Rhetoric is, broadly put, the art of persuasion. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all persuaded by rhetorical tactics and use them ourselves to persuade others. Some people find this notion unconscionable, as if there is some cognitive and/or character defect involved in persuading or being persuaded. There isn’t. Others think they’re immune to persuasion. They’re not.
Persuading and being persuaded is no sin.
Rhetorical argumentation is part and parcel of being human. Skilled rhetoric is part and parcel of some careers: politicians, advertisers, lawyers, and clergy.
A lot of the decisions we make, or are asked to make, hang on our judgment of rhetorical argumentation. So it’s a good idea to learn something about rhetoric both to improve our own arguments and to evaluate those of others. To this end, you should understand that rhetoric leverages a lot of the things buried deep in our cognitive processes such as our emotions and the assumptions we have about who and what we should trust.
Some freak out at the idea that we use emotion to make decisions because some don’t understand how cognitive processes work. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio was among the first to demonstrate that emotion is vital to decision making. He observed that people who sustained brain injuries and lost their emotional capacity made poorer decisions than those whose emotional faculties were intact. And Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology and expert in decision making, observes emotion is part of how we evaluate and make decisions in times of crisis.
Emotion helps us get through the world. But it can also be used to steer us through the world, for better or worse, and often with no skin off.
We’ve got a lot of beliefs about the world rattling around in our heads, most below the level of conscious awareness. These beliefs are the basis of the assumptions we make about things in the world, including where we should place our trust.
When we’re making decisions these assumptions appear readily because our brains draw on the bank of things we already know, or think we know, to evaluate things we don’t. But the brain doesn’t draw on anything without a little go-juice to move it along, i.e. a shot of emotion. Or, more correctly ‘the passions’, aversion and desire, which is what David Hume meant by,
Reason is, and and ought only ever to be a slave to the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them (A Treatise of Human Nature).
Reason needs a driver, or reason is inert.
The upshot is that rhetorical tactics work by driving cognition this way or that, whipping it with emotions down cobblestones of assumptions toward a desired conclusion. This desire is two-place since the rhetorician desires to persuade her listener or reader, and the listener or reader desires some payoff for her judgement. The payoff might be social, as in group membership, or practical, as in how to invest her money. To this end, the rhetorician might also want to elicit a new desire in her audience, or even an aversion. I’m convinced this new shampoo makes my hair shinier than my old shampoo. The assumption is that shiny hair is attractive to a potential mate, dull hair a turnoff. I want a mate, so I want the new shampoo.
Note that the passions and emotions are often confused with each other but they are not the same thing. The passions can give rise to emotions and vice versa. Some develop an aversion to the pushy religious proselytiser, others, by extension, to religion. But aversion might amount to avoidance or indifference. Only some will additionally feel anger. I have an aversion to eggplant, I’m not angry at eggplant. If I’m angry at you and you serve me eggplant, I might develop an aversion to eggplant and anything else that makes me think of you. The passions and emotions interplay, but they do come apart.
The assumptions we make are driven by and tangled with our passions and emotions. This cognitive mash-up helps us evaluate risk. Rapists lurk in dark alleys. I’m afraid of being raped, so I avoid dark alleys. Not a bad heuristic (largely unconscious short-cut reasoning). Getting raped in a dark alley might be a rare event, but we’re not about to pull out our cell phone and comb Google Scholar for stats while standing at the end of one. Our wobbly knees and beating hearts are evidence enough, and through our evolutionary trajectory have been reliable enough to save us from sabre-tooth tigers, marauding hordes, and Trojan Horses.
While this cognitive mash-up works quite well for many of the decisions we make, it often leads to logical fallacies such as the Hasty Generalization. A Danish woman stole my watch, therefore Danes are thieves. This conclusion can also be the basis for an assumption. Danes are thieves. Danes have blonde hair and blue eyes. Since Danes are thieves, I should instruct my security guards to keep an eye on all blonde-haired, blue-eyed people. I could test this assumption, look up vital statistics to see how many Danes have been convicted of petty theft compared to other Scandinavians and Scandinavians compared to other ethnic groups. I might discover that Danes are the people least likely to steal. The watch-thief was an anomaly. Then again, I might discover that fifty-percent of people with blue eyes have a gene for kleptomania which is expressed at the 55th parallel north through to the north pole due to the angle of the sun. Of course, I could only make these discoveries if I’m motivated, i.e. want, to do the research.
My desire to research my assumption about Danes might arise from my dislike for them, in which case evidence for their genetic defect justifies what I knew all along. Or, maybe my new grandchild is half-Danish and I want to think her perfect in every way. And so my discovery of Danish honesty is what I knew all along. And I quietly tell my security guards to watch for trench-coats and large handbags instead.
What I’m not going to do is research the research to which I’ve subjected my assumptions, and research that research, and so on ad infinitum. I won’t educate myself about how statistics are gathered, or question whether the low number of convictions are due to differences in policing or court proceedings. I won’t evaluate the genetic study, look at the sample size or even know what any of it means. I won’t get a degree in genetics and attempt to replicate the study. I’ll get the answer I want from the source(s) I trust, and when that want is satisfied I stop.
No one can possibly examine every one of the assumptions she holds or, for that matter know even a fraction of the assumptions she holds. Rhetoricians correctly assume, and even bank, on these limitations. Rhetoricians vie to be your trusted sources as well as your guides to whom not to trust. And they’ll use every means available to them to persuade you to these ends, which is not to say they are trying to trick you. Nor is it to say that you are gullible, or right or wrong, for believing them. For many, if not most, of the decisions we make — what to buy, which god to worship, and where to cast our vote — we have no other choice but to trust someone. Which isn’t to say we’re helpless.
We can learn.
About rhetoricians. Some rhetoricians are highly educated, others, as is often the case among clergy and politicians, are not. Some are strategic speakers, some intuitive. Some have speech writers, some write their own speeches. Some are great, all are fallible.
Rhetoricians are as prone to error and logical fallacies as the rest of us. They tend to choose words for their rhetorical effect rather than considering what those words mean. These words tend to be emotionally laden and easily swallowed because they draw on common assumptions. The rhetorician may herself hold these assumptions and be convinced of their truth, hence they go unexamined.
We all have our own experiences. Duh. But we also have shared experiences, broadly, in virtue of being human and, more particularly, in virtue of sharing a community, language, customs, and so on. Because of these shared experiences, rhetoricians can make some pretty good guesses about the kinds of assumptions people hold which can then be leveraged to make persuasive arguments. We love our children, worry about the future, and we fear harm — especially at the hand of other people.
About us. Learning about rhetoric and how it works on our hearts and minds isn’t an antidote to rhetoric. Rather, it’s one way to become a more careful reasoner and, with a little luck, go on to make better decisions. Or avoid making bad ones. But this effort requires a desire to learn, which in turn hangs on a willingness to test any assumption one has about her immunity to persuasion. Or allow that there’s anything to be learned.
If I were a good rhetorician and knew my audience, I’d make a persuasive case. But I’m not, and I don’t. (Mind you, I might have just used dubitatio (aporia), a real or feigned expression of doubt or uncertainty. You might be drawn in by my sincerity and humility, or you might think I’m being crafty.)
For those I might have persuaded, there are widely available free internet sources to learn not only how to identify logical fallacies, but also to practice finding them in the things we read and hear. And just as importantly, to find them in our own arguments.
There are also ample resources available cost free on the net to study rhetorical techniques. One of my favourite sites is American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches which kicks off with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream. You’ll notice by listening many of the elements that make a great speech, and as a bonus enjoy the excercise.
Some general advice is to pay attention to: i) emotionally-laden words such as genocide, terrorism, and racism and take some quiet, extended time to unpack what they refer to; ii) who the rhetorician is trying to persuade and whether you fit that demographic; iii) whether you like the rhetorician or not because these feelings affect the credibility you assign her; and, iv) any strong feelings you have, positive or negative, in response to a speech or article, in which case hunt around for a hidden assumption that you might be able to pull up for examination.
A caveat. Even trained thinkers are prone to error. Familiarity breeds carelessness, training, overconfidence. And we all have emotional commitments that are nigh untouchable. Philosophers included, and maybe especially because we defend our Precious under a veneer of rationality and professionalism. But no one gets a pass on being human.
In all cases, my advice is to just slow down. Take a breath. Be deliberate. Be curious.
Why have I taken the time to go through this spiel?
Good, intelligent, reasonable, and even highly educated people can be and have been persuaded to do some pretty awful things to each other.
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t like the mood I see in the media, universities, and in the community at large. I don’t like the anxiety and anger I see in my friends and family. There’s a lot of toxic rhetoric fuelling this mood. Moods are not static, as every rhetorician knows. But we have a role in creating them, too.
To this end, at the least, we can arm ourselves with some slow, careful habits of thought, playing our own Devil’s Advocate as we go. We should always test our assumptions by assuming they are wrong, then take some care in justifying why they’re right. And we can gain a little understanding of how rhetoric and our own cognition work and work together. And then maybe, just maybe, we can start to turn this social and political mood around.
If we desire.
Look below a grand narrative, e.g. left vs right, dark vs light, and you will discover people doing the best they can with the circumstances in which they find themselves.