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On Rhetorical Aims and Defense Against the Dark Arts

There are two modes of public discourse that deal with syllogisms:

  1. Rhetoric – the art of persuasion
  2. Dialectic – the art of discovering/explaining what must or may be true or false based upon facts and reasoning.

The thing about these that is important to remember is that dialectic is not always effective when used as rhetoric. Many people have no patience for examining things as they are. But rhetoric can use the skills of dialectic to appeal to those who enjoy feeling smart but do not, perhaps, understand how logic works or who do not understand the facts of the case. One may look at the relationship between  rhetoric and dialectic thus:

  1. Pure dialectic – Exact discourse using facts and logic (think math lectures)
  2. Truthful Rhetoric – Rhetoric that appeals to emotions while being backed up by careful research or absolute truth.
  3. False-Dialectic – Attempted dialectic that the wielder does not realize is actually rhetoric.
  4. Sophistry – the intentional use of emotional rhetoric to convince people to act/feel/believe without reference to the truth.

There are three modes of persuasive rhetoric:

  1. Deliberative
    Meant to persuade people to act.
  1. Judicial
    Meant to convict or defend people based on their deeds.
  1. Epideictic
    Used to raise support for and adherence to group values. In other words, it is meant to inspire or please the hearers. A secondary use is to portray a person, group, or idea as honorable or shameful.

You’ll find it useful to be able to distinguish between each type of rhetoric (note: many authors cannot even do this).

For instance, Christians often use epideictic rhetoric that is designed to inspire deeper commitment to Christ amongst believers to share the gospel with outsiders.

Similarly, in political races, people might have a tendency to read articles that are designed to increase loyalty to an already accepted candidate and mistake the article for a sound piece of truthful deliberative rhetoric (meant to convince people to vote for so-and-so) and then use this same rhetoric to talk to friends who buy into a different platform. Both people might be using rhetoric meant to inspire the committed of their camp to greater devotion and invective meant to shame those in the camp who are thinking of leaving against one another. This will quite literally have the effect cementing each person deeper in the opposing camp.

If you want to test, for instance, what type of rhetoric you use and where it is on “truthful rhetoric to sophistry” scale that you might ask these questions:

  1. Pure Dialectic
    1. Am I considering evidence contrary to my conclusion and fitting my conclusion to this evidence or explaining the evidence in a way that allows it to still stand?
    2. Am I doing/teaching a programing language or mathematical proof?
  2. Truthful Rhetoric
    1. If I play fast and loose with my language for purposes of appeal, are my premises defensible if I qualify and explain them?
    2. Is my emotional appeal intentionally based upon aiming at the feelings that the facts should result in rather than the feelings that are expedient for my purposes?
    3. Am I willing to make my evidence available for examination by other parties, even if for rhetorical purposes, I leave it out?
  3. False-Dialectic
    1. Am I simply repeating what somebody else said without having investigated the facts or followed the logic myself?
    2. Is there no potential counter evidence to my conclusions?
    3. Am I using emotional buzz words whose referent is hard to pin down?
    4. Could the premises in my argument be just as easily applied to another point of view?
    5. Do I actually believe my premises, dilemmas, and so-on?
    6. Do I feel shocked that somebody reasonable disagrees with me?
  4. Sophistry
    It’s hard to do this by accident.

Now for the types of rhetoric. Beware, this is where you’ve got to be brutally honest with yourself. If you’re claiming to attempt to persuade people to act, but you keep answering “yes” to epideictic style questions, it is likely that you’re using rhetoric meant to inspire people with whom you already agree. Similarly, if you’re using shaming tactics to convince people of facts, then you’re trying to use epideictic or deliberative rhetoric for judicial purposes. This may be effective, but it takes true/false out of the debate. It turns you into a sophist at best and a jerk at worst:

  1. Deliberative
    1. Do I want people to act in a certain way?
    2. Am I appealing to moral principle or future consequences?
    3. Am I arguing from principles to which my audience ascribes to practical conclusions which I think are good?
  2. Judicial
    1. Am I referencing testimonial evidence about the past?
    2. Am I referencing physical evidence?
    3. Am I referencing character/trait evidence of the persons or artifacts involved?
  3. Epideictic
    1. Am I making assertions without reference to evidence?
    2. Am I making claims which I know people like me will applaud?
    3. Am I saying things meant to make people not like me seem shameful?
    4. Am I trying to make an individual/group/idea look, not guilty or innocent, true or false, good or bad, but shameful or honorable?

Now, the reason all of this is important is that you want to know how to be a morally good rhetorician and you need defense against the dark arts. Here are some good reasons to have an instinct for what a piece of rhetoric is attempting and then the types of rhetoric being used or the types of rhetoric to use to avoid being disgusting (see how I used a shame word):

  1. Epideictic appeals can effectively manipulate emotions enough to get you or I to act in a way that does not align with our principles by an intentionally murky appeal to them. This happens in drug advertisements.
  2. Epideictic appeals, which feel so effective because of the nature of the language used, can be done sophistically without reference to any truth value at all. When I’ve been a character witness, I was appalled that this form of rhetoric was used by the prosecutor when the nature of the apparently shameful deed was precisely what was in question.
  3. Many times, in the case of persuading others concerning what is true or false, people will still appeal to the utility of believing this or that thing. While I think that utility is a good tool to persuade people to consider your case, utility does not determine truth. “Of course God is real. You don’t want to go to hell do you?”
  4. Judicial style rhetoric, because it requires arguments concerning probability, time, and cause/effect is very susceptible to sophistry because when reasoning to the best explanation of the facts, one might have a tendency to theorize before all the facts come in. Such a theory can prejudice one’s interpretation of new evidence. In the legal system, this is especially interesting because one could be in the position of trying to cast doubt upon the guilt of a truly guilty person or reason to the explanation that somebody is indeed guilty when they are not. Jurors who are not trained in careful reasoning may have a difficult time interpreting evidence well. Learning to use this rhetoric with a strong dialectic background and learning to interpret it is very important for justice (see how I’m using deliberative rhetoric to convince you to study dialectic?). Note: I know of at least three lawyers who semiregularly read this stuff. Am I off base?

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