January 30, 2003

Eloquent misconceptions…

A couple of days ago, I took Peggy Noonan to task for poor rhetorical theorizing. Now let me take aim at Michael Kinsley–proof that liberals and conservatives are equal opportunity trangressors when it comes to misunderstanding rhetoric. In the opening paragraph of his critique of the State of the Union address, Kinsley says:

It may seem petty to pick apart the text. But logical consistency and intellectual honesty are also tests of moral seriousness. It is not enough for the words to be eloquent or even deeply sincere. If they are just crafted for the moment and haven’t been thought through, the pretense of moral seriousness becomes an insult.

Logical consistency is a matter of form. One may, for example, badly botch a syllogism and remain morally serious about one’s topic. Such a person is being sloppy, not amoral or immoral. On the other hand, to deliberately torture the logic may be a rhetorical tactic and serve one’s political purposes–moral or otherwise.

Eloquence, or its lack, like logic, or its lack, may be employed as a rhetorical tactic. Trust me, in a presidential speech, especially one as serious as the State of the Union address, these tactics have been well considered. Certainly, speech writers and policy aides make rhetorical blunders (re: my contention about Noonan). But these choices are not crafted “for the moment” without much thinking about their persuasive effects.

Eloquence and sincerity–and logic, fallacies, figures, and schemes–are not pasted on to discourse. They are discourse. They are its substance because we cannot separate how something is said from the consideration of its meaning. Let’s consider an eloquent bit of tortured logic from the SOU (you may read my full analysis here):

You, the Congress, have already passed all these reductions, and promised them for future years. If this tax relief is good for Americans three, or five, or seven years from now, it is even better for Americans today.

This passage demonstrates a skilled hand at crafting political messages. The conclusion is a fallacy. In fact, I could make the argument that it is a triple fallacy; it has characteristics of faulty causal generalization, question begging, and ad populum argument. I am not necessarily making a negative criticism here. Fallacies are “errors” in the field of logic. In the discipline of rhetoric, however, they may be used as “tools.” Check nearly any commercial advertisement for confirmation of this assertion.

Is a lack of logical consistency evidence of a lack of moral seriousness as Kinsley suggests? (Note: He makes this claim in regard to Bush’s stand on Iraq. But, to be consistent by his own standards, he must also make it regarding such statements in the domestic section of the speech.) I don’t see how one can miss the moral seriousness here. Bush is so serious that he’s willing to use fallacy to create a common sense argument that glosses over a multitude of complicating factors. That takes a dose of moral courage.

Let me end with a quote that I reproduce at the top of my syllabus for my rhetoric classes. It’s from the song “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” by Sting:

Poets priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for your submission
And no-one’s jamming their transmission
‘Cause when their eloquence escapes you
Their logic ties you up and rapes you

I contend Sting made an error in the last two lines. “Logic” and “eloquence” should be transposed. It screws up the meter, but it clarifies the substance.

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