Rhetoric - Turning the Tables


In the last piece in this series on rhetoric, I talked about how to defend yourself against someone trying to get the best of you in a high-stakes argument, like a political debate, by controlling the argument in ways that pull the spotlight away from your resume’s darkest corners. But what about offense? Are there rhetorical methods you can use to get people to zero in on an opponent’s weaknesses?


On the surface this should seem simple: just state your opponent’s shortcomings and failings and force him to defend himself.


The problem is that if someone, especially a political candidate, spends too much time directly criticizing an opponent, she or he can come off as negative or whiney. For example, when Senator Bob Dole ran in the Republican primary back when we still watched movies on VHS tape (ask your parents), he permanently branded himself as “mean” when he shrilly told his opponent George Bush to “stop lying about my record.” Since then, candidates have generally avoided accusing one another of lying to avoid a similar fate.


Now one can always use surrogates to do your dirty work for you, but another method is to accuse your opponent of something indirectly rather than directly.


You can do this by asking a rhetorical question, which is a question where the way you want the audience to respond is obvious, such as “what has this administration been doing to solve the longest-running period of unemployment since the Great Depression?”


Alternatively, you can make your accusations using innuendo, along the lines of “I applaud a free market that has allowed my opponent to amass such a fortune and only ask that he and others fortunate enough to achieve staggering wealth be ready to share the same tax burden as the rest of us.”


While such indirect attacks run the risk of branding their user as insincere, if done well they allow you to inject issues you want into the conversation while avoiding the pitfalls of directly and personally “going negative.”


These are instances of a broader set of techniques designed to highlight points you want your audience to focus on by intentionally underplaying them. When candidates say something like “it’s not important that you…” or “the last thing on my mind is…” you should assume they are drawing big red arrows to the key points they want you to take away from their presentation.


In writing, this same effect is achieved using informal asides or statements placed in parentheses (a device I use all the time, including right now). Usually such parenthetical statements are meant to include less relevant, but still interesting points. But in written persuasive arguments, this parentheses device is used to flag sentiments you want your audience to zero in on (which they will, just as people tend to read the PS of a letter or e-mail even if they ignore the bulk of the rest of the note).


While a bit more subtle, there is another device with no name that I know of meant to indirectly besmirch a political enemy, one that has grown in popularity over the last few decades.


This technique involves using the support of members of your opponent’s group (be they political, national, or ethnic) to bolster your own cause. I first encountered this in the 1980s when I saw a bumper sticker that read “Another Democrat for Reagan,” which is why I found it amusing that many Democrats in my orbit treated sightings of “Republicans for Biden” signs as novel and powerful indicators of vast crossovers to come.


This technique sends out several powerful messages:


  • That one’s opponent and his or her ideas are so far outside the mainstream that even his own party/group does not support them.

  • That you, while officially representing your own group or party, actually represent everyone (or almost everyone).

  • That your broad acceptability (and your opponent’s lack thereof) is so obvious that even people who should oppose you are instead attracted to your banner.


If linguistic devices like alliteration and anaphora are fairly innocent, by now you can probably see how the strategic rhetorical devices I’ve just outlined can be easily abused.


For example, let’s say you are going to present your opponent’s position (either to acknowledge it or to anticipate and counter it in advance using that procatalepsis device you read about previously). But you have a choice. You can present their positions accurately before you counter them or you can present an oversimplified, distorted, and inaccurate version of your opponent’s real positions and attack this parody rather than the real thing.


Similarly, let’s say you are going to make the case that people who would normally support your opponent really support you (the old “Another Democrat for Reagan” device). This can’t be done (honestly, anyway) by inflating the importance of small numbers of dissidents or trying to present an unrepresentative fringe as mainstream.


We are now getting to a point where people new to rhetoric might start to feel uncomfortable with language tools that can be used to push people one way or another through techniques that, even if they’re used with integrity, can come off as insincere.


For example, if you’re going to use procatalepsis to anticipate and counter an opponent’s arguments in advance, the Principle of Charity requires you to present your opponent’s position accurately and honestly. But you are not necessarily obliged to present every one of his or her positions or to accept his or her framing of an issue at your expense.


Might this be unfair? Possibly, but when it comes to persuasive communication, fairness (and even sincerity) should not always be considered virtues, a topic we’ll talk about next time.