Argument, Rhetoric, And Ethics

     [The following comprises two pieces that first appeared at the old Palace Of Reason in early 2004. They’re relevant to our current national discourse…such as it is. Sorry, the embedded links no longer work.
     Something to bear in mind as you read: a judge in Hawaii recently ruled that “the spirit of aloha” nullifies the Second Amendment to the Constitution. You’ll see the relevance shortly. – FWP]

     February 17, 2004

     Today, your Curmudgeon is grateful that the news has been so static. Quite apart from the old saw that “no news is good news,” Mark Alger at Baby Troll Blog, one of your Curmudgeon’s mandatory daily stops on the Web, has raised a topic of ever-increasing importance:

     ANYONE WHO MUST DEBATE Or argue with a leftist should have heard “Phil the Lib from Brooklyn” on the Sean Hannity show today. (I gather from what Sean said, Phil is a regular caller. I’ve never heard him before, but I know the type from long exposure.)

     Phil’s call was a textbook example of the Marxist/Leninist argumentarium in action. The technique is taught in and spread by Red cadres in training for revolutionary action. The Red will quickly drop a three to five quick tropes into a discussion that are baldfaced lies, then say, “But I don’t want to talk about that…” And, while his interlocutor tries to deal with the outrageous lies being promulgated as though they were received truth, the Red will, in arguing those points, drop six to ten more lies.

     In short order, the Red’s opponent’s head is spinning. But that’s the point.

     The point is not communication or winning arguments. The point is to so pollute the dialectic that your opponent is tied up in knots and can’t hear himself think for the screaming.

     The answer of course is to refuse to engage. If a leftist starts using this technique, cut him off. Hang up the phone, close the door, walk away. If all else fails, deck the mother****er.

     Of course, one of the points of this style of argumentation is to goad an opponent into violence. The Red can then use the opponent’s own ethics against him by waving the bloody shirt and claiming the mantle of victimhood. If his opponent does not knuckle under to these tactics, but resorts to violence, the Red will take matters into the courts — anything to roil the milieu of the decadent enemy society.

     The Red will sneer at you that violence is the last resort of the incompetent, trying to goad you into further foolish action. Oblige him. Bloody his nose. Keep it up until he shuts up. Remember — you cannot engage a Red in honest debate. They do not know the meaning of the term.

     Just be prepared — he’s a sneaky bastard, and he and some of his comrades will catch you in a dark alley and resort to some incompetence.

     This is when you demonstrate the value of Second Amendment rights. [Emphases in the original; bowdlerization performed by your Curmudgeon]

     If, as your Curmudgeon has said before, we are witnessing the death of true argument in these United States, Alger has highlighted one of the main reasons: the replacement of honest intellectual exchange by rhetorical tactics.

     A number of brilliant analysts of argument and persuasion have set down the requirements of honest exchange: the supremacy of facts, avoidance of personalities, willingness to admit that one might be wrong about propositions for which the evidence is inconclusive, and so forth. Arthur Herzog, in The B.S. Factor, mentions another: sufficient decency to disdain victory through force of rhetoric.

     Argument differs from rhetoric in many ways, but one above all others: the goal of argument is not to defeat one’s opponent, but to increase one’s understanding. Rhetoric is a sheaf of techniques for prevailing at verbal combat, regardless of the rightness of one’s position. Demosthenes, the classical icon of rhetoric, was said to be capable of taking either side in any controversy and prevailing through sheer rhetorical skill.

     He who prefers clever rhetorical tactics to analysis of the facts and the reasons for them is not interested in increasing his understanding. His goal is to subdue his opponent.

     Why would a man set out on such a course? What is there to be gained by subduing or silencing others through tactical means?

     Only the world and all that’s in it.

     The Communist empires of the Twentieth Century kept their grip on their subjects mostly by denying them the ability to communicate with one another, and with others outside their masters’ sphere. Though the Reaganite “spend ’em into the dustbin of history” strategy had much to do with the timing of the Soviet collapse, the regime was already tottering from the expansion of global communications. The Xerox machine made it impossible for the Kremlin to retain its power by any means except the military one. Once confronted by an enemy able to outmatch them in that domain, they were toast.

     In these United States, free and open communication is the rule. (We shall omit consideration of the universities and the Old Media for the purposes of this screed.) There’s essentially no prospect for a regime of censorship that would suit the purposes of the Left. Its thrusts at imposing the shackle of “political correctness” on Americans’ speech by the cultivation of unearned guilt have all rebounded catastrophically against it. What remains to it is the pollution of the intellectual waters, such that we recoil from them in disgust and futility.

     Sadly, unless the defender of freedom is intellectually well armed and possesses a robust sense of humor, the tactic works more often than not.

     The sense of humor is a shield against the sense of outrage Alger alludes to in his piece above. Outrage in a discussion format only feels energizing. In fact, it’s wearying. It also tempts one to unsuitable responses. If an honest debater feels outrage stealing over him, he must invoke his sense of humor at once, both as protection and as the beginning of the only effective available retort: the leap to the meta-argument.

     The “meta-argument” is to the argument itself as the rules of a game are to the play of a particular game. It “summons the referee” to bear witness to a dirty trick. If one can show that the opponent is violating the rules and hoping not to be called on it, the gain can be immense. Given the pattern Alger cites, imagine a reaction like this:

     [Hearty chuckle] What Phil is doing here, friends, is stating a group of rumors and outright lies as if they were unchallenged facts. He has to assert them quickly and move on to other subjects, to keep them from being challenged and destroyed. An honest arguer wouldn’t do that. But Phil’s not interested in argument; he’s trying to prevent argument and spread propaganda in its place. Phil, as our listeners don’t have any patience for that, we don’t have any time for you. [Click]

     This fits Alger’s recommendation that we “refuse to engage,” which is of course correct. One cannot argue with a man determined not to argue. But in consideration of the third parties at whom “Phil’s” tactics are really aimed, for the defender of freedom to expose their true nature comes near to being ethically compulsory. It can also obviate a punch in the nose.

     In several of his works, theorist Hans-Hermann Hoppe makes use of a principle that has been styled “argumentation ethics.” Broadly, it posits that, if one has the right to argue for anything at all, then a priori one must possess rights of the traditional (i.e., Lockean) variety. In their hunger for sole possession of the rhetorical field, statists will gladly destroy all basis for argument with streams of “tropes” intended to confuse or silence their opposition. Similarly, Greek debaters of the classical era used a tactic called “many questions” to induce an opponent to misspeak or babble. Your Curmudgeon would love to believe that they know not what they do, but he’s afraid that they know very well indeed.


     March 3, 2004

     “Everybody’s always giving me guns.” — Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep

     In the preceding essay on this subject, your Curmudgeon mapped some of the ground over which an honest man engaged in political debate must travel. That journey was stimulated by an important Mark Alger piece, which gave an example of a scurrilous rhetorical tactic used by leftists, and counseled disengagement from dishonest persons in debate.

     But the Left has more than one arrow in its quiver. Regard the following reportage by Michelle Malkin, concerning an exchange between San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave on the Larry King Show last week:

     When Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, the Colorado Republican sponsoring a federal marriage amendment, bluntly confronted Newsom with his criminal behavior (“I’m going through the deliberative legislative process, Mr. Mayor. You’re defying the law.”), he pursed his lips and snorted: “I’m hardly defying the law.” Hardly? Fact: In 2000, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 22, the state’s Defense of Marriage Act. Despite Newsom’s issuance of 3,500 marriage licenses to homosexual couples, Prop. 22 remains the law today.

     Musgrave didn’t back down: “You’re making a mockery of the law.” Newsom wheedled in response: “I think you’re making a mockery of this country and our values of diversity, and bringing people together and uniting people.”

     Ann Coulter nailed this one in her book Slander: Liberal Lies About The American Right. The mouthpieces of the Left will always advance as if under the threat of attack.

     Musgrave simply called Newsom on his defiance of the law. When Newsom tried to ward the thrust by denying it, and found that Musgrave would not relent, he changed the subject and went on the attack against Musgrave’s motives, and by implication, the motives of all those who consider him a lawless and culpable man.

     Chess players call this a zwischenzug: a move which interrupts the opponent’s developing combination by forcing him to attend to a threat or possibility he hadn’t included in his thinking. In this case, Newsom was trying to compel a change of subject to avert the need to defend his actions, while simultaneously seizing the rhetorical initiative and throwing his opponent on the defensive.

     It’s legitimate in chess. It’s not legitimate in political discourse.

     An honest man who’s been called to account for his actions stands his ground. Newsom couldn’t do that; California state law is plainly against him, and he has cheerfully defied it. He didn’t want to defend a position that was so obviously indefensible, so he had to derail Musgrave’s train of attack. The best way to do that was to invoke the Left’s rhetorical standby: its claim of good intentions, which implies the bad intentions of its opponents.

     The Good Intentions Gambit is usually effective against the Right, because we of the Right:

  • almost all have good intentions ourselves, and therefore extend that presumption to others;
  • are too gentlemanly to call a lying scoundrel a lying scoundrel in public, where it might hurt his feelings.

     Your Curmudgeon will pause here until you’ve stopped laughing.

     If we compare the underpinnings of the Newsom maneuver to the explicit pronouncements in the Benjamin Hellie rant cited in yesterday’s Curmudgeonly emission, we can glean important intelligence from it, both tactical and strategic. Hellie explicitly articulated the fallback premise of the Left: “We’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys.” To review, Hellie’s actual words were:

     The goal of the right wing is to perpetuate and worsen a system in which a small number of people control obscene quantities of wealth and power at the expense of the vast majority, whereas the goal of the left wing is to distribute wealth and power more broadly. For short, the goal of the right wing is perpetuating and increasing injustice, whereas the goal of the left wing is increasing justice.

     The veracity of the claim to one side, this amounts to an appeal to emotions based on the elevation of intentions above all other things.

     The amazing part of this is how effective it can be. Psychologist and author Peter Breggin has repeatedly lectured pro-freedom groups on the perceived importance of good intentions in political outreach. Broadly speaking, the target of a political pitch will judge the speaker on his perceived intentions more predictably than on anything else about him. If the target judges the speaker to be callous or cruel, the pitch will fail; indeed, it might rebound to disastrous effect.

     Scant wonder that the Left, which has a uniform record of failure in all things this century past, should recur to the Good Intentions Gambit so regularly.

     The most effective tactical counterstroke has much in common with the one suggested in the preceding essay: call the violator on his violation, where everyone can hear. It would go something like this:

     [Hearty chuckle] Mayor Newsom, it’s clear that you can’t defend your conduct on legal grounds, and equally clear that you dislike being put on the defensive about it. But those are the facts, and in time you will be called to account for them. Your protestations of superior virtue on the basis of your supposed good intentions are just a cover for your unwillingness to conform your conduct to the law as a good citizen should.

     The Good Intentions Gambit is the Left’s innermost line of defense. Should it fail, leftist generals have nowhere to retreat. Strategically, this implies that freedom advocates may choose between battlegrounds:

  1. We can lay siege to Fort Good Intentions, by pointing out at every opportunity that the Left’s vanguard’s response to its policy failures is always to evade them, usually by defining them out of existence or attacking the motives of its critics. Thus, it preserves its ego and its power at the expense of the persons it claims to want to help. This is not the behavior of a movement animated by good intentions. Pursued consistently, this strategy will separate the Left’s followers from its vanguard.
  2. We can bypass the fortress and bring the facts about leftist failures, leftist deceits, leftist arrogance, and leftist power-lust to the largest possible “lay” audience, simply and clearly. Pursued consistently, this will remove the Left’s support among the general populace.

     In both sites, the correlation of forces is favorable to us. There are enough of us to try both. Choose — and strike!