Post 11

Got You!
Reflections on Rhetoric and Argument

WiseOne, who is enrolled in a course which teaches the classical tools of composition, including rhetoric and a touch of logic, was thinking out loud, and said, “I don’t know which is worse —- to attack what you like, or to praise what you dislike.” In order to develop skills of argument, the students are asked to praise such-and-such a saying or attack the logic of such-and-such a story, and the sayings and stories are chosen by the course and not the student. By the time this section of the course is complete, the students have learned how to attack different types of literature (they will say the sample text is unclear and implausible and impossible and inconsistent, et cetera), and they may even believe that they are good at doing so.

The problem with this exercise is that it’s an exercise. Instead of saying what they really think, they are coming up with arguments. They’re not only being taught the rudiments of rhetoric, they are being taught a certain behaviour and spirit –- to separate themselves from what they really believe, and literally to earn points for each attack. There’s a lack of sincerity, and it’s argument for argument’s sake, to show the cleverness of the speaker, but not to arrive at what’s true, or even to honestly express one’s opinion. 

Logic itself isn’t the problem. Chesterton says nowadays there’s just not enough of it, and we’re relying so much more on the power of suggestion (and insults) rather than real arguments: “As a matter of fact, it is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer. That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument and so much sneering.” (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter 5). But even about rhetoric, he says later in the same chapter, “Rhetoric is a very fine thing in its place, as a medieval scholar would have willingly agreed, as he taught it along with logic in the schools . . .” He does point out, however, that St. Thomas never uses rhetoric, and relies purely on logical deductions.

My complaint is that the students are handed some knives and directed to use them on innocent pieces of literature. They walk away from the course thinking how awesome it is that they’ve got these shiny new knives, and they look forward to using them. And, not knowing about when it’s appropriate, and without knowing that they’re not as good at it as they fancy themselves, they’ll whip these knives out willy-nilly, indiscriminately cutting things up for the fun of it. It reminds me of the university student.

On university campuses everywhere, or at least everywhere in North America, there is the phenomenon of the back-packed debater who is more than pleased to debate everything with you. If you were to say that it’s a nice day, he wants to know on what basis you make that claim, and whether it’s logical for you to come to this conclusion on so little evidence. He will enjoy reminding you that the word ‘nice’ is extremely vague and should never be used, and that the word ‘day’ represents subjective segments of time, is affected by time zones, and should be more clearly defined. That he himself would agree it’s a nice day, if he were to consider it, really doesn’t enter into it.

So you are worn out before you’ve begun, and instead of talking to the real person with real vulnerabilities, who makes mistakes and knows it, and who is ultimately lovable, you’re left on the outside of someone who wants to dazzle you with his sword-tricks. He can’t listen to what you say, and certainly he cannot see the motive with which you say it, because he’s planning his next attack.

Rhetoric and debating, when separated from truth and sincerity, are extremely distasteful. Instead of saying what they really believe, these debaters waste time and breath raising arguments just because they’re able to think of them. It’s not difficult to be sarcastic, and it’s very easy to find fault with anything, especially if you can defend your attack with, “Oh, but I’m just saying,” or “Oh, but I’m just playing devil’s advocate.” If you want to argue, then at least say what you really think — it’ll take long enough to make any headway even if everyone is sincere.

Indeed, Chesterton says that argument takes a very, very long time, and it’s for that reason that God chose the path of divine revelation – it’s a whole lot quicker, and it’s available to the average person, and not just the geniuses. Speaking of St. Thomas Aquinas, who firmly believed that, given enough time, everyone could be shown the existence of God, Chesterton says:

Anyhow, one of the real disadvantages of the great and glorious sport, that is called argument, is its inordinate length. If you argue honestly, as St. Thomas always did, you will find that the subject sometimes seems as if it would never end. He was strongly conscious of this fact, as appears in many places; for instance his argument that most men must have a revealed religion, because they have not time to argue. No time, that is, to argue fairly. There is always time to argue unfairly; not least in a time like ours.

– G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter 5

But I’ve been thinking that sincerity and the honest pursuit of truth, though necessary, are insufficient.  Sure, it’s better than egotistical displays of debating prowess, but even with sincerity and the love of truth, there’s often still a lot of blood needlessly spilled because the pursuit for the truth starts to overshadow kindness to each other. Let’s say religion is the topic. In the course of puzzling over some aspect of the faith, it can so easily happen that views diverge and in the heat of the discussion, people are cut down or at least pruned along with their notions and arguments.  In that moment, it seems justified, because isn’t it a sincere discussion aimed at getting to the truth?

I remember the story about a saint — I think it was St Thomas Aquinas.  His grammar was corrected by someone when it wasn’t wrong, and later, when he was asked why he accepted this correction, and why he promptly redid his work with the error included, he replied that it would be better to have an error in grammar than an error in charity.

So in the same vein, it strikes me that sincerity and the love of truth, while a vast improvement over empty rhetoric, are still insufficient to make a conversation worthy. There must be also that overriding charity and compassion for the other party, which will keep uppermost in our minds the value of the person to whom we speak. The speakers must put their love of the other person ahead of their love of the argument. The line about the “clanging cymbal” is where I’m going here.

Chesterton was fabulous in the way he was able to criticize a false belief while leaving the person who held that belief intact.  He spent his whole life debating and detesting the ideas of George Bernard Shaw, but they respected each other.

And I note that this is something which is fairly easy to do in a one-on-one conversation, but far more challenging as soon as there are more people in the room!  How easy it is then for the dynamics to mirror that of a Dr. Phil show, much to our later regret.