Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Whom are we Arguing with?

The one response I got to last week’s post included regretful note that these basics are seldom followed in our public discourse. So this week I want to look at some things that might push us away from good enthymemes and picking the correct stasis

So why do we so often use bad enthymeme? I think in our heart of hearts we are not really focused on the audience we claim to be addressing.
image by Adrian Jack Busby via Flicker
I first thought about this in the context of presidential debates. There it is very clear that it is not the point to try to change the minds of your opponents in the debate. (In fact it might be counter productive as one of the things you want is to show the difference between you and other candidates to the audience.) So while you may be responding to another candidate you are are obviously trying to persuade, not them, but the audience.
Even in this context, where I can see intellectually that it makes sense, the pseudo direction of the comments makes me cringe. And the same thing happens in any context where a discussion is taking place in public. The greater numbers entice you to move your persuasive skills away from the nominal interlocutor and onto the general audience that may be overhearing this.
Now the general audience actually contains many different kinds of people. Of course it contains people who have considered the issue and disagree with you. You might think these would be the people you would automatically focus on. But converting these people will be long, hard work.
And even if you do convince them, they will seldom offer you rewards or praise for doing so.
This brings us to the people who already agree with you, as they are the most likely to reward and praise someone who is arguing well for their own side. The problem is they seldom have a way to determine who is actually convincing people on the other side. They have to rely on what sounds like a good convincing argument to themselves. This will mean that the argument most likely to attract praise and reward is the one with an enthymeme and a stasis picked to appeal to those who already agree with the argument.
There is a third important slice of the audience that your argument does have a fair chance of convincing, those who have not yet come to a settled conclusion, often because they have not thought a lot about it yet. Looking just at what actually works best in a practical sense, it is often a disadvantage to help these uncommitted audience members get a clear idea of your opponent's argument. Moreover, if you use something as an enthymeme an person with no opinion on it will often accept it without considering it one way or the other. Someone unfamiliar with an argument may simply presume that the stasis presented to them is the important one. Of course if you pursue this it will leave your original opponent and others who were already inclined to oppose you at best thinking you don’t get it and at worst offended and angry. But looked at from the viewpoint of individual rewards for a single editorial article or blog post, in may seem like this trade-off is to your advantage.
One especially insidious way to win points with an uncommitted audience is to make your opponent look stupid, or to make a joke at your opponent’s expense. One of the beauties of this technique is that you don’t have to make a point that is logically connected to the other party's arguments. In fact using an enthymeme that the other side wouldn’t agree with can work to your advantage if you can make your opponents flounder around trying to find the where they started disagreeing with you.
It can also be very tempting, when you are involved with an academic community or other expert community, to simply dismiss outsiders who question established assumptions. In fact it is perfectly legitimate to say “This is my view point and I’m not willing to debate it.” or “I don’t want to engage outside the academic framework on this.” But our society values openness so much that people can be tempted into trying to maintain the appearance of dialog even though for reasons of time or preserving a reputation they are not actually willing to meet the other person where they are at intellectually.
In the case where your goal is to keep an idea marginal or view in a marginal way, it may help your to your goal to simply mock and dismiss them rather than give their argument credibility by actually engaging with it. Especially if you have some sort of credentials or position to speak from, you may keep those not already involved from taking the divergent suggestion seriously. But if you do that under the guise of responding to the minority group, not only are you likely to offend them, but you have burned your credibility with them, because they are very well aware you are not actually addressing the question they posed. And not only are you burning your own credibility, you have damaged the credibility of whatever credentials or position you used to make your position stick.
    And while for that specific debate that may not make a difference one way or the other, overtime, as different people use these techniques over and over, there has built up a large number of people who have been the supposed targets for these arguments actually aimed at others. Those who have been carelessly or willfully misunderstood, those who have been mocked rather than argued with, those who have been dismissed for an unwillingness to take for granted assumptions. They may harden in their positions, believing that the other side doesn’t have anything useful to say. They may cynically use the same techniques to promote their own goals rather than to promote discussion. They may dismiss whole categories of leaders or experts as fundamentally deceptive by nature.
    This has now made it all the harder for our community to break the pattern of using these techniques, and all the more important that each one of us do so.

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