rhetoric sans pareil

November 17, 2008

No, you’re doing it wrong…

The original purpose of this blog was not actually to promote atheism – the original purpose of this blog was to give myself a wee sandbox to play around in and try to improve my writing. The atheism thing came later, because it’s something I feel strongly about and enjoy writing about. But I’m going to take a step back to my original purpose, roll up my sleeves, and get back to the subject of persuasive writing. I’ve hidden the post under the cut, because this is the kind of thing that makes most people yawn, and it pays to spare you the details.

So now that you’ve decided you might be interested, I’m going to dissect a piece of writing over at Pastoral Musings, and show what was done well and what was done poorly. Then I’ll try to construct a new argument for the thesis of that blog post that avoids these pitfalls.

I’m actually unsure of what the name of the author is, so I’ll be referring to the author as PM (Pastoral Musings).

The article in question is More on Proposition 8 Protestors. Give it a read, then come back for a rhetorical overview of the piece.

Read it? Right? Good. Let’s get cracking.

Let’s see now, they say that they’re for freedom, but it’s only freedom for themselves.

Here’s the thesis of the piece. It’s a good stance. It sets up what PM is doing. Firstly, he’s (I presume it’s a he) arguing a negative case against someone he disagrees with. Secondly, he’s doing that by turning his opponents’ primary argument against them.

This is all good stuff: it’s much easier to pull off a negative argument against an opponent than it is to forward a positive argument for your own cause. Because of that, it can be a little underwhelming, but if you can make it look like your opponent is a hypocrite in their primary argument, you’ve got a good chance of making them look beat and winning over the allegiance of your audience.

So that’s our stance, and it’s a good rhetorical stance to be taking. However, PM buggers things up a bit.

You see, they don’t care whether the other fellow who needed to drive through the city was free to do so or not. They simply blocked traffic without a care for anyone who was not free to travel to work, etc. No, it’s not about freedom.

PM’s opening line was strong. Unfortunately, he followed it up with this – a whinge about protesters blocking up traffic. This is a move in the wrong direction. The thesis statement sets up an argument on idealistic, lofty principles. The correct thing to do is to push that message up and take the high road. Instead, PM moved immediately from the high-road to the low-road by having a whine about minor civil disruption resulting from political protesters. That’s the whole point of an act of political protest. It’s a cheap shot, and if PM is going to argue from the position of the high-ground, he can’t afford to be caught out taking cheap shots. It doesn’t strengthen his position at all. To the contrary, it undermines him considerably.

They speak of equality, but homosexuals are already equal. They have equal rights and equal protections. This is not about equality. It is about what marriage is. Marriage is always heterosexual in nature. Thus, by definition, homosexuals cannot marry. The state did not invent marriage, and the state cannot redefine marriage. This is not about equality. That already exists. This is about re-writing the dictionary.

We’ve already set up the thesis: My opponents claim to be promoting freedom and equality. This paragraph is the first in a two-hit combo based on this thesis in an attempt to destroy the position of those opponents. The first hit is ‘My opponents are free, and are not suffering from the inequality they claim’. The second hit is ‘it is actually my position that is being deprived of freedom and equality by my opponents!’

This is much better, and partially makes up for PM’s mis-step in the previous paragraph. Here, he’s moving back up to his original stance and making this about ideals. Note throughout the piece are statements such as ‘homosexuals are already equal’. The thing to remember here is that a statement like this is a value-judgment, not an empirical measurement. Value judgments are about assigning meaning to a measurement. If you know what you’re doing, you can make a case for assigning any meaning you want to any given measurement, even if the meanings are totally contradictory. When you step back from objective truth and into how we assign values to things, you can never be proven wrong. All that matters then is having a good pace to your speaking or writing, which PM does well in this paragraph. This is a rhetorically solid paragraph.

Oh, and what about equality for the Christians and others who supported Proposition 8? Why are they lesser than homosexuals? They must be considered so, because their voice is not seen as important. The people have spoken, but their voice must be over ruled and silenced… after all, what do these ignorant, extremists know? Is that not the opinion? This is not about equality. It is about silencing those who oppose “homosexual marriage.”

Here’s the follow-up punch from the last paragraph. It’s as rhetorically sound as the last one.

PM did a really nice move with injecting the ‘voice of the people’ thing in there. His opponents are trying to set themselves up to argue from the position of an oppressed minority. The perfect counter to this is to argue form the perspective of the ‘voice of the people’, because an oppressed minority will always be outnumbered by the majority of ‘the people’. That’s what being an oppressed minority means. However, when you say it in terms of the ‘voice of the people’, it makes the reader inclined to number themselves as one of ‘the people’. It pulls the reader into in-group/out-group thinking, where PM’s position is the reader’s ‘in-group’ and PM’s opponents are the reader’s ‘out-group’. This is a good move, because it makes the reader less open to the emotional appeal of the underdog as being pushed by PM’s opposition.

Neither is this about love. If it were, they would show love to those who oppose them, too.

This is… adequate. It sets a nice beat to the flow of the piece. But what he should be doing here is clinching his two-hit combo, but instead he’s raised a new point. If this point was important, PM should have either used it in his second paragraph, or left it until after his clinching statement. As it is, this line is out of place. It’s sloppy, but he hasn’t actually shot himself in the foot. Yet.

This is all about trying to silence those who oppose deviance. It is about normalizing that which is unnatural.

This short paragraph is utterly tragic on PM’s part. He’s doing the right thing – he’s making a clinching conclusion to his two-hit combo that’ll set it into the reader’s mind. He’s got the right idea. Unfortunately, his execution of that idea has turned out to be an epic failure on his part.

PM should not have used the words ‘deviant’ or ‘unnatural’. The entire point of his argument is that his opponents are unjustly claiming to be discriminated against. Words like ‘deviant’ and ‘unnatural’ carry very strong emotional connections with discrimination. In using these words PM is actually committing the very discrimination against his opponents that he says they aren’t receiving. This is such a catastrophically bad thing to do in PM’s position. It makes his opponent look fully justified in their position, and it makes him look like a two-faced hypocrite. It completely undoes all the good work he did in his first, second, and third paragraphs. And it could have been so easily avoided by just sticking to his thesis and not bringing up the subjects of ‘deviant’ or ‘unnatural’.

How sad that we have come to this point.

It’s basically all over after the colossal screw up of the last paragraph. That said, this kind of sentence is a good pace-setter. Had the last paragraph been a good one, this beat would be well justified. It places a nice beat in the flow of the text, it has no real content, and it’s worded in a way that is inclined to make the reader emotionally sympathetic to the argument. This line is justified.

God does not hate these folks. God hates their lifestyle, however. If they persist in this lifestyle and do not accept God’s heart-changing, life-changing love, He will turn against them in hatred and wrath.

This just puts the nail in the coffin for PM. First and foremost, he was originally arguing about ideals. Now he’s raising the subject of God. It’s a contradictory message, and it makes PM look like a two-faced speaker. It implies that all his talk of lofty ideals was really just a smokescreen for him to push a religious agenda. Don’t get me wrong – rhetorically speaking, he could very well have pushed an argument form a religious perspective. That’s fine. But if that was what he was going to do, he should have opened with God and finished on ideals and values, or left God out of this particular argument altogether.

Second of all, he raised the subject of God, hatred, and wrath. This makes his opponents look sympathetic again. The line about ‘God does not hate these folks’ is good. The problem is that when you follow a statement up with another statement that has the word ‘but’ or ‘however’ in it, it totally negates the previous sentence in the mind of the reader. It just sets the beat to make the hatred and wrath thing that much more prominent. You can’t preach a doctrine of God’s hatred and wrath against a group of people at the same time that you’re arguing that that group of people are not being discriminated against. It’s utterly inconsistent, and in this case lethal to PM’s original thesis.

Today is the day of grace.

Tomorrow may be the day of judgment.

Repent and believe the good news of Jesus Christ!

It’s already over, but PM goes that extra mile and somehow manages to make things even worse. It moves the argument even further towards the position of fundamentalist religious bigotry, which PM utterly cannot afford given his original thesis.

So that’s the rhetorical deconstruction out of the way. Now I’m going to take the liberty of piecing this argument back together, fixing the holes and showing what a good argument of this form would have looked like.

Let’s see now, they say that they’re for freedom, but it’s only freedom for themselves. You see, they’re trying to set themselves up as an oppressed and victimised minority, but their actions betray them. They are only adopting such a position such that they can use it to overrule the voice of the people. They are attempting to disenfranchise the right of the people to voice their opinion in civil affairs, and they are doing it through despicably hypocritical means.

They speak of equality, but homosexuals are already equal. They have equal rights and equal protections. This is not about equality. It is about what marriage is. Marriage is always heterosexual in nature. Thus, by definition, homosexuals cannot marry. The state did not invent marriage, and the state cannot redefine marriage. This is not about equality. That already exists. This is about re-writing the dictionary.

Oh, and what about equality for the Christians and others who supported Proposition 8? Why are they lesser than homosexuals? They must be considered so, because their voice is not seen as important. The people have spoken, but their voice must be over ruled and silenced…after all, what do these ignorant, extremists know? Is that not the opinion? This is not about equality. It is about silencing those who oppose “homosexual marriage.”

This is all about trying to silence the voice of the people when they speak out in dissent against the politically correct climate imposed on society by homosexuals. It is about the few attempting to manipulate the system to impose their will upon the many.

How sad that we have come to this point.

It’s no secret that I’m a Christian, and that I look to the teachings of Christ for guidance in my life and opinions. [edit: remember, this argument has been written in the voice of PM, not the voice of Ubiquitous Che] These people will try and make my position out to be based on a closed-minded, literalist interpretation of the Bible. They’ll do this, because it’s an easy way to dismiss what I have to say: “Oh, don’t listen to him, he’s just another religious crackpot.”

No, they don’t want you to listen to me. Because I am not arguing here from a position of God’s will. I don’t have to. Those protesting against Proposition 8 are doing so on the grounds of freedom and equality, and I have met them on the ground of their choosing. I have shown their position to be a hypocritical attempt to force their views on the rest of society.

That is why they cynically use emotionally laden buzzwords to try and make their case. It is because they don’t have a case, and they don’t want us to think about it long enough to work that out for ourselves.

That’s a much better argument. There’s still some room for improvement – if I were making this argument for myself, I’d sit on it for a day or two and see if there’s anything more I could do to give it some added punch. But it fixes up the gaping wounds in PM’s original article, and drives home his thesis by making a hollow emotional appeal to people’s innate distrust of hollow emotional appeals. That’s a rhetorical ploy that just makes me all kinds of happy. :P


Oh, and on the side – I wrote my corrected version of PM’s article from a rhetorical perspective divorced of my own personal opinions. Essentially, PM is wrong twice. Firstly, homosexuality is a natural part of the human condition. It shows up in the animal kingdom all the time, and there’s a reliable statistical basis for what genetic and embryonic variables contributes to a person being born with same sex attraction. I’ll say it again: Homosexuality isn’t a form of sexual deviancy. Homosexuality is not ‘unnatural’. To the contrary. The science shows us that homosexuality is a naturally occurring part of the human condition. So that’s the first part where PM is wrong.

The second part where he goes wrong is that, even if homosexuality was ‘unnatural’, this would in no way imply that it should be discouraged. That’s the naturalistic fallacy at play. My glasses are unnatural, but I would barely be able to see without them. Almost everything we humans do is ‘unnatural’ in some way. Merely something as ‘unnatural’ is no argument at all.

It’s very revealing when a person falls back on the ‘I object to X because it is unnatural’ position. It shows that they don’t actually have a good reason for their objection – because if they did, they would give it, and not have to fall back on fallacious logic.

Finally, my own two cents: The fact that the people of California voted in favor of Proposition 8 is a tragic condemnation of widespread bigotry of that particular state. Each individual is free to decide for themselves that they do not recognize a marriage between two homosexuals as being valid. That’s fine. However, it is utterly inappropriate for the state to discriminate against a subsection of society based on sexual orientation. There’s a lot more to marriage than religion and reproduction. It’s a civil right to have a long-term relationship between two people recognized by the state. There is absolutely no secular basis for denying that right to homosexuals. None. Whatsoever.

You have the right to your personal belief that homosexual marriage is invalid, but you cannot impose that view on homosexuals, and it is blatant discrimination on the part of the state for them to do it on your behalf.

9 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the critique.
    Your reasoning is, to a great degree, very strong.
    On the other hand, I was not writing an oped piece for a paper. It was simply my point of view. I’m sure that I could have done better.
    On the other hand, Che, there is still the issue of the objective, absolute Truth….God and His Word. That defines the issue, not subjective feelings and subjective pseudo-science that pretends to give proof to homosexuality being natural. One must ignore simple anatomy to think it natural. Nature is subject to the One who Created it. He made us the way we are to be. We choose to change it.
    I was wondering what had happened to you. I haven’t seen you around for a while.
    I seem to spend less time on my blog. Occasionally I get a bee in my bonnet and post a few things.
    Thanks again for the critique.
    Jason

    Comment by pastoralmusings — November 18, 2008 @ 4:18 am

  2. What can I say…. except, BRAVO! Well done!

    Either I’m blind or you need an about section, I’d love to read a bit more background about the author.

    Keep up the good work! =)

    Comment by Jared — November 18, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

  3. Jared,
    I get the impression that you’ve directed your comments toward me.
    I prefer a certain degree of anonymity, for various reasons. They are mostly personal reasons quite separate from wanting to be identified with what I say.
    Let it suffice to say that I am Jason, a Christian, a Baptist, a father, a pastor.

    Comment by pastoralmusings — November 19, 2008 @ 4:05 am

  4. Very nice breakdown Che. I’ll probably review this again next time I’m formulating an argument. The article you’re working from is an interesting choice too. There’s some convincing points in the beginning. I’m curious as to what your full counter-argument would be. Not to mention it would be funny to see you argue with yourself :)

    Comment by Zhatt — November 19, 2008 @ 5:29 am

  5. PM:

    I’m glad you appreciated the critique. :D

    On the subject of absolute Truth, I have to remain humble. If you claim a direct access to absolute Truth, then this is a claim that lies beyond my capacity to match. I cannot claim to know absolute Truth. I cannot even claim to know whether or not there is an absolute Truth about which there is anything to know.

    I am incapable of laying a claim to absolute Truth, so I must humbly limit myself to humdrum, everyday, uncapitalized truth. You know – the kind of truth that can actually be measured. The kind that’s verifiable.

    Like the measurable, verifiable fact that homosexuality is a natural consequence of a sexually reproducing species consisting of two genders when that species is complex enough to require extensive hormone-sensitive embryological development in utero.

    Your Immeasurable Truth is not something upon which I would care to comment with similar confidence – although I do admire your boldness in making such comment yourself.

    Jared:

    Should you tell him, or should I?

    Zhatt:

    Actually… You’ve gone and given me an idea for my next project. You might get to see me argue with myself yet. :P

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — November 19, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

  6. Che,
    Like the measurable, verifiable fact that homosexuality is a natural consequence of a sexually reproducing species consisting of two genders when that species is complex enough to require extensive hormone-sensitive embryological development in utero.
    Hmmm…..sometimes it takes a lot of saying to say very little, doesn’t it? :-) That is indeed meant in jest.
    Anyway, I appreciate your willingness to dialogue without extreme vitriolic tendencies.
    Jason

    Comment by pastoralmusings — November 20, 2008 @ 4:42 am

  7. Jared,
    Never mind the question. I do believe that I remember you.
    Hey! I hope you all have a happy Thanksgiving!
    Jason

    Comment by pastoralmusings — November 23, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  8. Well done! That’s a very thorough dissection, and surprisingly well-written. It was actually interesting to read.

    I’d like to take up a point you passed over … about rewriting the dictionary. We do this all the time.

    John McCain called his wife a trollop during the election; the disrespect was less surprising than his resurrection of a word that’s been dead for a century. Trollop was written out of the dictionary, along with thine, or anything from Beowulf. Dis was written into the dictionary by rappers; meh ( The Simpsons ) well be in the next Merriam Webster’s. Access changed from just a noun to a noun and a verb just decades ago.

    We rewrite the dictionary all the time, including fundamental changes to the meanings of words. A PC used to be a computer, then an anti-Mac. Evolved takes on another meaning, of being spiritually enlightened. Not every woman who falls is a fallen woman.

    Language gives no weight to this argument.

    Comment by Forrest — January 23, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

  9. Forrest: Of course you’re correct!

    ^_^

    Like I said, I was writing a persuasive text for the purpose of persuasion, and the ‘don’t re-write the dictionary’ argument, whilst flawed – as all arguments are, I should add – is nonetheless very persuasive to many people.

    I go a step further – dictionaries give us sample usage of a word, not a definition. It’s impossible to ‘define’ a word with more words. The complete ‘definition’ of a word would require me to give you a list of every possible usage of a word, and since any word can be used in a limitless number of combinations, giving a complete definition is impossible.

    Words don’t have definitions – at least, not usable ones. They have usage. And since we already have a term for gay marriage at large in the public consciousness, that has become a valid usage too.

    Language is a mutating beast. It cannot be controlled, whatever the French may think. ^_^

    Comment by Ubiquitous Che — January 25, 2009 @ 10:42 am


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