Is the employment of rhetorical tropes dishonest?

By: | Post date: January 31, 2017 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

You come to me highly recommended, Melinda Gwin, by the Magister, with a very ticklish question. You ask me a question that the Magister has already answered exhaustively, and morally, and Stageritically. What then may I say? Τί σοι προσοίσω, δέσποινα;—What shall I offer thee, lady? (Though you may not be that familiar with Comnenan Byzantine poetry: cf. Theodore Prodromos, Ptochoprodromos I 1…)

Of course the Magister is right that metaphor and other such devices are inherent in our conceptualisation of the world (and not just in language). I’ve read my Lakoff! But that’s not where you were going with this.

Of course the Magister is right that morality inheres in the agent, and not the vehicle. Words are a tool, just like guns are; and not that I have much sympathy with the NRA, but words don’t kill people, people kill people. Sometimes, employing words.

Yet I don’t think that’s where you were going with this either.

I’ll go around the way I suspect this question was intended. Of course, it doesn’t matter how you intended it, Melinda, I’m going to answer it according to my suspicion.

The ideal behind this question I suspect, which is not that absurd or unreasonable an ideal, is that there is dispassionate reason and logic and cost/benefit analysis underlying an argument—which gets distorted by the introduction of emotion into the argument. And that whether that emotion is used for good or evil, it misleads the persuadee. They are not making their own evaluation of what is to be done, working through the arguments and evidence presented them; they are being swayed by beautiful words.

And not having read the Stagirite, or, well, anyone, it occurs to me that, on the one hand, there are illusions about this. Dispassionate analysis is a construct, and evidence can be selectively presented. Emotive appeals help one empathise with the options being laid out, and the heart does have a role in decision making. Appealing to logic instead of reason can itself be a distortion and partisan. The preference for logic and away from emotion is itself a bias that favours a particular kind of arguer and a particular kind of argument.

And yet, there is something to what you’re asking. There is the notion of someone making their own mind up based on data, and shutting out external influences. Data is an influence, and influence is data: the dividing line between data and influence is not as clear as we hope.

Yet there is something to be said for an individual, calmly, sine ira et studio, working their way through the arguments put before them, and prioritising their own interests in coming to a conclusion. Someone else’s rhetorical devices are going to get in the way of you pursuing your own interests in that ratiocination, because they inevitably facilitate someone else’s interests. In a way that raw data (sometimes—sometimes) does not.

And the most important equipment a citizen can have is training in recognising rhetorical strategies (that, and statistics). Not so they cannot be moved and persuaded by rhetoric. But so that at least they can recognise it when they’re on the receiving end of it.

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