Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Power of Speech: Rhetoric

     Human beings are easily persuadable.  We love to latch onto ideas that pass our way, and then cherish them as our own.  And ironically, the more independent a thinker a man claims to be, the more likely it is, were he to evaluate himself honestly, that the ideas he promulgates were not his to begin with, nor has he ever truly analyzed them.  He has, in his ignorance, fallen under the sway of someone's rhetoric.  Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, which in and of itself is no bad thing; quite to the contrary, without rhetoric leaders could never lead, and followers would wander aimlessly.  However, in this day and age, as people are no longer formally taught the skills of rhetoric, they are primed to fall prey to bad rhetoric and be led unthinkingly like proverbial lemmings over a cliff.
     The subject of rhetoric is immense; entire libraries have been written on the philosophy and use of it.  In this short paper I would like to highlight some of the ways people try to persuade others; in essence, arming ourselves against manipulation by the unscrupulous.
     Rhetoric can be divided into three branches: Ethos, or an appeal to the speakers character and expertise, Pathos, or the use of emotion, and Logos, or pure reason and logic.  In a perfect world, only logos would be needed or used, but the truth is that for the majority of listeners ethos and pathos are much stronger (pathos being by far the strongest).  That does not mean that ethos and pathos are bad, and that they are only used by the deceitful.  However we as listeners must be aware that speakers are nearly always trying to manipulate our emotions.  By realizing this we can more easily stand back and evaluate what is being presented with a clear head.
     Pathos is currently the dominating force in advertising.  We have all heard the mantra "sex sells."  Such ads appeal to some of our most basic drives, and as such, they can be difficult to resist.

     Often this is a pretty ham fisted attempt, and quite transparent.  It only takes a second of thought to realize that the girl has nothing to do with the bike, and is only there do augment desire on the part of the viewer.  That being said, it is surprising (and a bit dismaying) how well this tactic works.  But when viewers begin to see through the techniques of the ad men, it will not be long before those techniques are honed and made more subtle, yet with no less impact:

Dos Equis Advertisement

     The best way to escape entrapment in an appeal to pathos and ethos is to simply ask "Why?" Why is this product or idea being portrayed in this manner?  Does the portrayal truly relate to the product or idea, or is it meant to trigger my emotions?  Approaching arguments in this manner takes no special training, just a bit of common sense.  But understanding how people manipulate while using logos may take a bit more effort.
     This is the arena of logical fallacies.  A logical fallacy in any argument is an error in reasoning in which the premises on which the argument is based are not sound or do not provide enough support to validate the given conclusion.
     There are many types of logical fallacies, and certainly there is not time or space here sufficient to discuss more than a small fraction, but I would like to point out several of the more egregious fallacies; the ones that we see and hear every day and that may be causing us to form erroneous concepts of reality.
      Ad Hominem  -  The ad hominem attack is one in which a person's position is torn down through denigration of their character.  This is one of the most common and irritating (and downright mean) fallacies that plague the internet:  When one person voices their opinion, another immediately attempts to invalidate them by calling them names: "You don't know what you're talking about, 'cause you're just a Socialist."  Now it could certainly be true that that person is indeed a Socialist, but that does not in and of itself mean that their statement is invalid.
     Ad Hominem Tu Quoque - This fallacy describes the use of personal inconsistencies to invalidate another person's argument.  Politicians are often called out for supporting a position that is contrary to past views.  Just because a senator believed that tax cuts were a good thing ten years ago does not mean that his current position against tax cuts now is wrong.  This kind of argument is actually an underhanded way of trying to impugn a man's character by making him look like a hypocrite, and therefore untrustworthy.
     Appeal to Common Practice - This is the idea that if everyone is doing it, it must be morally correct.  It is easy to see through this argument when it is used by someone  in a different group with different standards (for example, the teenager who tells his parents that all his friends drink, so there is nothing wrong with him drinking too), but harder to see when you hear this in defense of beliefs your own group may hold (for example, the recent arguments about taxing the rich to feed the poor).  The vast majority of people may believe something to be true, but this does not mean that there are not others who see things in a very different manner.  This is the kind of argument that led to Galileo's research being crushed by the massive opinions of the Church.  In order to see past this type of fallacy you must be willing to always try to see things from another point of view and ask if people outside your group might not have validity to their claims as well.
     Appeal to the Consequences of a Belief -  "Such-and-such a thing is true, because if it weren't there would be terrible consequences."  This kind of reasoning is a fallacy because there is no evidence for the truth or falseness of the belief, just the assertion that unproven results are sure to follow.  One of the most striking claims of this nature of late has been the idea that "If gays are allowed to marry, our country will be destroyed."  It is feasible, I suppose, but where is the evidence?  This type of argument simply plays on fears and expectations of punishments and rewards.
     Circumstantial ad Hominem - Another type of ad hominem fallacy! This fallacy is to reject a person's claims, simply because it is in their own best interest to make the claim.  While it is true that best interest can make a claim suspect (pharmaceutical companies arguing that a certain drug should be legalized, for example), that does not necessarily mean that they are wrong.
     Guilt by Association - This is in very common usage.  Those that use this fallacy seem to think that just because a position held by the person they are arguing against was also held by someone who is generally considered bad, evil, or just wrong, the position itself must likewise be bad, evil or wrong: "Wagner's music is horrible and shouldn't be listened to.  Don't you know that Wagner was Hitler's favorite composer?"  In today's culture of high profile political commentators, positions are often torn down because they are supported by a commentator that may not be well liked.  For example, many Conservatives have begun to call themselves by other names, so as not to be associated with radical and controversial figures like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.
     Red Herring - The red herring is a simple distraction from the original question or topic.  Almost every question in a televised political debate will be answered with a red herring: "Of course National Defense is important, but there will be nothing to defend if we don't do something about Immigration!"
     Straw Man - The straw man is a distorted or inflated version of an argument that is easy to tear apart.  If, for instance, one person argues that too much money is being spent on building windmills, his opponent might retaliate with a straw man argument that the first person is against all green energy and wants to see the country choking on fossil fuel fumes until the whole world burns up.  It is a lot easier to tear down a ridiculous and exaggerated version of an argument than deal with the real issues at hand.
     Once we begin to analyze the rhetoric we hear, we will be able to more easily cut through the deceptions and misdirections to the truth, and begin to form our own opinions, rather than those that are merely handed to us on a daily basis.