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March 16, 2004

Argument and Rhetoric

Note: this is a post recovered from my old blog, before it died of an insufficient backup. Any comments/trackbacks on it have not been brought over, but can be seen with the original. The date is that of the original posting.


Francis Porretto has an article (about how webs of information are limited by their most limited nodes - and how this applies to various ways of passing information) which bounces at one point off of this post of mine (about fundamental problems with the Internet's structure). Now, I'm going to bounce off on yet another tangent from Francis' article:

Here we can see the significance of the anonymous denigration or offering of falsehood as fact. An honest, courteous man would never do such things. He wants his arguments to stand on their merits; if the merits are insufficient, it's best for all that the argument be refuted. But he who is less than honest or courteous will have no qualms about spreading falsehoods or slandering his adversaries under a cloak of anonymity. Concealment of his identity spares him both retaliation and the accumulation of a record of bad faith: advantages in any information war.

This points out the difference between argument and rhetoric, and the essential weakness of rhetoric.

In an argument, each participant wishes to reach a conclusion suitable to all. The process for doing this is a logical sequence of ideas, and each party to the argument attempts both to establish his logic and to refute the logic of his opponent.

There are situations where no definitive conclusion is possible, because each party to the argument has equally-valid logic, but the premises (that is to say, their assumptions which are not subject to logical refutation) for their arguments are incompatible and either the premises are not subject to evidentiary examination, or no evidence is at hand: an impasse. An honest disputant in an argument, whose premises are subject to evidentiary validation and fail of that validation, would be required logically to submit to the falseness of his argument (though not necessarily to adopt his opponent's position).

Rhetoric is, at its base level, just a set of verbal tools for making arguments well. However, if this rhetoric is coupled with lack of principle, the dishonest participant can totally undermine the possibility of reaching conclusion: his goal is neither to persuade nor to agree, but to get his way regardless. This is very common in political contests, for example, as the current example of Richard Clarke should well show. This unwillingness to lose the argument, coupled with a weak argument or provably-false premises, in addition to earning Noam Chomsky his livelihood, leads to the argumentative fallacies of ad hominem, tu quoque and others. (The fact that these have Latin names should tell you how old such rhetorical tricks are.)

In the end, those who are wedded to honest argument would tend to dismiss those who just want to win, regardless of merit; after all, they will be proven wrong in time, so why worry? Well, we have to remember that logic is not taught in schools, and reason is hardly considered a noble virtue any more (or, if it is, it's certainly more observed in the breach). The real game of the dishonest rhetoric is to avoid losing the argument today; and so we get this. The same issue, a year after it originally appears, finds the dishonest making opposite arguments, and claiming that their opponent was wrong all along.

And then you get this, a comment that came in today on an old post of mine:

you're brainwashed about the Palestinian/Israeli issue. to say this:

"For a perfect example of why no compassionate person should ever consider giving fiscal, moral, politcal, legal, or even rhetorical support to the Palestinian cause, just read this, and consider that the Palestinians believe that Israeli children are legitimate "military" targets, because they could one day grow up to serve in the Israeli Army."

you express a wholesale ignorance as if you've never freed yourself from the psychic leash of CNN, Fox , seeBS etc. this is the most heavily denied subject in the US because Israel is umbilically tied to US tax money.

It gets worse from here. As best I can follow it, the argument path is:
  1. I am wrong about Palestinians targetting children, because
  2. Palestinians are not free to choose their actions,
  3. because Israel refuses to let Palestinians randomly slaughter Israelis when they can do so without randomly slaughtering Palestinians.
  4. This is proven because Japanese kids who are bullied and overworked commit suicide.
  5. So, the solution to the Israeli/Palestinian issue is "an army for peace that would swoop in and force a solution" by compelling Israel to accept attacks on them until Israel has raised the Palestinian standard of living as high as the Israeli one.

If there's an honest argument there, I can't find it.


It's a very typical argument: the poor and powerless do not have to be responsible since they are put in that situation by others. The logical conclusion is that the poor should be allowed to take more from the powerful to make things equal for all.

And of course, you need a disinterested third party to administrate this redistribution of wealth - and that third party would never, ever take advantage and line their own pockets, right?

Okay, I forget. Are we talking about Middle East peace, the UN or the US government???

Posted by: Mark L on March 26, 2004 09:41 PM
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Posted by jeff at March 16, 2004 12:00 AM

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