Rhetorical Strategies to Alienate People and Harm Your Cause

I haven't taught freshman composition in over a year now. For that, I get to on my knees and praise the gods of academia (Beelzebub and Osama bin Laden, in case you haven't been paying attention to Bill O'Reilly) everyday. Teaching comp is hard, hard work for most people. Part of that is because most of us aren't rhet/comp specialists-- we go to grad school to study poetry writing or Early Modern drama, and we wind up having to learn logical fallacies, Rogerian strategy, and whatever it is Peter Elbow is always writing about.

(Oh, I kid Peter Elbow).

The other thing that makes teaching logical argumentation so difficult is that, sometimes, it seems like we live in a culture where the merits of a conviction are judged based on how loudly they are screamed. In his novel Straight Man, Richard Russo's narrator Hank Devereaux observed about students who write letters to the campus newspaper, "As a group they seem to believe that high moral indignation offsets and indeed outweighs all deficiencies of punctuation, spelling, grammar, logic, and style. In support of this notion, there's only the entire culture."

Like most people, when I taught comp I tried to emphasize the importance of considering audience while constructing an argument. It's easiest to write for a friendly audience, because you know they already agree with you. You can write "Rudy Giuliani is a senseless asshat" if you know that your reader already believes that Giuliani would be a terrible president. But that's not persuasion, is it? You didn't persuade me to vote for a candidate other than Giuliani with that statement-- I planned to do so already. All that statement did was remind me that I'm not alone in hating Giuliani-- a fact that I'm already quite confident on.

Too often, I think a few people on the left are way too quick to congratulate rhetorical acts that do absolutely nothing to persuade-- in fact, some of these acts are downright detrimental to their movements. By now we're all familiar with the 9/11 conspiracy theorists who made jackasses of themselves on Bill Maher last week, but in case you've forgotten, check this out:

Being surly, disruptive, and disrespectful is not going to help anyone's cause-- if anything, this display has only convinced more people that the 9/11 Truth Movement is made up of crazy people and intellectual lightweights. This may not be the case, but if your rhetoical strategy is to simply scream until security escorts you out, you're certainly not going to persuade anyone. In fact, you've made your opponent's position seem much more sensible. Maher lost his temper, but in this exchange he seems entirely justified.

As if being rhetorically spanked by a late-night cable talk show host isn't humiliation enough for this particular group, they repeated this mistake again on Tuesday, this time with former president Bill Clinton:

And then there was this ineffective bit of protest earlier this week, which made Condoleeza Rice actually look like a sensible person:

My point? None of these protests accomplished a damn thing for any person or cause other than the protesters as individuals. Yeah, they got to see themselves on TV. And I'm sure they feel really good for "speaking truth to power." But did one single person become convinced that 9/11 was an "inside job" because a bunch of people screamed that it was so? Did confronting the secretary of state with halloween vampire blood on one's hands bring back a single soldier, or convince anyone who was previously in favor of the war to take to the streets in protest? Of course not.

Defenders of this type of demonstration invoke civil rights marches and Vietnam protests. They talk about civil disobedience without actually bothering to look up what the term means. They avoid the fact that Martin Luther King, Joan Baez, Henry David Thoreau, and Mohandas Ghandi talked to people, not at them, and made their cases elegantly and persuasively. They did not just shout about injustice-- they actually demonstrated effectively and worked to change minds through discussion and logical argument.

Effective protest is rarely as dramatic as these outbursts, they don't always make for good TV, and the change they affect is awfully slow-going. But it happens, eventually-- taking part in organized public demonstrations, organizing a walk-out at your school, writing letters to our elected officials, publishing our thoughts on our blogs, and-- yes-- teaching logical argumentation to a group of students who have grown up in a culture that rewards arrogant bluster and punishes nuanced reflection (see the Election of 2000 for more details) will change the word for the better. Standing around screaming will simply cause others to dismiss you for the intellectual lightweight you probably are.

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