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.

  • Hermes

    Good article. He’s spot on.

    Some of what he describes I simply refer to as ‘the Colombo method’. It might date me, but if you have seen the character Columbo you know exactly what I mean. Columbo had this way of acting dumb while letting the bad guys brag themselves into a criminal conviction. He did it by acting dumb, and asking what seemed to be questions that showed he does not know what he’s doing or that he does not suspect the crook of being the crook. He’d let them relax so he could slip the cuffs on, usually after saying something like “Oh, I almost forgot. [innocent sounding question or comment]“.

    Yet, people are impatient so much of the time I use the nose in the poop method. Someone comes along and dumps out a load, and then attempts to continue on as if they were entirely justified in doing that. I focus on the poop and I don’t stray from it one bit. I ask detailed questions about the poop, for details so that I can understand how they are justified in promoting their poop, how I can learn from their poop.

    I will listen to what they say, and I will acknowledge what they say that is convincing. I’ll even change my mind on the issue if they are right. Yet, if they aren’t, and it is obvious that they are jerking people around, I will not let up on them one bit.

    The main reason why I developed these tactics myself is because I’m sick of getting the run-around. Of hearing the same lies over and over again as if reality is based on who yells the loudest or repeats the same thing often enough.

    Reality is self-supporting while BS requires constant maintenance, and that’s what I focus on in my replies. Supporting BS is very tiring, and so it’s rare that I give up first.

    That said, these methods can be abused by the same people who dodge legitimate comments. They have a harder time doing it, but they can do it.

  • James Gray

    I think Colombo got the idea from Socrates.