
Without understanding the fundamentals of persuasion, we're less likely to BE persuasive ó and more vulnerable to specious argument.The "No True Scotsman" fallacy: "A Scotsman would never put sugar on his porridge." But Angus puts sugar on his porridge. "In that case, Angus is not a true Scotsman." In other words, counter-claims that call my argument into question aren't legitimate because they're not "true" examples. Despite its Celtic intimations, this fallacy occurs frequently in our political discourse. Indeed, during the last election, we heard Republican messages about the "real America," which presumably opposed government involvement in banking and health care (not to mention gay marriage, abortion and hybrid cars). Therefore, if the opposition countered this claim about what Americans want by pointing to poll numbers supporting some liberal policy, GOP flacks could still say "real America" remained staunchly against it. Of course, the definition of which turf was "real" became vexed rather quickly; the part of Virginia that leaned Democratic, for example, was obviously not "real Virginia." Talk about presumption.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this; "post hoc" for short): I lost my keys. So I prayed to God for help. Then I found them. Therefore God answers prayers. The idea that things happening in succession means the first thing caused the second is a pretty common presumptive fallacy; it's related to the seedy-sounding cum hoc ergo propter hoc (with this, therefore because of this), wherein two simultaneous occurrences are alleged to be causally connected simply because they're simultaneous: I started going to ball games. My favorite team won its first pennant in years. Therefore I deserve credit for the team's success.
Slippery slope: Taking action A will lead inevitably to terrible consequence B. For example: Health-care reform will lead to greater and greater arrogation of power by the executive branch, and one day we'll all find ourselves in gulags. Or: Reading "Editorializing" will cause you to become a word nerd, and soon you'll be playing online Scrabble day and night. Of course, it's perfectly possible that action A will NOT lead to consequence B or any other dire outcome; moderation may be just as likely, if not more so. Though we make no promises about the online Scrabble.
I'll be discussing more of these fallacies at a future date. Perhaps by delving into this material we can all learn to make a more substantive case for whatever we're claiming, advocating or pitching. In the meantime, I hope the above will make you more inclined to take a closer look at the next "If A, then B" argument you hear — and, if the occasion permits, to point an accusatory finger at its author and cry, "Post hoc!"