Dialectic and Rhetoric: From the Field

The way to say you disagree with an argument or idea today is not by saying so, because that would require an equally reasoned response. Rather, the way to disagree – the way to argue against – someone’s ideas or words is merely to call them hateful or harmful or unhelpful. Further, instead of saying anything about the argument itself, people often express their reaction to it: “I am grieved,” “deeply hurt and offended,” “saddened,” and with paternal condescension, “disappointed.” The goal is to say nothing about the actual argument or idea but about one’s own experience of it. As little of reality, as much of feeling. As little of the other, as much of the self. This allows the interlocutor, if we may call him that, all the comfort of successfully defeating the argument without any inconvenience of having actually to consider it.

This is a perfect example of what Aristotle called pure Rhetoric speaking. Rhetoric speakers do not – cannot – engage in Logic, because it is a foreign language to them. It is gibberish. Rhetoric purely is persuasion, usually upon the senses and passions. Thus, declaring their passions is a Rhetorical argument. “I’m hurt,” means, “You’re argument is false.” “I am deeply grieved,” means, “I disagree with that idea.” Harmful means incorrect. Unhelpful means unproven. When one encounters such Rhetorical language, one can either try to bring the speaker into a Dialectic (logic) language or engage them on their own turf. If you choose the latter, be warned that you’ll have to fight emotion with emotion, which is a field of landmines. If they are saddened, reply that you are happy. If they are angry, you are peaceful. If they are deeply grieved by such unhelpful words, other people have been deeply gladdened by such encouraging words.

If you choose the former, Dialectic, they may not follow you; they may think you’re being “harsh,” “unloving,” not listening to their “experience” or “story.” To nudge a Rhetoric speaker into Dialectic, ask Socratic questions which prod logical reasoning. Ask why they are grieved, hurt, offended, saddened. They will need to give a reason. You may be tempted to begin dialoguing with their argument, but do not be so quick, for they see all Dialectic as attack, as harmful, etc. Therefore, continue patiently to ask questions; poke, prod, don Socrates’ mantle and lead them out of the cave. “Why do you think that way?” “What about this evidence?” I said this is a field of landmines because while talking with Rhetoric speakers at any moment you may step on their feelings which may or may not blow up on you. Feelings are random, chaotic, untethered. Tread carefully.

I’ve found that it takes lots of practice, and I by no means am an expert. This is especially difficult in conversations real-time. One thing I’ve learned, however, is never to give in to a Rhetorical argument at first blush. Because, then, they begin to celebrate their victory by going to work on you. For instance, if one claims offense and you offer an Apology, they will become even more offended – enraged. Essentially what happened was they attacked Rhetorically, you gave in to it and by doing so gave them license to use Rhetoric to defeat you. You signaled to them that their Rhetoric is effective in defeating Reason. And like children who begin cheering when they get a little happy, their emotions (rhetoric) got away from them and they went on a rage – on you. Never apologize to Rhetoric speakers.*

*Nota Bene: never apologizing to Rhetoric speakers is not to refrain apologizing when you are wrong, for although Rhetoric sets Feelings and Emotions as standards of Truth, in reality right and wrong are terms of Dialectic, logic, reason, fact. If your argument is logically incorrect, then admit it and correct it. But being “wrong” in Rhetoric is to have merely offended someone, and feelings are not standards of truth. Thus, your admission of wrong is a justification of their grief or hurt or feeling – it is an admission that their emotions are arbiters of truth. At which point they will unleash those feelings – being justified to do so – in full force. They will bathe in them, bask in them, swim in them, wallow in them.


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