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A Rhetorical Education

A Rhetorical Education

Quite a bit of the discussion on this blog and its predecessors has focused on controversial issues, the kind of thing that causes rhetoric to fly fast and thick.  Given the themes I like to discuss in these essays, that could hardly have been avoided.  Ours is an age riven by disputes, in which debate has taken over much of the space occupied by physical violence in less restrained eras. (How many people died in the struggle that put Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton in the White House?  During most of human history, that wouldn’t have been an ironic question.)

Yet this contentious age has an odd feature, and it’s one I’ve referenced more than once in recent posts on this blog:  the fact that the vast majority of the rhetoric deployed in the disputes of our day is so stunningly incompetent.

Consider the way that any widely discussed issue these days is debated: say, the squabble over legislation now before Congress that would make web hosting firms and content providers liable for illegal content posted by third parties. The supporters of the bills in question insist that it’s all about stopping online sex trafficking, and anyone who opposes the bills as written must be in favor of sex crimes. The opponents of the bills, for their part, insist that they’re just an excuse for censorship, and anyone who supports them must be trying to destroy the internet.

Set aside for the moment the substantive issues involved—they’re real and important, but not relevant to the theme of this week’s post—and look at the rhetoric. Both sides have chosen the strategy of flinging over-the-top accusations at those who disagree with them. That strategy’s familiar enough these days that nobody seems to have thought to ask the obvious question: does it work?

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