Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric’

When I was in Grade Six, I was precocious and outspoken. My mother, worried that I might be rude at school, asked my teacher if I was a problem in class. “Not at all,” my teacher replied. “He’s always so polite when he corrects me.” He then went on to compare me with a classmate whose corrections were far less diplomatic.

This story, which I heard about hours after it happened, was my first indication of the power of politeness. It taught me that not only could I get away with saying almost anything, so long as I said it politely enough, but that people would listen to a polite comment where they would close their ears a rude one. It’s a perspective that is rare today, when many people consider expressions of anger their right and politeness a form of weakness. Yet the truth is, it’s only one of the advantages that makes politeness (or at least its facade) worth cultivating.

No doubt as a born and bred Canadian, I value politeness more than most people, but I also consider my perspective a pragmatic one. For example, most of the time, you get more cooperation from people with politeness. This observation is especially true when you are dealing with those in the service industry, or others who are usually taken for granted.

Being polite to such people signals that you are viewing them as people, not just bit players in your personal drama. Often, they appreciate the effort enough that if you ask for something unusual, such as a substitution on the menu, they will be give it to you – even if the menu clearly states that no substitutions are allowed. If you are in a store, they are likely to go look in the back for what you want instead of simply telling you that all they have is on the shelf. If the other person is a customs officer, or someone else with potential authority over you, then you will often be forgiven minor infringements of the regulations, simply because you made a small bit of effort and treated them as human.

Should a situation descend into an argument, the appearance of politeness remains useful. Screaming insults may be personally satisfying, but politeness has a way of disarming your opponent. They may shout at you, but shouting at someone who remains polite and apparently calm is strangely unsatisfying. You are not responding the way they expect, and before very long they are likely to either stomp off in frustration or else start listening to you. Almost always, the calm person is the one who controls the situation, and looks best to the audience – and, in the end, it is their perspective and solutions that are adopted.

If all else fails, you can always adopt the kind of icy politeness that the upper class English are so good at – the kind that suggests it is beneath your dignity to argue with your opponent, and that to talk to them at all is a major concession on your part. Better yet, if you can throw in the impression that the politeness is an effort and you are near to going berserk, politeness can be more unsettling than screaming and breaking chairs, for the simple reason that you are leaving your anger to your opponent’s imagination, and what is imagined is frequently more unsettling than what is actually observed.

Politeness in these circumstances takes practice, and might even be against your natural inclination. But the reality is that politeness is far less passive than most people imagine. Treat it as a piece of meta-communication or body language, and few tactics are more successful.

Far from being a sign of weakness, politeness signals that you are the one in control, the pleasant and the logical one, the mature person where others are acting as children. The fact that few of your opponents will ever realize how you are outgaming them only makes your choice of tactics that much more satisfying.

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OK, let’s get it straight: just because a tone argument is invalid does not mean that all discussion of tone is invalid, or that the tone you choose doesn’t matter.

A tone argument, as you probably know, is an effort to derail a discussion by suggesting that a point of view would be better received if expressed more politely. Since tone does not affect the truth of a position, a tone argument is a logical fallacy. It could be classified as a sub-set of an ad hominem argument (an attack on the person rather than their position). Sometimes, it may also be an appeal to personal authority, because claiming the right to define the terms of a discussion implies social dominance.

Either way, the description of a tone argument is a feminist contribution to the study of rhetoric, and offers genuine insight into the tactics of human interaction. Giving tone arguments a name makes them easier to identify and counter, and helps to discredit anyone would would use such an essentially dishonest tactic.

Notice, however, that the description is extremely specific. The problem is not the mention of tone as such, but its use as a distraction from the main topic of a discussion. The fallacy lies in the attempt to derail, not in the mention of tone.

This is a distinction that people often fail to make. For instance, Julie Pagano jumps from tone arguments to a declaration that “Some of the things feminism has to say are hard – there’s no nice way to say them. It’s also not my job to act pleasing and friendly on all occasions. If you regularly find my tone to not match your interests, feel free to find another source – I won’t be mad. I will be frustrated and contemptuous if you use a tone argument on me.”

Even more strongly, in a blog entry entitled, “Dealing with the Tone Police,” Ragen Chastain writes, “We have a right to all of our emotions, including being pissed off. We have a right to all the vocabulary, including swear words. We have a right to all of the types of activism, which includes using anger as a tool. We are not responsible for other people’s feelings and we don’t have to let the tone police dictate the way that we react to, live in, or work to change a messed up world.”

Both these declarations have been widely linked-to, usually with enthusiastic expressions of agreement that suggest that the view expressed by both is widespread.

To some extent, I can share that agreement. Anger is empowering – especially anger in a good cause. I can see, too, how constantly hearing the same tired rationales for sexism and misogyny being trotted out as though they were new would make anyone want to lash out, all the more so if they feel they are being ignored.

At the same time, such statements not only misinterpret the tone argument (at least as I understand it), but fail to consider why tone arguments are such a frequent fallacy. In a world of pure logic, anyone using a tone argument would instantly lose an argument, and be discredited in the eyes of any audience. But any time you have an audience, you are just as likely to be judged by your tone as your logic, and this is a fact that activists can’t afford to ignore.

I feel like I am stating the obvious here, but tone, like every other aspect of debate, has been a concern of rhetoric for over two millennia. And the consensus of this meta-discussion is that anger generally loses arguments so far as public opinion is concerned. In particular, an angry woman hands her opponents cheap labels like “hysterical” and “strident” to discredit what she says.

(Don’t believe me? Then do an online search or two on tone and rhetoric. Hell, do thirty or forty or a hundred. What I’ve summarized is so basic that I doubt you will find any expert in rhetoric or public speaking who says anything different. This consensus is frustrating, and certainly unfair as it applies to women, but it’s the social context in which we exist).

Look, I’m not saying you’re not entitled to your anger. Sometimes, even the most patient of people have had enough of acting sensibly and want to explode. Even though they know they’re not acting in their own best interests, the temptation to lash out sometimes becomes irresistible.

But don’t lie to yourself. Don’t make the mistake of imagining that, because expressing your anger is potentially addictive that you are doing anything to promote your cause when you express it. Far more often than not, you’re only helping people to dismiss what you stand for so that you justify your emotions.

Most of all, don’t make the mistake of justifying yourself by citing tone arguments. A tone argument is an tactic of attack, to be used when your opponents stoop to derailment, not a concept that defends your own expression of emotions.

Be angry, if you can’t resist. But don’t be surprised if self-expression doesn’t work out like you expect – or if a white, middle-class, middle-aged man like me turns out to have a point after all.

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Quoting is a delicate art. Depending on your preferences, you can clean up the grammar or elide a few words to make what remains pithier, but what you can never do – at least, not if you have any integrity – is present someone’s words in such a way that you misrepresent their opinions. However, recently I’ve noticed that the claim that a quote is taken out of context is becoming the last refuge of everyone from politicians to social media users trying to distance themselves from something they’ve said that happens to be inconvenient or embarrassing.

Probably, this defense has become popular because of the seriousness with which quoting out of context is viewed by academics and journalists. However, the distinction between legitimate and opportunistic users of the idea of context quickly becomes clear when you look at examples.

First, an example of someone actually quoting out of context. Five years ago, in an article on Linux.com, I wrote,”I’m not a great believer in the idea that women are less aggressive than or interact differently from men. Yet even I have to admit that most of the regulars on free software mailing lists for women are politer and more supportive than the average poster on general lists.”

In the comments, an anonymous poster wrote that he found himself “convinced that Bruce Byfield is single, has no daughters, and doesn’t have a close women friends. The fact of the matter is that (most) women interact differently both men do, in their interactions with both other women and men. If he doesn’t know this, he hasn’t spent much time around women.”

This comment, as another poster was quick to point out, focused entirely on the first sentence I wrote. Even then, he missed the nuance of “I’m not a great believer.” But, even more importantly, by stopping at the first sentence, he formed an entirely mistaken opinion of what I thought by ignoring the next sentence, which completed the thought I was expressing. Instead, he derided me for an opinion that I had never expressed, and made himself look like foolish rather than me.

By contrast, recently I wrote an article about how the priorities in GNOME, the free desktop used on Linux, appeared to have shifted. I quoted at length one member of the project who wrote during an online discussion that they were against allowing extensions that would alter the vision of the design team. I carefully mentioned that the discussion had taken place over a year ago, and went on to add that the member was now focusing on other matters, meaning to imply that they were no longer opposing the idea of extensions, and that their previous views no longer prevailed in the project.

The day after the article appeared, the person whose email I quote denounced me on Google+. I had quoted them out of context, they insisted. I should have asked them for their current view, and I was unprofessional because I didn’t. Yet when I asked them to explain exactly how I had misquoted them, they either would not or could not do so.

I never did get an explanation out of them. So far as they were concerned, I must have deliberately attacked them, and they were under no obligation to explain (although they were apparently quite willing to attack me, and to rant vaguely but ominously about the dangers of discussion on a public mailing list). I suspect that the person in question was now embarrassed by their former views, and was concerned about being associated with them. Perhaps their concern was that others might think they didn’t support the current policy.

My use of the quote had nothing out of context. It was clearly presented as a past view, contrasted with the present, and included several sentences in order to represent accurately the opinions expressed. But, whatever the exact reasons for the person’s reaction, the words “out of context” were a convenient form of denial. Never mind that they could not point to any misrepresentation – by savaging my reputation, they hoped to salvage theirs.

These two examples clearly show the difference between using the phrase “out of context” legitimately, and as a defense. In the first case, going to the original source quickly shows that the context has been misrepresented or misunderstood. In the second case, particulars are avoided for a generalized accusation, and the original discussion is deflected by a personal attack.

Fortunately, the response to cases like the second is exactly the same as for those like the first. In both circumstances, looking at the source immediately shows whether anything has been taken out of context or not. The real danger is when politicians and public figures claim that they were misquoted loudly enough that any methodical debunking of the claim is missed, and they are able to evade responsibility for their own words by launching a misleading counter-attack.

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The older I get, the more I become convinced that most debates are a clash of half-truths. Instead of one point of view being right and the other wrong, almost always each has a limited validity. Necessity or pragmatism may mean that I need to choose a side, but my support is increasingly nuanced and qualified by context.

One of the latest examples of this perspective is my reaction to a discussion on the Geek Feminism Wiki. In response to a guest post, one commenter mentioned that they were put off by the amount of swearing in the post. A second commenter immediately said that the first was using a tone argument, and others quickly joined in.

A tone argument, for those who have never heard the phrase, is one that, rather than addressing what is said, focuses on how it is said. Feminists, for example, are frequently told that they might convince more people if they used a politer tone. Logically speaking, such an argument is irrelevant to a discussion, which means that, by invoking a tone argument, the second commenter was discrediting the first, condemning the objection to swearing as invalid.
What nobody in the ensuing discussion seemed to consider is that both positions might be true depending on context. Yes, by the highest standards of logic, a tone argument is a fallacy. How an idea is expressed does not alter how convincing or accurate it is, and complaining about the tone is basically an emotional appeal – often effective enough at swaying an audience, but unfair in any attempt to have a rational discussion of the issues.

Yet, at the same time, when you consider rhetoric as an art, the way the classical Greeks and Romans did, you would be rash to deny that tone is completely irrelevant. A writer or speaker who prides themselves on being ethical would avoid relying only on a tone argument, but no writer or speaker of any skill would refuse to think of tone as a useful support for whatever they were arguing. If nothing else, the chosen tone would vary depending on the audience. Usually, too, it would vary depending on exactly what response the writer hoped to encourage in the audience.

However, this does not mean you have to practice double-think and believe that both are simultaneously true. Instead, it means that you have a Schrodinger’s cat sort of situation, in which both perspectives are true, but only until you consider the context.

In the case of the argument about swearing and tone argument, the context depends on the motivation of the original comment. Was the disapproval of swearing meant to derail the discussion? Then it was a tone argument, and deserves not to be tolerated. But, if it was a meta-discussion, a discussion about the discussion, then it becomes a valid commentary, and bringing up tone arguments becomes an effort at derailment in itself.

What complicates this example is that, within the context, which is happening is difficult to determine. The written word is generally less subtle than the spoken word, and, unless I am mistaken, the first commenter is not well-known on the Geek Feminism Wiki, so anyone likely to read the exchange probably has no idea what their opinions might be.

Since the commenter writes that, “anyone with a strong point should be able to make it without swearing,” I suspect it is a meta-comment about technique. However, the comment is too short for me to have any strong confidence in that verdict.

Personally, that lack of certainty would have been enough for me to hesitate to mention tone arguments. However, choosing a side is always quicker than considering the possibilities of all sides.

The trouble is, once you support the idea that tone arguments are a fallacy that is particularly used against women, then your position can quickly degenerate in an either-or position in which any mention of tone is something to avoid, regardless of the circumstances. In the same way, insisting that mentioning tone is no more than a matter of technique, you can just as easily condemn the idea of a tone argument as being overly punctilious.

Even worse, taking either position as your own means that you can descend into an endless argument in which there is no right or wrong, not because they don’t exist, but because you are ignoring the circumstances that would determine them.

Increasingly, that is what I notice about many arguments – not just the utter impossibility of ever reaching a conclusion that might satisfy everyone, but, beyond that, the crushing futility of exchanging half-truths. After all, a half-truth is also half a lie.

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At university, I declared an English major for no other reason except that I needed to specialize for my last two years. Three-quarters of my way through my bachelor’s degree, I panicked, and took a couple of extra semesters to get a double major with Communications. However, looking back, I realize that my time in English was better-spent than I thought at the time. Basically, I learned the skills to prepare, structure, and present an argument – skills that were not only invaluable for me as a journalist, but also for the time I spent in management at IT companies

Or, to break down the skills more exactly, thanks to my English courses, I can now answer all the questions in the following categories:

Preparing an argument: How do you take notes as you research? How do you scan sources accurately? How do you evaluate sources? How many sources do you need? When should sources qualify your original ideas? When do you know that you have done enough research to begin structuring your argument? Why should you acknowledge them in your argument, and how?

Deciding the appeal of your argument: When should you appeal to logic, emotion, or ethics? When can you mix them? When do any of them threaten to become invalid? When is there a sub-text, detectable but not fully adressed in your argument?

Structuring an argument: What do you need to explain before beginning your argument? When do you need declaimers? How many points can you develop fully in the space available? How should the points be arranged? What alternative tactics might also work?

Recognizing invalid arguments: When is the evidence too general to support the conclusion? When are points being left out? Is an issue really a matter of one thing or the other, with no other alternatives? What’s wrong with a personal attack? Does one point follow from the other? Did something that happened first cause things that happened later? What are the limits of an analogy being used? When is an argument depending on popular prejudice or belief? Is an authority being cited to shutdown discussion, rather than as an acknowledgment of sources? Is an argument being associated with desirable qualities, outcomes, or events that have no real connection with it?

Considering other opinions: Why is your argument strengthened by considering other viewpoints and interpretations? How do you show respect for an argument while arguing against it? How do you consider other opinions without weakening yours? When should you grant limited validity to another argument? How do you avoid being so fair that you end up being neutral and saying nothing? Where in your argument should you consider other arguments? How do you present them?

Summarizing and quoting accurately: Why should you summarize or quote accurately? What constitutes “accuracy”? How to you fit a quote into your own sentence, making allowance for differences in person, tense, and subject-verb agreement?

Understanding your audience: Why should a change in audience affect your argument? How does the audience affect your argument? How do you access what is suitable to a particular audience?

If an English major has made a formal study of rhetoric, they could also give you the appropriate jargon as they answer these questions. However, even if they haven’t, they should have enough practical experience to be able to answer most of these questions (as well as any similar ones that I may have left out), and make a reasonable guess about the others. They should also have little trouble applying these questions to any argument that is presented to them.

In particular, they will know that most of these questions are not a matter of memorizing a set of facts, but of of knowing the possibilities and knowing which ones might be useful in a specific context. All these are useful skills in any situation in which you need to communicate with others, or to persuade them – in other words, in just about any circumstances that you can name.

The next time someone tells you that an English major is a waste of time, ask them to answer these questions. If they can’t, you are completely justified in telling them that they have no idea what English majors learn — in fact that, in the most literal sense, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

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Remembrance Day is a holiday that always leaves me feeling ambiguous – to say nothing of slightly guilty about my ambiguity.

On the one hand, I have no trouble extending my respect to soldiers. They do a dirty and dangerous job that is often essential. The fact that, in Canada, they do it with inadequate equipment and wages that hover around the poverty line only makes them more worthy of recognition. For some, desperation might play a part in enlistment, but considering the conditions, I figure that a sense of obligation and loyalty must frequently play a large part in their career choices.

Nor do I have any trouble remembering history. If alternate worlds exist, there are a good many in which I am a historian, and, in this world, history forms a large chunk of my reading. I am constantly exasperated at how little sense of history the average person has, so an event that encourage people look back at the last ninety years seems worthwhile to me. I only wish more holidays encouraged such backward gazes.

On the other hand, the emphasis of Remembrance Day has changed greatly since I was a child. When I was growing up, the point of the holiday could have been summarized as “Never again!” I’m not sure of the intention of that message, but I took that to mean that we should do everything possible not only to avoid global conflicts like the one that originally inspired the holiday, but also to avoid wars altogether. I was proud that I lived in a country that focused on peace-keeping, because that seemed to be the enlightened, modern view.

However, in the last couple of decades, respect for soldiers seems too frequently to have become respect for the policies that send them abroad. The message I hear is that if you support the troops, you must also support the Canadian presence in Afghanistan, and that, if you don’t, you are some sort of hypocrite. That seems a false dichotomy to me, and I regret that the day has stopped being a reminder of what we want to avoid and has become instead an extension of government policy.

Along with this new propaganda has come the sort of rhetoric that I have always despised. The rhetoric uses words like “sacrifice” and “honor.” Soldiers do not die; they “fall.” To hear this new propaganda, you would think that soldiers did not simply accept the risk of death, but rush to it with the eagerness of Monty Python’s Kamikaze Scotsmen, eager to show their patriotism by making the supreme sacrifice. Personally, I suspect that they are just unlucky, and no matter how great their idealism, would probably prefer to still be alive.

Such rhetoric seems false at the best of times. Far from being a way to express respect, it seems a way to avoid really thinking about the gory details to which you are alluding. However, it seems even more false when applied to the subject of war

.Read the war poetry of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen – people who had fought in the front lines, and knew what they were talking about – and you quickly find that this is exactly the sort of rhetoric that they railed against. It is the rhetoric that lured the generation of men who were young during World War One to be butchered by the incompetence of their generals. Now, though, “Lest We Forget” no longer seems to include remembering the danger of such rhetoric. But I do not forget, and I greatly resent the fact that it is creeping back into fashion.

I am sure that some readers will damn me for these sentiments, and doubt my sincerity. But, despite the tendency of mainstream media to reduce everything to an either-or question, I’d like to think that a mixed perception is still possible.

Respect for the average soldier is not synonymous with jingoism, and the sooner we separate them, the better. Until we do, Remembrance Day remains a holiday that I can only partly support.

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It consists of some informal examples of closing paragraph strategies, but should be equally useful for formal essays. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

Will North Americans continue to take their high standard of living for granted? Probably not. As we have seen, North Americans use more energy, buy more goods, and create more garbage than even the Europeans. Yet this state of affairs is barely fifty years old, and already it is changing. The North American standard of living has been declining for over a decade, and, as Europe and Japan retool for modern technology faster than we are able or willing to, there is every sign that this decline will continue. Indeed, many people believe that we are overdue to return to a more equitable rate of consumption. Perhaps in another century, historians will look back at Twenty-First Century North America in astonishment, and shake their heads with both envy and disgust.

Final Generalization:
As these examples demonstrate, social networking is transforming the way people work as well as how they play. Clearly, our lives are in the middle of a transformation whose end we cannot yet perceive..

Final Example:
One final example will illustrate the need to quarantine exotic birds. In 1934, a small shipment of cockatiels with Newcastle’s disease arrived in Holland without going through quarantine. Before the birds could be traced and destroyed, thousands of domestic poultry had to be destroyed to stop the spread of the disease, and dozens of farmers lost their livelihood. To make matters worse, 39 people caught Newcastles’ and died from the disease. Ever since, Dutch officials have insisted on a three month quarantine for imported hookbills. Without such precautions, the risk of financial health and illness are simply too high.

Final Analogy:
The disappearance of homo neanderthalis and the prevalence of homo sapiens can be compared to the Norman conquest of England. Contrary to popular belief, there was no widespread slaughter of the Anglo-Saxon population of England by the Normans. Many Anglo-Saxon leaders had died in battle, and many of those who were left chose to swear allegiance to the Normans rather than face execu­tion. Few of the middle-class or laborers were killed, for the simple reason that they were needed to run the country. Anglo-Saxon language, customs and culture were modified, but not destroyed by the Normans. Four centuries later, neither Norman nor Saxon existed–they had all become English. If such assimilation has happened so quickly in historical times, it could just as easily happen in prehistoric times as well, especially since we cannot pinpoint the disappearance of the Neanderthals to within more than five or seven thousand years. It seems likely that, instead of being slaughtered, the Neanderthals inter-married with homo sapiens, disappearing as a distinct species, but contributing their genes to present-day humanity.

Call for Action:
Such evidence indicates that the attempt to do without government automobile testing is a failure. Over half of the vehicles on B. C. roads are mechanically faulty, and over two-thirds do not meet federal emission standards. Clearly, the provincial government must act at once to put an end to this dangerous situation.

Mention of Related Issues:
Obviously, this paper cannot cover all aspects of the question. Given that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded and evolved into birds, what happened to the rest of them? Was giganticism an evolutionary experiment that failed spectacularly? Or did the dinosaurs have some help–perhaps the meteor strike that some theorists have speculated on recently. Or are modern reptiles the direct descendants of the dinosaurs? These are large questions, but they need to answered before our understanding of what happened to the dinosaurs is complete.

There is little left to say. Defeated in his attempts to bring responsible government to the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island, Richard Blanshard returned home to England. He married well, and became known in his home town for his charities. He never held public office again. James Douglas, his successor as governor, continued to represent the interests of the Hudson Bay Company in the area for another twenty years, doing all he could to prevent the rise of responsible government. Douglas became rich, and the center of high society in Victoria. Today, he is known as “the Father of British Columbia” by people too ignorant of the past to know how hard he fought to prevent its existence.

Rhetorical Question:
The issue, then, is clear: do we have the right to imprison and mistreat animals so that we can view them at our ease? Or does anyone dare to suggest that we have no responsibility to our less intelligent neighbors?

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