Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Rhetoric is a Very Fine Thing Indeed

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard Feynman
I believe that learning and applying the skills of rhetoric is one of the finest, most useful things a human being can do.  With these skills we are humble, fair and clear thinkers, able to see through muddle or deception, and capable of stirring ourselves and others into worthwhile action.  Without them, we remain muddled, biased, complacent, open to deception and self-deception, and unable move ourselves or others beyond acceptance of, often flawed, received wisdom.  It’s a skill we can apply to business decisions, sports performance, political choices, and most of the day-to-day decisions we make.  It’s hard to think of many skills that are more fundamentally important.
Before I inadvertently get anyone’s back up, let me explain what I mean by rhetoric: basing an argument on sound reasoning, with a fair appeal to the emotions, and a solid ethical stance.  It is the opposite of the commonly misused “politician’s rhetoric” of clever, false arguments intended to deceive, which is more accurately called sophistry.
In my mind, rhetoric has three stages: a generous but challenging consideration of others’ appeals to you; a rigorous and even more challenging appeal to the self; and, an elegant and fair appeal to others.  Each stage has three parts: an appeal to reason, an appeal to emotions, and an appeal to ethics.  Three stages, three parts in each.
Generous but Challenging Consideration of Others’ Appeals to You
We are bombarded by others’ appeals to us: newspaper leading articles, advertising, sales pitches, business cases to invest in some initiative or plan, magazines describing steps to success, and friends persuading us to agree with their points of view.  Each of these appeals contains some rational, emotional or ethical plea to believe or do something.  People making these appeals are human like us, and we all have biases and agendas.  So our challenge in considering the case the other person is making is to be generous in our listening but rigorous in our assessment.
Appeals to our reason are flimsier than they first appear.  They inevitably contain fallacies of logic: selective information, unsubstantiated assumptions, unrepresentative examples and convenient metaphors.  We need to be on our toes to recognise these when making our own decisions; but we also need to have the open-mindedness to accept, despite these inevitable flaws, that the other person may still have a good point.
Appeals to our emotions can be life- and even world-changing, and because of this are where we need to be most awake.  Emotion is ever present in our greatest moments and is the fuel that drives us to do great things.  Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech was fueled by emotion, not the self-evident logic.  On a personal level, all the great teams and companies I have worked with have an emotional stirring behind their actions; without it, we’re just tidying and marking time.  But of course there is a flip-side.  I’ve seen scores of companies and people crash and burn because of emotionally sticking to an unsubstantiated dogma; and some of the most damaging rabble rousers and dictators of all time had a gift for attracting people’s emotions to their causes.
The ethical appeal is perhaps the most difficult of all to hear in a balanced way.  We need to know that the person making a case for something has good intentions, and has values we trust.  But we are biased, lumping people into bad or good, reliable or unreliable.  Millions of people don’t trust Tories because they think they’re nasty; but didn’t the Tory William Wilberforce campaign for 20 years to abolish the slave trade?  Carter is commonly considered an ineffectual US President; but didn’t he head negotiations in the Camp David peace between Egypt and Israel?  People mistrust John Major and Tony Blair for different reasons; but didn’t they instigate and complete the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland?  The demonised, phone-tapping Rupert Murdoch revolutionised UK sports coverage and ultimately backed our first Tour de France winner.  No-one is all good or all bad, so why should we blindly follow or oppose anyone?
A Rigorous and Even More Challenging Appeal to the Self
The appeal to one’s own reason is no mean feat.  We need to be prepared for the discomfort of challenging our own, often convenient, assumptions and reasoning; and for testing how complete or confined our thinking has been.  It’s especially hard if we want or don’t want to believe something for whatever reason.  This inability to challenge our own reasoning is the biggest flaw I see in my students’ rhetoric and my own.
The appeal to our own emotions is possibly even more difficult than challenging our reasoning.  This emotional appeal is critical: we need to care about something to give it the time of day, and to be fired up to take action.  At the same time, our emotions can blind us.  We find it hard to accept a sound view from someone we don’t like or that leads to a conclusion we find distasteful; and we let our feelings guide us to seek evidence to support a course of action that we do like.
The ethical appeal to the self is difficult because it’s so intangible and multi-faceted.  We’re trying to answer a tricky question here: “Is this a good thing to do?”  The phrase ethical dilemma is a common one for good reason.  When we explore an ethical choice, we find ourselves changing stance with each level of consideration.  “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” sounds worthy until we think about freeloading incentives, centralised power, and consequent lost generations; but if we flip sides and adopt the commonly misrepresented self-serving capitalist stance, we lose something benevolent at the heart of human nature.  Giving important things open-minded and fair consideration, and thinking two steps beyond our initial dogma, gets us a long way.   A good sign that we’ve given things some reasonable consideration is the very finding of an ethical dilemma.
An Elegant and Fair Appeal to Others
Other people are bound by the same 3 chains that bind us: flawed logic, overpowering emotional prompts and unchallenged ethical assumptions.  So making an effective appeal to someone else, even one based on sound reasoning, good character, and well-stocked emotional fuel, is just as difficult as being open and balanced in considering others’ appeals to us.  People need a strong incentive to untangle their own webs of belief, which may have been reinforced by years of selective confirmatory observation and social groups that share the same webs.  But with clear reasoning, trustworthiness, and elegant and fair communication, we give ourselves a chance of hitting that tipping point some of the time, and we may even become worth listening to.

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