How to Survive the Election
By: Paul Carpenter, Guest Contributor
Tonight marks the beginning of a month of presidential debates. The candidates and their running mates will come together four times before election day in an effort to persuade Americans to vote for them. Unfortunately, these debates tend to frustrate and confuse voters more than to enlighten them. There is good reason for this: the majority of Americans have never studied rhetoric.
If you are like me, the word “rhetoric” has somewhat of a negative connotation. We use it to both express our doubt at the sincerity of a speaker’s statement: “Oh, that’s just a bunch of rhetoric,” and to denote inflammatory or divisive speech: “That 24-hour news station’s rhetoric re-enforces bigotry.”
It seems today that rhetoric is known as a manipulation of truth. In the past, however, it was developed and taught for centuries as a means for preserving truth by effectively communicating it to an audience. Today, unless a student happened to be involved in a debate club in high school, it is highly unlikely that they were ever taught this subject.
There is, then, cause for concern when a population is not educated in a tool that campaigns spend billions on every election cycle. In order to be an informed citizen, one must be able to discern the good rhetoric from the poor.
First and foremost, it is important to know what this word means. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Rhetoric = Persuade. There are three ways in which the classical rhetoricians believed one could persuade another: through an appeal to ethos, to logos, or to pathos.
This is an ethical appeal, citing one’s reputation or character as a tool of persuasion. Ethos also involves appearing knowledgeable of the topic being debated. So even if a candidate is generally well liked, appearing ignorant of certain issues or policies can lose ethos credibility (à la Rick Perry’s missing third agency in last year’s Republican Presidential debate). This is the most powerful tool a candidate has to persuade voters; consequently, it is the area most under attack from his opponent. Attacks on character, reputation, honesty, and the like are unfortunately intrinsically tied to the election process. More on that later.
Logos is a rational appeal. Ideally, this is where an argument should be won (or lost) in a debate. As opposed to the other methods, logos focuses on the message itself above all else. A well-crafted message will generally attempt to persuade using deductive reasoning. This is often done by beginning with two premises and ending with a conclusion (something called a formal syllogism).
Now here is where it gets tricky, while syllogisms are powerful because it is very difficult to counter a formally laid out argument, they can also lead to false conclusions. These faulty patterns of reasoning that appear sound on the surface are called “fallacies.” These occur when an argument is not valid and/or it premises are false.
Since we are talking fallacies, below is list of some of the most commonly abused:
Strawman – Misrepresenting the opponent’s argument in order to attack a weaker position.
Red Herring – Changing the subject and diverting attention from the original issue to one that the candidate is more comfortable with.
Ad Hominem – Attacking an opponent’s character instead of their argument. Remember, undermining Ethos is powerful.
The Texas Sharpshooter – Cherry picking data to suit an argument. The term comes from a “marksman” shooting randomly at a barn and later drawing a bull’s-eye around a cluster (clearly the coiner of this term was not a Texan).
Here is a fantastic website for introducing more fallacies: http://yourlogicalfallacyis.com
Lastly, the appeal to emotion. This form of rhetoric all to often is used to replace more tempered reasoning, and for good reason. Advertisements are a great example of this form. It is unusual to see an advertisement that appeals to a potential customers sensibility or implores a listener to trust their word alone. Instead, advertisers tell us that if we drink a certain beer, or drive a certain car, then we will be with the prettiest people, doing the wildest things, in the most desirable places.
Candidates love this form of rhetoric. How often will we hear, “I don’t know about those on Wall Street, but Sally So-and-So on Main Street told me…?” It invokes a listener’s emotions, and makes them more relatable, though not necessarily in the right.
And lest we begin to fall into the emotion of a speech, remember, these candidates are trained to play off of those emotions. Fortunately, students of rhetoric have organized the methods in which a speaker may try to appeal to their audience’s emotions. My favorite method is aposiopesis. This involves a speaker not completing a sentence in order to convey being overcome by their emotions. A tricky tool.
The candidates in tonight’s debate have one goal: to get your vote. Use your gut when listening to them tonight, but temper that with this foundation of rhetoric. As an educated voter, you can then vote your conscience on November 6th.