Some Deceptive Rhetorical Tactics

Just thought I would make a note of some deceptive rhetorical tactics I’ve noticed and try to put a name to them.

Move the needle by taking the extreme position.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, taking a position on the extreme right or left or other stance is a tactic. The partisan sees extremism as the best way to influence the trend in policy-making. Why advocate compromise when extremism will accomplish more in the long run?

Winning justifies dishonesty.

The other side is viewed as so evil that we are permitted to distort the truth in order to keep them from winning.

Claim that something is dying.

For example, that the climate-change consensus is falling apart. Or that intelligent design is crumbling. Repeated identifications of ‘the final nail in the coffin.’

Revise history.

Present supposed proof that the Holocaust wasn’t as bad as they claim or that Senator McCarthy was right after all or that the Protestant and Catholic hierarchies didn’t really support Hitler.

Never attribute anything good to the other side.

The other political party must never be credited for anything good and must always be blamed for anything bad that happens.

Never attribute anything bad to your own side.

For example, only the other side can ever be accused of racism.

If no better retort is available, resort to whataboutery.

What about what they did to us in the last war? What about such-and-such terrorist attack (justifying one’s own terrorist attack)? What about what the liberal media does? What about what Fox News does? What about what they did to Bush? What about what they did to Clinton? What about what they did to Nixon?

ARB — 14 August 2013

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Daniel Dennett and an ‘Incomprehensible’ God: How a Rhetorical Question Can Reveal an Argument’s Weakness

Interesting analysis of Daniel Dennett’s “Seven Tools for Thinking.” A. Roy King turns one of Dennett’s own rules back on the author:

In his section on rhetorical questions, he has just encouraged the reader to check his baloney meter any time he hears the word “surely,” saying that “often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.” Then he makes a similar point about rhetorical questions:

Just as you should keep a sharp eye out for “surely”, you should develop a sensitivity for rhetorical questions in any argument or polemic. Why? Because, like the use of “surely”, they represent an author’s eagerness to take a short cut…

This seems like a useful piece of advice for evaluating arguments. But what struck me was what he writes in the very next section on Occam’s Razor (“don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well”):

One of the least impressive attempts to apply Occam’s razor to a gnarly problem is the claim (and provoked counterclaims) that postulating a God as creator of the universe is simpler, more parsimonious, than the alternatives. How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?

Did you notice his rhetorical question? Dang, I almost wonder whether this is calculated to somehow entrap the unwary theist into a debate, because I would say Dennett’s use of a rhetorical question at that point represents the “author’s eagerness to take a short cut” and spotlights “a weak point in the argument.”

ARB — 24 May 2013

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Pastor pulls a fast one in anti-gay rights speech

Setting aside any comments on the political, religious, or moral message here, I thought this Missouri pastor (if that’s what he really is) employed an interesting rhetorical technique in this speech. To really understand what he’s doing, listen all the way to the end:

I imagine there’s a name for the rhetorical strategy he uses here. It reminds me of people who reel off a quote that sounds like something their liberal or conservative enemy might say, then announcing that it was actually something Hitler said. I think there’s an inherent fallacy in this method, but it’s nonetheless effective.

ARB — 21 Oct. 2012

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The Birther/Deather Chiasmus

Heard on CNN, 6 May 2011:

In just one week, we’ve gone from the death of birthers to the birth of deathers.

(Shannon Travis)

AB — 6 May 2011

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Always Arguing About That Elusive Kettle

In his book Icons of Evolution, biologist Jonathan Wells refers (p. 133) to an old lawyers’ joke in which “Jones sues Smith for borrowing his kettle and returning it with a crack in it.” The defense by Smith’s lawyers goes like so:

  1. Smith never borrowed the kettle.
  2. When Smith returned the kettle, it wasn’t cracked.
  3. The kettle was already cracked when Smith borrowed it.
  4. There is no kettle.

Wells was talking about the way arguments get made about evolution (e.g., “There is no controversy.”)

But I’ve noticed that this kind of desperate evasive argumentation happens around all kinds of issues when the truth matters less than generating political support, along the lines of

“There is no birth certificate, and the officials who testify that there is a birth certificate are lying, and if there is a birth certificate, it’s a fake.”

AB — 27 April 2011

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How We Get Things Wrong

The other day I wrote some thoughts about recent accusations against Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea — see “Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Trouble.” Among other things, he is accused of inventing events recounted in his memoir. It’s got me thinking about the various ways we can unintentionally get things wrong. I can think of three ways that we can be fooled by our own minds:

1. Sight — Our eyes don’t exactly “see” everything that we see. Our eyes, nervous system, and brain take in a large volume of fragments of visual data and put together what looks like a coherent picture. But to a large degree what we see is a construct based on what we expect to see. That’s why we can be fooled by optical illusions or why eyewitnesses can swear they saw things that never really happened.

2. Our Model of the World — As we grow and learn and explore throughout life, our brain builds a mental model of the world. This mental model allows us to move around and navigate physically, and it allows us to make decisions and assumptions about what the physical world is like. But our mental model can be faulty. So we can get lost driving to a friend’s house, or we can have a wrong conception of where Afghanistan is.

3. Our Narrative of Our Life — This is where inaccurate memoirs might come from. As humans, we have a natural tendency to impose a narrative on events. But the story can become colored by the narrative we have imposed so that we fill in events that never happened. We tell the altered story to ourselves so many times, that it seems like the true version.

AB — 22 April 2011

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Smart-Alecky Response to a Prescriptivist Teacher

I found this at 22 Words, but its origin is obscure:

Me: Can I use the bathroom?

Teacher: I don’t know, can you?

Me: When I said “can” I was using its secondary modal form as a verbal modifier asking for permission, as opposed to expressing an ability. I thought since you were a teacher you’d know that. My bad. May I use the restroom?

AB — 19 April 2011

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