May 28th, 2005


Logic V Rhetoric: FIGHT TO FINISH!

Back when I was in college we had a class called Logic and Rhetoric. It was supposed to teach us how to generate logical arguments and present them convincingly. In point of fact since my class was held at 9:00 AM most of what it taught us was how to keep our eyes open and respond semi-coherently to the instructor while dozing in public. At the end of my college career the B I got in that class (purely due to repeated lateness of about 7 minutes each) kept me from graduating with highest honors, teaching me the valuable lesson that bureaucracy will never forgive your failures to obey its arbitrary rules and will, in fact, get you in the end no matter what.

Besides the fact that it was held at an ungodly hour of the morning when most college students are just starting to realize how bad their hangover really is* something else struck me as odd about logic and rhetoric. In the class the two words were never really defined, they just acted as stand-ins for what the class really was, which is college composition (it has since been renamed.) However I, being the pedantic little twerp** always felt that it was odd to tie them together since they are, in fact, in opposition. Logic is the art of taking all available evidence and following rules and laws of reasons to come up with conclusions that could be derived by any other logical being from the evidence at hand. Rhetoric is the art of using language persuasively. If you have logic you don't really need rhetoric, just enough time to define accepted premises and reach your well-reasoned conclusion, and an audience that's well educated and patient enough to follow along.

Hold on. Did you just go to sleep on me? You FILTHY FILTHY fucker!

That's the problem with logic. It's boring, at least for most people. It also requires extensive qualification and lengthy discussion to get just about anywhere, because there's reams of evidence out there on any particular topic and most of it conflicts on some level and you have to sort it all out and...I think I just fell asleep on me. Logic is great for determining how things are or how they should be, but not particularly good as a communication tool for most people, especially in this day and age.

Ah, you say. That's where rhetoric comes in. You use rhetoric to communicate the things your logic figured out and Bob's your uncle it's both true and interesting. Hold your horses there, Kemo Sabe. The thing is that if you piled rhetoric on top of logic then you'd be talking forever. You'd both need to explain your premises and process to your conclusions, and fill it in with charming anecdotes about your cat. After about three hours of exhaustive discussion of water filtration techniques (assuming you were talking about something logically connected to water filtration) nobody wants to hear about your fucking cat. They want to shoot you so you'll STOP TALKING. Thus rhetoric is generally not used as a supplement to logic, to make it more palatable.

It's a replacement. You use logic to derive a conclusion and rhetoric to sell it. Now you're getting closer to the truth, but you've brought up an interesting question. If you're using rhetoric to sell something, why do you need logic at all? What purpose does it serve? To tell you what conclusion will work best for everyone? Maybe, but then again if you're not using the logic to convince people then why do you need to be so magnanimous as to find the solution that works best for everyone. Why not just find the solution that works best for you and sell that? Isn't that much easier?

That's the current political process. One driven by rhetoric much more than it is by logic. In 30 second campaign ads and 45 second spots on the local news a politician can't possibly hope to make a logical argument, so he makes a rhetorical one. "We should execute murderers because it saves innocent lives." It doesn't matter that there's no logical basis for this assertion, it doesn't matter that executing "murderers" has been shown to take innocent lives as well, it doesn't matter that those arguments have been laid out extensively in multiple books. The rhetorical soundbite is all that matters, and the only way to counter it is with another rhetorical soundbite. Logic could defeat it but logic has no access. Our lives are too busy, our attention too fragmented. Most of you, even those of you for whom this isn't old hat, won't even read this far. "Logic and rhetoric? BORING. Where are the boobies? WHERE IS THE FUNNY?"

This is how capitalism is defeating democracy, by driving the standards of the political masses down to consumers at a level that we did NOT see back during the Lincoln Douglas debates or their like. Even people who fancy themselves politically knowledgeable have no idea how to parse policy or figure out what parties really stand for. It's beyond corruption, it's forced abdication of responsibility by the electorate. They're voting for the party that sounds better because, in truth, they don't understand any of it. At some level nobody does. Nobody knows all the policies of the federal government, heck I doubt there are more than a few people who have a complete grasp of the tax code. But at a more basic level people just don't know what's going on, they can't use logic because they don't have the evidence. Americans believe all kinds of patently false things, like that the U.S. is the biggest foreign aid donor in the world, or that there was an established link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

The Republicans are winning not because their policies are better or more appealing or whatever, but because they're just flat out better at rhetoric than the Democrats. The last 30 years saw the Republicans focusing on building a generation of great rhetoricians. People who would be able to argue any position, even the most greedy and elitist, like it was either benevolent to the common man or a blow against the so-called liberal elite. They accomplished that, they built that cadre. Republicans also have an advantage in rhetoric over Democrats because conservative ideas are by definition easier to sell and simpler than progressive ideas. Conservative means leaving things as they are, or bringing them back to how they once were. It's the familiar. The known. When Republicans say "If we allow the gay homofaggots to marry they will DESTROY the family structure as we know it. Our civilization has lasted for two thousands years without homofaggots marrying and this has kept the family together. Homofaggot marriage is a DANGER to everything you know" they are preying on people's fear of change. It's an effective rhetorical technique. You'll note that when they try to change things from how people are used to to something brand new, like with Social Security, there's a lot more resistance and fear. Republicans sell impossible promises based on bald-faced lies (The majority of these tax cuts will go to the bottom half of the economy) and they sell them well. Democrats? When was the last time a Democrat offered an effective piece of rhetoric that captured the American imagination? They can't brand (death tax, social security reform, etc...) and they offer ideas that are too complicated to be explained in simple rhetoric, at least by them.

I honestly believe that if people spent a few days listening to complex and logical explanations of what the two sides wanted and were offering they would flock to the side of freedom and responsibility, the liberal side. They don't have those few days though. They're too busy trying to avoid drowning in credit card debt or worrying about Al Qaeda blowing up Wyoming or whatever. Even the relatively literate attentive people on LJ are too busy to pay attention to the important discussions. I am sure iconoclast and I could spend hours arguing about the best tax reform ideas out there and how they would affect wealth distribution, debt, and the national economy as a whole. There's absolute mountains of evidence out there on both our sides. I am also sure that nobody else would care, and probably he wouldn't care either after a time. It gets to be too much.

So for now we're stuck. We need a society that focuses more on substance and less on presentation (Logic Vs Rhetoric again) and one with people willing to talk about these things in depth to one another and mean it. We don't have that society yet, and we're moving further and further away from it. Advertising and short-attention-span TV is the bane of reason. Reason's getting its ass kicked.

I will now attempt an experiment.


Please take this poll:

Poll #502237 Experiment

Did you actually read this entry

Skimmed it
Part of it
I looked at the boobies!

Why didn't you read it (if you didn't)

Too long
Not in the mood
Reading is for LOSERS
You're an ass!

What did you think of the arguments?

What did you think of the boobies?

*Or in my case masturbating to this picture, let's not get into semantics

**For those of you who are still young this is an important tip from your uncle Benji. Girls don't like pedantic little twerps. I know, I know, they should, but they don't. Become a pothead instead. Girls LOVE a guy with a good supply of weed. Girls will blow you for weed. They will not blow you if you say "I'm not sure you were using 'erstwhile' appropriately there, Jen. Let me pull out my dictionary and let's have a looksee." Ever.
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Hit em where it hurts

I'm going to get my liberal card revoked for this, I just know it, but that's never stopped me before. In fact if you have an idea that goes against established wisdom my theory is that you should run with it, because the worse thing that'll happen is that you'll find out why the established wisdom was established in the first place. Those lessons can be painful, but at least they're lessons. Learning is a good thing.

That being said, I have some hesitation about what I'm going to bring up. Something about it just doesn't feel right to me, but I can't see the holes in the logic, at least not clearly. I move forward with trepidation.

My question is this: Should we bring corporal punishment back into the legal system? This may seem like a hypocritical suggestion for me to make, given that I am strongly against corporal punishment in the home. On the other hand they are incredibly disparate situations. I would not suggest locking a child in a building full of criminals in the home either. Time outs or taking away TV privileges aren't really options when it comes to sentencing criminals.

And that's really what it's about. We have a massive prison problem in the United States. We incarcerate more people by a huge margin (I think the factor is somewhere around 7) than most comparable nations, and among certain minorities jail has moved past epidemic into full-blown cultural phenomenon. It is more likely for a young black man to go to jail than to college, one of those statistics that you've heard so many times it doesn't have an impact anymore, until you actually think about it. Growing up knowing you're considered by society as a better candidate for the big house than...a big house. Whoa.

Anyway, there are a lot of potential problems with corporal punishment. For one it just seems barbaric. Other countries whip and cane their convicts, we don't do anything like that here in America. No, we just lock people up by the boatload, whole communities, and put them all in finishing school for hardened criminals.

Another issue is the history of slavery, and this one cannot be ignored. Whips and rods were used to oppress an entire race of people for blighted centuries, and even after emancipation beatings remained tools of oppression and intimidation for many many innocent people. As it stands we can predict that if we were to put corporal punishment back into effect its burden would fall mainly on black shoulders, because that's how our criminal justice system is. This is a serious roadblock, and one I'm not sure of how to deal with, except to make it something that a person could choose to expose themselves to or not. For example a sentence could be 30 days in jail or 10 strokes of the whip. It SOUNDS ridiculous and barbaric, doesn't it. Jail is so much more sanitary seeming, except we aren't doing people any favors throwing them in jail. Think about it, would you rather be whipped or spend 30 days in a cess pit of hardened criminals risking a shiv or rape and likely receiving beatings worse than the state would give you from your fellow inmates?

Finally there is the issue of effectiveness, which is a serious one. I don't know whether it would work. A lot of other countries use it to repress activities that we don't consider particularly bad, like dancing and exposing female arms to vision, so how well would it work against higher levels of criminals (Clearly it would not be used against rapists or murderers who need to be segregated from society.) I don't know the answer to this. It's something we would have to find out.

Of course what the country really needs is prison reform. We need prisons that are NOT finishing schools for criminals. Where people don't need to join gangs to survive, where rape and the threat of HIV are not parts of every day life, where the guards aren't sadistic or cruel or, sometimes worse, indifferent. We need to stop sending nonviolent offenders to these places.

We won't do that though, there's no political will. We live in a nation of spiteful angry people who would rather cause harm and pain to someone who has "Done wrong" than seek to help them back on to the right path. I don't see prison reform as passing any time soon. But corporal punishment might. Certainly whipping wouldn't be seen as easy on crime, and using it we might be able to ameliorate some of the worst effects of prison. We would keep young offenders from being locked up with hardened criminals and taught the tools of the trade, or raped and molested. We would prevent convicts from losing their jobs (at least due to absence) and having to drop out of school. We would keep them in the real world with a support system. We could send more drug offenders to rehab while satisfying the lust for punishment in our society.

It might help.

Like I said, I don't know how I feel, I just know the system isn't working right now and jail is part of the reason. This could help, maybe. Or not. I have lots of reservations.


Poll #502502 Whack whack whack.

Do you think corporal punishment has a place in the criminal justice system?

Yes, as an alternative to jail
Yes, but a very small one
I don't know
No, spanking should stay where it belongs, in the bedroom!
Nobody should ever strike another human being.
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