The golden rule of rhetoric and 10 morally bankrupt ways we’re violating it

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Despite what you hear on cable news and see on your Facebook feed, shouting is not a reasonable substitute for logic. Once we forget how to think and communicate clearly, everything else is lost. Time to bone up on your rhetorical hygiene.

Let’s start with what I’ll call “The Golden Rule of Rhetoric”:

Don’t use any tactic on those who disagree with you that you wouldn’t like to see used against yourself.

Each of the tactics I’ll describe below can make you unreasonably angry and destroy the productive part of argumentation — the ability to see things from someone else’s point of view. Learn to recognize and reject these morally bankrupt tactics.

1. Ad hominem slurs on appearance or background

What it is: Ridiculing how someone looks or their ethnic heritage

Examples: “He’s a fat fool.” “He acts like a troll, just like he looks.” “Typical weak-minded female argument.” “Another black guy with his hand out.”

How would you feel? Would you enjoy it if people picked out your most prominent feature and picked on it? Looks and background have nothing to do with the validity of an argument.

How to fight the habit. Imagine your opponent looks just like you. Would that change how you argue?

2. Attacks on character

What it is: Another ad hominem tactic, but based on the character of the speaker, not their looks

Examples: “You can’t trust him, he’s a liar.” “She’s just a hypocrite.”

How would you feel? Your character, of course, is irreproachable. Once someone attacks it, you’re forced to defend it, rather than your argument.

How to fight the habit. Imagine your speaker as a mother, brother, or close friend. How would you talk them out if their misconception?

3. Guilt by association

What it is: Lumping the arguer in with a group, then attacking the group.

Examples: “Bleeding-heart liberals just want to take your money.” “Business executives like him value profit over morality.”

How would you feel? Each of us wants to be treated as if we have a unique point of view, rather than being a mindless follower of a group.

How to fight the habit. The logic of an argument is independent of the source. So argue as if the speaker was a member of your group (Republicans, urban dwellers, marketers), rather than their own.

4. Mischaracterizing the argument

What it is: Twist the other person’s argument into something that’s obviously false.

Examples: “You want cops to be able to shoot anyone they want with no accountability.” “So SEO is completely useless, then?”

How would you feel? Suddenly you’re put in the position of defending something you never said.

How to fight the habit. Reason logically from the argument to questionable consequences, rather than just twisting it out of shape.

5. Excluding the middle ground

What it is: Define two positions, and put your opponent into the one that’s bad.

Examples: “You either support everything Trump does, or you oppose it.”

How would you feel? We all think we have nuanced points of view, and resist being put into boxes that don’t fit.

How to fight the habit. Not everything is black and white. Look for a middle ground position. Is there room for agreement?

6. Appeal to God

What it is: Describe what God believes and use it support your argument.

Examples: “The Lord will punish us for our failure to uphold moral principles.” “Allah rewards those who fight the infidels.”

How would you feel? This takes the argument from logic into the realm of the unknowable mind of God. Since each of us has own conception of religion, these arguments are more likely to offend than enlighten.

How to fight the habit. Leave God out of it. Appeal instead to common moral values.

7. Whataboutism

What it is: Whatever the problem, find something even more egregious and talk about that.

Examples: “How can we discuss his military strategy when he’s been spouting racist slurs?” “But her emails.”

How would you feel? You feel as if you’ve been transported into a different argument, leaving your points completely behind.

How to fight the habit. Address the current point, not some other point. Leave the other argument for later.

8. Repetition

What it is: Hitting the same point over and over again. And over and over again.

Examples: “This is just about higher taxes. No, it’s not about fairness, it’s about my pocketbook. The point is, it will take money out of all of our paychecks.”

How would you feel? You have the urge to repeat your counterarguments. Things devolve into “Oh yeah?” “Yeah!” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah!” Tedious.

How to fight the habit. Bring more than one talking point to your argument.

9. Majoritarianism

What it is: Assuming the mass of people are right.

Examples: “This country was founded by white people, and here’s what they want.” “Everyone in Massachusetts wants Trump gone.”

How would you feel? We are all minorities in some way. Arguing from the majority viewpoint feels empowering . . . until you’re the one who needs tolerance.

How to fight the habit. Put yourself in the minority’s shoes. How does your argument affect them?

10. Arguments that only work when spoken

What it is: Using vocal tricks to be persuasive when logic fails

Examples: Any political rally.

How would you feel? Some arguments are too subtle and detailed for shouting. If you were right, but it took a while to explain, would you want your argument to be rejected?

How to fight the habit. Write down what you’re saying. Does it still make sense?

Listening and empathy reinforce the Golden Rule

The urgency and brevity of argumentation in today’s internet-fueled, polarized culture makes all these problems worse. But they all have the same cure.

Listen. If you hear the other person’s argument and try to understand it, you’ll become smarter. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to try to understand.

And empathize. The other person is a person, just like you. Why do they believe what they do? When you understand that, you can respond in a way that creates solutions, not just anger.

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