I'm a debater. That really is the core facet of my identity. I like arguing, but more than that, I like arguing intelligently
. In fact, that's why I joined debate in the first place--as a place of refuge from our superficial society, a place where substance mattered. Thus, like any self-respecting debater, nothing is more aggravating than judges who ignore issues and arguments and instead vote based off "style" or "presentation." I want to be judged based on whether I made a good argument or a bad one--whether I won the debate
--not whether or not my argument was delivered at the right tempo or whether my gestures were aesthetically pleasing.
I was at a local college debate tournament yesterday (that's why I had no blog posts--did you miss me?). My partner and I did alright--made the Bronze medal round. But the ballots were just a paradigmatic display of atrocious, style-based judging. I say that for both rounds we won and the rounds we lost (one which we lost, and one which we "lost", if you get my drift). Judges such as this destroy the integrity of debate as an institution designed to foster critical thinking. If all that matters who who uses the best metaphors, then there is no incentive for debaters to make intelligent arguments. And of course, these same factors play out in society writ-large--if voters only care about style, then politicians will continue to campaign on shallow, superficial platforms. You get what you vote for.
Now, in a narrow sense, I'm disillusioned enough that I'd be content if these rhetoric-whores would just leave the judging pool and let me debate in peace. I've long since given up hope that there will be any wide-spread shift in our society's pro-rhetoric stance. But I do actually believe that the primacy of such concepts like "rhetoric" and "persuasion" are wrong and bad for society at large. Specifically, I'm going to make the claim that by encouraging our students to be "rhetorical" rather than substantive, we cause significant, qualitative, and observable harms upon our society and democracy. So when our educational institutions teach students to be rhetorically persuasive, rather than make well-warranted and supported arguments (or at the very least say that the former takes precedence over the latter), they are doing our nation a great disservice and should be loudly opposed. Instead, we should seek to undermine rhetoric where-ever possible, not by opposing someone just because they speak pretty, but by ignoring rhetoric and making "intelligence-based" decisions--doling out social rewards and punishments based on merit and argumentative quality.
My first point on why rhetoric is bad is that it gives an incentive to be stupid. If we privilege rhetoric over substance, then rational actors will behave accordingly. Now, presumably there will be times that substantive appeal and persuasiveness will be one and the same. But where there is a conflict, a rhetoric-first position demands that we dumb ourselves down so as to remain oratorically pleasing. This is why I gave the post this title. By saying that rhetoric is a bona fide positive skill, we are quite literally giving students an incentive to be idiots. We are telling them that rewards and punishments will be given out not on the basis of merit, but presentation. And thus, when a student is faced with an either/or proposition, where she can either make a difficult, counter-intuitive, or otherwise unpersuasive but smart argument, or a shallow, superficial, but quite persuasive dumb argument, she'll rationally choose the latter. This may be true as a descriptive state of affairs (more on this later), but it is inarguable that it is normatively wrong and harmful to society.
The second point is that rhetoric tends to support arguments that either are merely poorly crafted, or are flat-out evil. The first argument I made just noted that intelligence will take a back seat to rhetoric when the two come into conflict. In theory, that's content-neutral--it may be just as likely that rhetoric will support good arguments as bad ones. This point, however, argues that the "persuasive" argument is more often than not the worse argument. There are two reasons for this. The first is that persuasion appeals to very deep-seated (primitive, you might say) emotional responses, rather than sophisticated intellectual ones. At least since Hobbes, and probably before, we've known that humankind, at its most basic state, is not a friendly creature. Our base emotions tend not to be those supporting equal personhood, empathy, unity, or trust. They tend to be selfishness, mistrust, anger, violence, prejudice, and most of all, fear. A persuasive argument that seeks to appeal to the former set of emotions and values will thus operate at a severe disadvantage. It has to both appeal at a visceral level, and yet avoid appealing at the most
visceral level. This skirting of the subconscious surface is a very difficult maneuver. And even if done effectively, presumably an advocate that skilled could make an even more appealing argument based off the latter emotions, because they're more deeply entrenched and thus, things being equal, will take precedence. The second reason is that we live in a complex world. Good arguments thus will also tend to be complex. But complexity isn't persuasive to human beings. On a cognitive level, we like simple, cut-and-dry explanations, that establish easy to understand chains of causations and neatly divide the world into right and wrong. An argument that operates in that paradigm is far more likely to be persuasive, because it is stereotype-reinforcing. We want the world to be this way, so we are more likely to find persuasive arguments that indeed, tell us the world is this way. And because this is a deeply-ingrained mechanism of viewing the world, it will only rarely come to the surface and thus is quite difficult to challenge. Meanwhile, a "good" argument, which deals with the real complexities that color our universe, will be ignored or pushed aside. Remember Kerry and his "nuances"? This is precisely what I'm talking about. Now Kerry may have had a good foreign policy position, or he may have had a bad one. But he wasn't attacked on the ground of his position's merit, he was attacked specifically on the grounds
that it was "nuanced." Making a complex argument was thus presented as in itself wrong--the substance of the argument was quite literally irrelevant to the attack. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly the way that our patterns of thinking make the type of arguments most likely to be correct (a good argument is likely to be a nuanced one, regardless of whether Kerry's particular nuanced argument was a good one) into political no-nos in today's world.
The implications of this are tremendous, for it means that by teaching that rhetoric is good we are paving the way for demagoguery. Of course, there have been talented rhetoricians who have also made significant substantive arguments. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is perhaps the best historical example, Sen. Barack Obama fits this paradigm today. However, the scales are significantly weighted against them. Today, the people who are most likely to be seen as "persuasive," or who have a wide social following, are not our public intellectuals or leading philosophical lights. It isn't John Mearshimer or Martha Nussbaum or Mary Ann Glendon that are trotted out in public debates as our great rhetorical models. It is the folks on talk radio and "Cross-fire" style shows that command our loyalty. That we are persuaded by Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore and Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter and George Galloway should represent a serious indictment of the very concept of "persuasion." Historically, Hitler's greatest asset was his voice; he was by all accounts a stunning orator. Uncritically accepting rhetoric as a "good" weakens our intellectual defenses against persuasive but morally bankrupt appeals.
The third issue I'd like to address is the idea that rhetoric is a useful skill to have in today's world, and thus should be taught. Obviously, being a good orator is a skill that can be used to great personal advantage (one could say the same about being a good assassin, or being good at backroom political knife-fights). The question then, is whether or not a society in which rhetoric is of such importance is one we wish to accept uncritically, or one which we should challenge and overturn. I very strongly believe the latter, and thus ask why is it socially acceptable to say an argument is "better" because it is "better presented" or "more persuasive"? While they of course exist on different moral planes, there are distressing parallels between making decisions based on rhetorical appeal and making them based on race, sex, religion, or other "irrelevant" characteristics (when, of course, such characteristics are indeed irrelevant). They manifest themselves in different ways, but all share the defining characteristic of subordinating merit and rationality to prejudice and subjectivity. The fact that something is persuasive is no more of an indicator that it is right than the fact that something is White is such an indicator. When our school systems teach rhetoric as something qualitatively beneficial, rather than (at best) a necessary evil, they suppress whatever nascent challenges to the system that may otherwise arise. We see that schools put the full force of their authority down to define writing "well" as writing "persuasively," teach students to analyze and evaluate literary (and even political) works via the paradigm of "literary and persuasive devices," and otherwise operate wholly and uncritically within a paradigm that encourages the development of good oration at the expense of well-crafted argumentation.
I'll concede that perhaps the schools should teach rhetoric as a "tool in the toolbox" because our society still (to its shame) operates within a rhetoric-first paradigm, and people live in the here, not in a rhetoric-subordinated utopia. But I'd say that insofar as its possible, the schools should within its own bounds and assignments, try to shift that standard away from superficial persuasiveness and towards critical thinking and deep analysis (especially
because schools are, at least nominally, the sole remaining fortresses of intellectualism). Where we can
muster a foothold for intelligence, we should--and who knows? Maybe if we start educating students in an intelligence-first paradigm, then that might just have impacts that change the real world. But by choosing to affirm rather than challenge the hegemony of rhetoric, schools are engaging in material cooperation with a dangerous social force that we are obliged to oppose.
I write this piece in considerable frustration, because I have little faith in either my broad goal of anti-rhetorical social change or my narrow goal of preserving debate as a refuge for intellectualism coming true. Simply put, the deck is stacked against us and its a battle that we are losing. However, that doesn't mean we should stop fighting it. As debaters, we should work to explain to other members of our community (especially volunteer lay-judges) the value of intellectualism over rhetoric. As educators, we should teach our students to be critical thinkers and reject curriculum proposals which reify the stupefying pro-rhetoric mindset. And as citizens, we should demand a higher level of discourse from our elected-officials, educate ourselves about the ideas coming out of our universities and think-tanks, and pledge to vote off issues, not hand-gestures. If we all just work a little harder, I think we can make a difference.