The Most Effective Rhetorical Strategies For Arguments

Megan McArdle offered some of her blog’s most loyal and esteemed commenters the opportunity to write posts for Christmas.  Rob Lyman seized the opportunity to write some spectacular explanations of the most effective rhetorical strategies for winning arguments online (or, I think, anywhere that you are arguing with others watching).  Read his helpful (and often humorous) explanations of each technique in full because they are seriously worth it.  But below in brief are the dicta he offers which are not only effective but also the ones I find most ethically endorseable, desirable, and characteristic of my own most self-conscious strategies for public debate.  I had one of those strong excited feelings of recognition like, “you mean someone else consciously, conscientiously, and methodically takes this approach too?” reading the tactics below:

Commenting is a performance, not a conversation.. Most people who read your work will never respond. Sure, when you get into a reply string, you should always address the comment above yours, because it’s kind of rude to be mugging for the spectators in a reply (“Look at this idiot! He doesn’t know anything!”). But the fact is, your interlocutor is not your audience, so your goal is not to persuade that person, it’s to persuade (or perhaps merely entertain) the silent majority, or what we in the business call “the jury.”

Treat stupid questions as if they were serious… In blogging, treating a stupid question seriously can accomplish one of two goals: it can highlight the stupidity (because the answer is stupid, or obvious), or it might (and sometimes has, for me) elevate the discourse by pulling your interlocutor off of his stupid position and into a real discussion. Either way, you win, because you aren’t the one being a jerk.

Ask earnest questions instead of making arguments…It’s easy to say “That’s wrong.” But it’s much, much more convincing to ask a good question and get a lame answer. Your audience much prefers to draw its own conclusions rather than have you tell them what to think–it makes them feel smarter, and they’re more convinced by their own arguments than by yours, and they’ll be harder to budge off of those conclusions. So instead of declarative sentences about the wrong wrong wrongness of somebody else, how about a little well-placed cross examination? And here, I don’t recommend snippy rhetorical questions with lots of bombastic flourish. In this case, your goals are better served by real questions, earnest questions–questions that are hard to answer but impossible to dismiss. With luck, you can get some other people on board with your question and really hound someone, like, um, a pack of hounds.

Never, ever attempt to pull rank. It can be tempting, when arguing with an idiot, to start ranting about what a genius you are, and all your years of education and experience, and whatnot. But take it from a guy who argues for a living: if you’re such a genius, you don’t need to pull rank, you can demolish him on the merits. There’s nothing wrong with bringing your profession or education up where it may be relevant, but it must be done with modesty…When you start telling everyone you know better than them even if it’s true, you look like a jerk. And–this is becoming a bit of a theme–people will believe a moron they like over a genius they don’t.

Let surrogates make some arguments for you.

His other, usually less scrupulous suggestions are interesting and commonly employed too and worth being on defense against, so, again, I advise reading the whole thing.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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