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Rhetoric: proper debating or unhealthy arguing?

September 23, 2011 1 comment

Ever fallen victim to Godwin’s Law, also known as the Rule of Nazi Analogies? I have, and it wasn’t very pleasant. Firstly, I was embarrassed, because I’d used the Nazi’s, or Hitler (I don’t remember which) as a comparison, which is extremely lazy. Secondly, it made me bit miffed to have my point shut down by a debating rule. Childish I know, but we all secretly want to throw a temper tantrum at times don’t we?

Anyways, tantrums and feet stamping aside, on reflection, I was a bit disturbed by this run in with Godwin, however trivial.

I realised that GL is just one of many ways to shut down an argument without actually refuting someone’s point. If you go to the Fallacy Files you can research exactly how many logic tricks there are to beat someone in a debate.

We all know that an argument has premises that lead to a conclusion. In its most basic form, modus ponens, it is:

If a then b (if the leaves are golden (a) it’s autumn (b))

It’s a, (the leaves are golden)

Therefore it’s b too (it must be autumn).

(You could argue with this example but I made it up looking out the window and I am not going to find another one, and the fallacious nature of my example shouldn’t retract from my point).

But in an argument you also have two other aspects, which regularly get ignored: The conclusion and the truth.

This is why another example of modus ponens is logically true, but it has no point and can’t be true:

If the sky is pink, I’m a pink elephant. The sky is pink, so therefore I’m a pink elephant.

The argument is valid, but what point does it prove? We can use any number of premises to argue our point, so just because our premises are incorrect, shouldn’t invalidate my point, it just invalidates the way I made the point. And, however logically valid it is, it cannot be said to be true. It seems so basic, but it is often forgotten.

Politicians, businessmen, people at the pub, hoboes in fact, can make a valid argument, but it doesn’t mean that it’s true.

I might have approached this indirectly, but here’s what I mean. Two anti-abortionist could disagree on why they are against terminating a pregnancy, even if they agree with the point in question, abortion should be illegal. To put across this point they can take any of innumerable premises and conclusions. One might think abortions should be illegal because they cost the NHS too much money. The other might feel that the foetus is a human being as soon as the sperm and egg meet. But our first antagonist could think that the foetus is not a person until the baby is born.

The fact is, you could tear apart either of these fictitious debater’s arguments, yet their point could remain valid. Abortion could be totally immoral for all I know. Just pointing out that their argument is a fallacy doesn’t escape the point of the matter, or the truth.

This is why winning a debate is the wrong approach to arguing. When you win a debate, you miss the point, which should be to find the truth. If you disprove someone’s argument, you haven’t disproved the truth – because by definition the truth is the truth and cannot be false (there’s some logic for you). What debate should lead to is a balanced answer, based on the truth, not a winner and a loser.

And the reason, oh very patient reader, that I was disturbed by my encounter with Mr Godwin’s Law, was because shutting down a debate, or winning a debate I should say, applies to all our political lives.

Politicians are the most talented rhetoricians I’ve ever heard. They are very skilled at tearing apart each other’s arguments and winning debates. But, because they have policies and agendas, they are not winning arguments for the sake of finding the truth.

The truth is that the UK is in a very sad place just now and a lot of people are feeling the heat (or the cold if energy prices are anything to go by). Our government should be interested in lessening our burdens and protecting our economy, yet they squabble like school children. By having a process of debate and law enactment based on winning and losing, I wonder if any of their policies actually are ‘truly’ best for our country.

I don’t like using ‘what is best’, but it’s, ironically, the best term I’ve got. There is a range of measures which would be best for our country, but because politicians think so much about re-election, they want to do what pleases their voters or campaign funders.

This was put excellently by Christina Patterson in the I Paper. “Most people in this country support capital punishment. Most people like the idea that teenagers caught up in mass hysteria should have their lives wrecked. Most people even seem to think that people who earn six times as much as they do shouldn’t pay a higher rate of tax. They believe these things because their parents, and the newspapers, and even sometimes because their politicians tell them they should.”

I was the same. I went into my first philosophy tutorial full of opinions that I quickly realised were echoes my mother’s. It happens, but as Christine notes, “we can change our minds”.

We need politicians who are willing to give up everything for the truth, and the truth is constituents don’t know what is good for them, they just know what they want. And politicians sway the masses with promises of what they want (like the Lib Dem promise to freeze tuition fees, nice as an idea, impossible in practice), and behave like experts when they’re not.

As one very wise commentator stated, rhetoric “is the art of persuasion in courts of law and other assemblies” and that it “creates belief about the just and unjust, but gives no instruction about them.”

He adds, “The rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who do know.”

My commentator is Plato, writing over 2,000 years ago in the Gorgias. But he’s still right. Our business leaders, media moguls, bankers and even people on the streets, are not experts outside their fields. We all know a little this and a little that, but when we stand united, we know a lot about a great many things. Rhetoric in government and business ignores the truth for the sake of comfort and the status quo, to please shareholders or voters.

Politics has lost the truth, the media and banks have lost the truth, and our country has lost the truth. That’s why, over the last few years we’ve endured expense scandals, banks crashing, phone hacking and riots. What we need is to take stock and realise that we can’t live in a country where we’re all trying to survive individually because competition and consumption is finite. We need to live somewhere where cooperation is offered, compromise is welcome and compassion isn’t a lefty ideal. I know which state of affairs would make me happier.

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