Posts Tagged Rhetoric

Aristotle’s Rhetoric on Acid

Tom, over at People’s Press Collective, conducts a mini-course on the rhetorical devices used by the Left to derail rational discussion, illustrated by a Twitter fight:

Most of us would focus on the logical fallacy in PolitiComm’s last tweet.  By their argument, the study was about middle-aged Czech immigrants.  After all, are they not people?

But that’s not the point of the post.  Instead, Tom looks at the rhetorical devices used to distract, derail, and otherwise distort an argument.  These are tactics that not only can ensnare smart people, they’re specifically designed to ensnare smart people.  For instance:

  • Distractions: responses aimed at luring their opponent into talking about something else, taking them “down a rabbit hole” and “into the weeds” by focusing on some trivial or secondary facet of their opponent’s argument, thereby miring their opponent in minutiae;
  • Diversions: responses aimed at changing the subject entirely, moving it away from a topic they find threatening to their own interests or worldview and instead onto something threatening to their opponent’s;
  • Deflections: explanations, justifications, or rationalizations which redirect criticism aimed at their sacred cows and onto their opponent, in an attempt to put the latter on the defensive instead;

Why is it important to learn how to recognize and counter these?  Because they’re all tools used to limit our effectiveness.  Too often we make the mistake of assuming that their paucity of logic and supporting facts is obvious to anyone following the debate.  It’s not.  And using them back at the Left is only marginally better than succumbing altogether: they lower the level of discourse to the point where rational argument can’t prevail, either because the discussion itself is so debased, or because other people listening lose interest and walk away convinced that there’s no difference between the sides.

Why are these tactics so common across so many sites and platforms? I suspect there are three main reasons: first, there are professional online activists who are trained to do this kind of thing in much the way Media Matters and others train people for appearances on television or teach them to call talk radio shows or write letters to the editor; second, many more people consciously or subconsciously emulate what they see other like-minded commenters doing; and third, there are people who are just sociopathic naturally gifted in this regard and need neither training nor example to create and employ such tactics.

It’s important for center-right activists to learn to recognize these things so as not to be suckered in by them, and to fight back effectively when encountering leftists using them. Being able to spot, identify, understand, and respond to these tactics undercuts their power. Given enough education and discipline, perhaps we can return to a more rational and persuasion-based political conversation and jettison the juvenile bickering that seems to have become the norm since the emergence of social media and the ascendance of the infantile Progressive movement which dominates its political channels.

 Read the whole thing.  And be better-armed.


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Field Work at DU

I didn’t do the field work.   I was the field work.

For the last several years, I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to be the Conservative for Inspection by the Students at Prof. Christina Foust’s class on Anarcism and Conservatism.  It’s always a terrific experience, being able to put conservative ideas in front of a set of students who probably don’t hear them very often on campus.  And Prof. Foust, despite admitting to being left-of-center, has been unfailingly gracious, has always let the discussion go where it may.

This year was no different, although instead of me responding to questions and expounding on conservative solutions to the world’s problems, we tried to get the students more involved, asking them to explain their questions, come up with their own answers, and show how rhetoric is used to frame an issue by one side or another.  Many of the students who take the course are prospective business students for some reason, so they tend to be focused on economic & business questions, and we did indeed spend a fair amount of time on those.  But when we took up the question of taxing & spending, I took the opportunity to reframe it as one of government power, in a way that readers of this blog will be familiar with.  It was, I hope, a small revelation for them.  As was the emphasis on federalism and the role of the states as laboratories of democracy.

One student asked an interesting question about what they, as individuals, could do to help out with regards to the economy.  I decided to take an economic rather than a political attitude towards the question.  Alluding to Arnold Kling’s analogy of the Great Recalculation, as opposed to the Hydraulic Model of the economy, I suggested that 1) they should make themselves as appealing to potential employers as possible, and 2) they should think about starting businesses of their own.  Both are necessary, as our economy adapts, and we struggle to figure out what goods and services people are willing to pay for.

At the end of the class, we took up the question of higher education, and how their time at the school would affect their lives.  With most of them being business majors, I thought it was a good opportunity to mention the value that the much-derided humanities could have in their lives later on.  Although I was a physics and math major, I took a number of history courses in school.  I was graduating in 1987, and I had every reason to believe that my career would be spent fighting the Soviet Union.  My ability to do that, to maintain perspective on that great struggle, and to stay grounded in it, would be enhanced by a greater understanding of world and European history. Even after I changed careers, I found that my most rewarding moments in b-school and as an equities research analyst were when I saw how understanding business, and understanding human nature and how the world works, are really one in the same.

The key element, I think, is that they need to take the classic authors on their own terms, not the politically-charged and ethnic- and gender- and all-too-abstract ways that many professors would try to present them. Immediately after the class, I happened to pick up a copy of the September 2001 Journal of Political Science, just to see what people were writing about before the world changed.  There was an article about “Thucydides as Constructivist.”  It’s a shame I didn’t look at it immediately before the class, because it’s exactly the kind of thing I would have advised the students to avoid, as utterly irrelevant to the historical lessons they should be getting from the History.  Thucydides is writing a history of a war that actually happened, between two states and two ways of governing, and it’s important not to lose sight of the story he’s telling.  The biases we should care about stem from his own political and military involvement in that war, not from some backward-projected modern critical categories.

Last week, the guests had been anarchists, so I took advantage of the home field advantage to compare (unfavorably) the OWS protestors with the Tea Party, in particular to show how the rhetoric being used by the Occupation is deliberately aimed so as to confuse the differences between the two.  Hey, these kids are going to be making decisions someday; best that they know right from wrong.

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