Common rhetorical mistakes

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The best arguments make use of shared assumptions–beliefs that both the writer and the reader can agree about even if they don’t yet agree about the entire argument. It’s often hard to find this common ground, but once a rhetor does find it, that clever writer can tailor her argument in an essay around that shared belief. Many amateur rhetors think of debate as an “us-versus-them” sort of affair, and that the readers who disagree are the enemy whose inferior arguments must be ground into the dirt. Accordingly, they mistakenly believe that ridiculing or attacking these mistaken beliefs is the most effective way to “win” the argument. These approaches are not usually the best means of persuasion. Such approaches do not constitute good rhetoric (or good manners, for that matter).

Master rhetors find it useful to think of debate as a cooperative, honest venture. This belief works for both a practical and an idealistic reason. On a practical level, people who feel insulted become unnecessarily defensive. Defensive people do not tend to be open-minded about new ideas coming from the mouth that just spewed venom upon the listeners. As a writer or speaker, it is far better to treat those who disagree with you respectfully. If the writer acknowledges disagreement, and acknowledges that her opponents have legitimate points, and carefully considers their concerns, it is far more likely these dissenting souls will consider her worth listening to. A pinch of politeness will work far better than a pound of verbal abuse. That’s the practical reason for considering debate as a cooperative rather than confrontational practice.

In terms of idealism, there is a second reason to think of debate as cooperative rather than confrontational. Suppose each debater doesn’t simply seek to “win” the argument for the sake of winning, but each one honestly wants to arrive at the truth, or the best solution, or the most logical conclusion. One participant presents the very best argument he can think up, offering the best evidence to support his case. Likewise, his “opponent” (who believes differently than he does) presents the very best case she can think up, offering the best evidence to support her case. If both approach the issue with an open mind, and are both prepared to change their minds after weighing the evidence carefully, the odds are pretty good that the best case will prevail. They have unleashed their best arguments, without seeking to trick or mislead each other, and the one with the most evidence or the most persuasive reasoning wins the day. That means every idea gets a fair shot, and the not-so-great ideas tend to fall before the better-than-average ideas, and in turn the better-than-average ideas tend to give way before the best-we’ve-seen-thus-far arguments. If people are trying to create a personal policy, determine a course of action for their community, or even just plan something simple like a bedroom’s layout, such a debate is a healthy way to “test-drive” many possible courses of action. It lets people locate potential problems or shortcomings in each solution before going to the work of implementing any one option. It helps people spot logical fallacies in their own arguments that they didn’t notice before. That’s a useful endeavor, one we should encourage in the public arena generally.

For such a system to work, each participant has to honestly want to find the answer by an efficient and thorough discussion. The point isn’t merely to win the debate. As a result, certain techniques that might help one win the debate are ultimately self-destructive. For instance, falsifying information, misrepresenting data, and bolstering one’s case through deception, lies, logical fallacies, or exaggeration–such techniques are not good rhetoric. They do not lead to the best possible answer, but instead make a weak answer appear better than it really is. The rhetor may think he’s won his argument by engaging in this sort of trickery, but in actual point of fact, the entire community involved in that decision has lost by accepting an inferior substitute. That’s the idealistic reason we should consider debate as a cooperative, honest venture.

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