This fall the political bombast between candidates has grown loud, aggressive, and personal. Candidates are no longer satisfied with slinging mud on their rivals in campaign ads; they are using televised debates to call each other “liar” to their faces. As a rhetorical theorist, the first thing I would like to point out this week is that there is an important difference between a) scoring political points with an audience because one has belittled an opponent with a personal attack and b) scoring political points with an audience because one has offered a substantive claim to dispute what the other has said.
Rhetoricians use the word “fallacy” to refer to any bad argument that scores points with uncritical audience members. Merely calling someone a name doesn't prove anything, and we refer to the “fallacy of name calling” by its latin name “ad hominem.” While personal attacks may offer the impression that candidates are willing to stand up to others for what they believe in, they also demonstrate that candidates are willing to employ irrational and unethical methods to achieve whatever political results they hope to gain.
It is certainly difficult to maintain a civil and reasonable discourse when someone is standing on a platform a few feet away and making personal attacks rather than asking for the reasoning behind policies. This type of testosterone-fueled political bullying is nothing new of course. Back in 1912, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt were both vying for the nomination to be the Republican candidate in that year’s presidential election, and the dispute between the two former friends grew heated and personal. At one point, in a live debate in a Chicago convention hall, the increasing animosity between the two led both candidates to resort to gutter-level, no-class, gob-in-the- spittoon name-calling. Crossing the line from political discourse into personal attack, Roosevelt called Taft a “puzzlewit.” Taft responded by calling Roosevelt a “honeyfugler.” A puzzlewit, by the way, is person who is puzzled by life, which is to say, a stupid person. A honeyfugler is basically a swindling liar who gets what he wants by duping people into believing his frauds. So there you go; it's a hundred years later and the voters are still trying to decide whether to vote for the puzzlewit or the honeyfugler. Personally, I will vote for an honest puzzlewit over an astute honeyfugler every time, but you have to make up your own mind when you draw the curtain to the voting booth.
Ad hominem is almost always the first attack of bullies. When their victims respond to their name calling, bullies use their victims' response as justification for whatever violence (threatened or concrete) they introduce afterwards. As a child, I was often the victim of bullying, and that is why as an adult I am so passionate about the ideals of rhetoric. Authentic rhetoric respects the agency of others and expects relevant truth to be in and of itself persuasive; authentic rhetorical debate is antithetical to violence. Authentic rhetoric maintains that honest persuasion must be free of coercion. If there is a single principle that informs my thinking as a rhetorical theorist it is this: While a threat may provide us with a good motivation to act, a threat never offers a good reason to believe.
When I was a kid on the playground in elementary school, bullies used to knock down smaller children (such as myself), sit on the their chests, and smack them in the face until their victims said something to satisfy the bullies' need to have their dominance acknowledged. “Say 'I'm great' if you want me to let you up,” the bullies would say while smacking me in the face. “Okay, you're great,” I would tell them, “Now get off of me.” This is without question the single most important lesson I learned in elementary school: Just because a bully can force you to say he's great while he's smacking you in the face, it doesn't mean the bully is really a great person. Decades later, as an adult, I can now vocalize what I only understood then: Coercion does not offer any reason for belief. Violence can only offer a motivation to act; violence cannot offer a reason to believe.
Imagine you are attacked by a mugger who points a gun at you and says, “Give me your money or I will shoot you.” The threat of being shot offers a legitimate motivation to give the mugger your money (because obviously your money is not worth much if you are too dead to spend it). Now imagine the same mugger with the gun saying this instead, “Believe that I deserve the money in your wallet more than you do or I will shoot you.” Clearly, just because he can shoot you, the mugger has not offered you any relevant reason to believe he deserves your money. Even if the mugger says, “I need you to say that I deserve your money more than you do or I will shoot you,” the mugger has merely given you a good motive to say what he wants to hear, but he has not given you a relevant reason to believe he deserves your money. The threat of physical violence can compel people to act, but clearly, a threat of physical violence is only relevant to the belief in the threat. If the mugger says, “See this gun? Then believe me when I tell you that I will shoot you if you do not give me your money.” In this instance, the threat of being shot is relevant to the belief in getting shot, but notice how absurd it is to believe the mugger if he decides to start tacking things on to his threat, “Believe that I will shoot you and that I'm also a decent human being.” The gun not only does not support his additional claim that he is a decent person, but it entirely negates it.
The idea that people should not base their beliefs upon threats (or rewards for that matter) is what I call “Unicorn Theory.” It simply goes like this: if you neighbor claims he saw a unicorn, you wouldn't believe him merely because he threatened to shoot you if said you disbelieved him. While the threat of being shot is a good motive to tell your neighbor you believe in his unicorn, it is not a relevant reason to believe he actually saw a unicorn. If he offers you a suitcase of money to say you believe in his unicorn, he has again given you a good motive to say you believe in his unicorn, but a good motive to say something is simply not the same as a good reason to believe something.
This leads me to another of my rhetorical theories that I will now present to you, the reader, in the form of a puzzle. I call this “Dudding's Conundrum.” If you have an answer for my puzzle, I would love to hear it. I could not be more sincere in saying that this mystery has been my life's challenge; it is my own personal “Holy Grail.” Thinking about this is where my brain goes when it has nothing else to think about. I don't know if this puzzle has an answer (or at least an answer that I can comprehend) but if you think you have an answer, I will make a genuine effort to consider what you have to say.
So here goes: I am an agnostic. Now the word agnostic is used in a lot different ways by many different people so what I mean by agnostic is that I think God is unknowable or, at least, incomprehensible. I'm not sure what I know about God, but what I know about me is that my brain does not function in a way that makes religion comprehensible. I am a religious dyslexic. What apparently makes sense to other people about God simply does not make sense to me. In light of that, Dudding's Conundrum is this: “Would a moral and rational God authorize agents to speak on His behalf and then allow them to use immoral or irrational arguments?”
Here's my argument as an analogy. (Do whatever you can to pull it part, but remember, you'll score no points by merely calling me names.) Suppose you are working as a cashier at a cash register, and part of your job is to make sure all the transactions you handle in the course of a day are legitimate. Now imagine that someone has come in and wants to make a large purchase using a corporate credit card. For whatever reason, you begin to wonder if the person holding the card is really authorized to use it. “Are you authorized to use this card?” you might ask the purchaser.
“There's unlimited funds tied to that card,” the purchaser responds.
“Yes,” you say, “I ran the card and there is no limit on the funds available, but how is that relevant to your authorization to use the card?”
“Look,” the cardholder says, “you make commissions on your sales, right? Then wouldn't it be to your advantage to just believe I can use the card? This sale would mean a huge windfall to you.”
“Yes, if it's a legitimate transaction then I stand to gain a lot here, but a financial bribe is not a good reason to believe that you have authority to use the card.”
“What if I offered to buy you anything you want in this store with this card if you are just willing to accept that I am an authorized user?”
“Then, I would say that the bribe makes it much less likely that you are an authorized user of the corporate card. I can't imagine that this corporation would authorize users who offer bribes. Bribes are unethical.”
“What if I said I was going to use the funds on this card to hire some thugs to beat you up in the parking lot after you get off work?”
“I would say that the threat of violence also makes your claim to be a legitimate authorized user more dubious because I can't imagine an ethical company giving authorization to people to use their credit if they are the type of people to issue irrelevant threats.”
So, what has this to do with religion? Everything. The basic argument of "revealed religion" is that God has authorized spokesmen (call them prophets) to speak on His behalf, and they all use the threats of hell or the bribe of heaven as an induce to believe they are indeed God's agent on earth. Hence, Dudding's Conundrum: “Would a moral and rational God authorize agents to speak on His behalf and allow them to use immoral or irrational arguments?”
I sincerely look forward to rational responses to this post. Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.