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How to Argue Convincingly
The 'after-throes' of political campaigning
It’s the ‘morning after’ . . . after the third and final Presidential debate, that is, and it’s high time to move on. The entire political process since July of 2015 has been an avalanche of bombast, innuendos, and charges—and far too little substance.
But now that we’re in the throes of putting all that behind us, perhaps we can step back a bit and reflect on what’s been said and how, in order to get a clearer sense of what really serves the common good and what doesn’t.
In the interest of doing so, I want to pass on some information my wife learned long ago in a college class that claimed the title of a textbook for the name of the class itself: “The Ethics of Rhetoric. That book was written by Richard M. Weaver and still occupies a prominent place on our set of bookshelves in the family room.
[The Ethics of Rhetoric, by Richard M. Weaver. published by Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, IL, 1953]
Three ways to argue
The Ethics of Rhetoric is a detailed treatment of speech that describes appropriate ways to argue one’s positions. Rather than offer a full synopsis of Weaver’s work here, I want to focus attention on three major ways that people often argue to support their own stance on issues. As we’ll see, two of those approaches are faulty, according to Weaver, but one of them is sound. You, as a reader of this article, are encouraged to judge for yourself how what was said during the presidential campaign this year, both during the primaries and in the general, has measured up—or doesn’t.
ARGUING FROM CIRCUMSTANCE
This is one way people often champion a cause or action, suggesting they had little choice other than to do or say what they did because of the conditions or situation at the time. So a driver might say to a police officer after being stopped for speeding, “I’m on my way to an important meeting, and I’m already late.” Or, a child might say, “I only ate the candy because it was there.” Often this argument is used in defense of taking sexual liberties with a person who has consumed too much alcohol, or after taking home for personal use items that belong to the workplace, or keeping something found in a public place rather than turning it in. The illogic behind all such claims is ‘what else could I do?’ . . . but the truth is that we always have choices, and aren’t held captive by the circumstances around us.
ARGUING FROM CONSEQUENCE
This is another frequent way people state their case. They say or do something because they’re afraid of what might happen if they don’t. So we thank people when we don’t really mean it, tell half-truths or even lie when we know the truth would get us into trouble, and use ‘getting caught’ as an excuse for not doing something wrong, or for actually doing something illegal or immoral as long as we think no one’s watching. Using possible consequences as the sole guide for our actions misses the larger perspective: 'Is such an action proper, wise and freely chosen?' In this case, the answer is always ‘no.’
ARGUING FROM DEFINITION
This is the primary use of rhetoric, cited by Weaver as legitimate, and it always goes back to what he calls the “genus” of a thing. Is there something inherent in the subject matter or act itself that is genuine and definable? If so, then the argument is sound. If not, then our words are always specious. Arguing from definition, Weaver says, “includes all arguments from the nature of the thing. ”
In a book I co-authored with a psychological therapist a number of years ago [Shaping The Word: A Guide to Presuppositional Preaching [available through Arlon.Stubbe@Yahoo.com], we furnished a number of quotes from well-known people who argued from definition. Here are just a few samples:
“I see Christ in every person I touch. It is as simple as that.” Mother Teresa
“If we really want to live, we must have the courage to recognize that life is ultimately very short, and that everything we do counts.” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
“There is an indefinable mysterious Power which pervades everything . . . .There is an orderliness in the Universe . . . . I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates. That informing Power or spirit is God.” Mahatma Gandhi
“ . . . until women assume the place in society which good sense and good feeling alike assign to them, human improvement must advance but feebly. It is in vain that we would circumscribe the power of one half of our race, and that half by far the most important and influential . . .” Francis Wright
“One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.” Crazy Horse
“All men are made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all the people, and all the people should have equal rights upon it.” Chief Joseph
Just citing these few examples of definitional speech show us what it’s like to argue from a place that is solid and sound, unlike much of what some candidates have shared with us over the past eighteen months. So ask yourself, ‘Who among those running for office this year (as well as their surrogates) spoke in a definitional way, and which ones argued mainly from circumstance or consequence?’
The United States of America needs sound and solid speech at this moment in its history, more than ever before. Once November 8th is past, if we are to move ahead and advance the principles on which this nation was founded—principles by the way that, in themselves, are fine examples of definitional speech: “all men are created equal, with certain unalienable rights . . . life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, then it’s high time we encourage all of our leaders, including those newly elected, to engage in the highest and most definitional forms of speech and action, and commit ourselves as citizens of this great country to do the same. A democracy deserves no less.