Losing the Rhetorical Struggle

      6 Comments on Losing the Rhetorical Struggle

Whenever I see somebody posting/tweeting/whatever something like “There are no pronouns in the Bible” or “William Shakespeare didn’t write about drag queens” or “Children’s books shouldn’t have drugs and violence—why can’t kids read good old-fashioned books like Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island?” I assume that the person who is saying that knows exactly what they are doing, and that they are deliberately making the most outrageously and obviously false version of their claim in order to Make Liberals Mad.

And thus, people who go to the trouble of refuting the claim on its deliberately-false merits are helping the person who posted it. The actual argument is “Liberals are out of touch with Real Americans”, and anyone who responds with a factually-correct lecture is just demonstrating how out of touch they are. Right?

And I often have the sinking feeling that the person who shook that particular hornet’s nest is feeling extra smug when responses are of the form “What an idiot this person is! How mentally superior we are to them!” at the same time that they are being utterly trounced in the rhetorical conflict by the aforementioned idiot.

Do I know what to do about that? I do not. Ignoring trolls doesn’t particularly work, certainly not in any persuasive sense. Arguing with them certainly doesn’t work. I don’t know what might work—or even what I mean by work here. When the actual argument is “Liberals are out of touch with Real Americans”, the actual counterargument is “Real Americans are different, one to another, and that’s what makes America awesome” (and other places as well, obviously).

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

6 thoughts on “Losing the Rhetorical Struggle

  1. irilyth

    I don’t have an answer, but I certainly see the appeal of “trick them into stepping out into the daylight, and then smash them to gravel”. (To be fair, the second part doesn’t actually happen in the book. So perhaps the lesson is that it’s enough to expose them to sunlight. And, I suppose, take their stuff, but that seems less apt in this metaphor.)

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      The difficulty here is that the people being tricked into stepping out into the daylight and subsequently smashed to gravel are the people who respond to the initial garbage with accurate information. Well, I say they are smashed to gravel, but generally they are, I think, un-harmed and well-satisfied with their accurate selves. It’s just that they have also done the work of the original poster, and come off to any putatively persuadable readers as insufferable eggheads. Or so it seems to me. Certainly the person “exposed” as having been wrong-headed in the original post doesn’t seem to be harmed at all.


  2. Chris Cobb

    What I’ve been seeing in guidance for journalism in dealing with the gusher of lies emanating from the Trumpist/neo-fascist right has suggested:

    (1) establish the framing–report the lie as having happened without repeating it.
    (2) provide context–what is the real story here (the motive for lying)
    (3) report the truth.

    I don’t know how effective that is, but that’s what I’ve seen recommended.

    I would tentatively suggest that this could be adapted to citizen-reporting on, say, Twitter, with the following addition:

    (1) don’t respond directly to the troll; instead, address the audience. Don’t dignify lies by acknowledging the liar.

    So, I am imagining a response that goes like this:

    “Another troll has been making shit-posting attacks on diversity. They are doing it to get attention and to create conflict by making people angry. The angrier people are, the better the troll likes it because they use anger to manipulate people. Attacking diversity is pathetically un-American because we are a nation built on diversity. People come here from all over the world to work together in a democratic, free society to make our lives better. This troll is shit-posting about the content of children’s books to make people angry and get them arguing about children’s books so we won’t be able to work together and make our lives better. That will make us angrier and more likely to give power to the troll. So let’s not take the debate and get on with the talk that matters–how can we work together to make our lives better?”

    What do y’all see of the strengths and weaknesses of that approach?

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      The strength is, well, it’s true, it doesn’t involve a great deal of research to agree with, and it doesn’t necessarily make the putatively persuadable reader feel condescended to. Or does it?

      Ultimately, a lot of political persuasiveness right now happens on the field of tribal identity: do you see yourself as part of this group or that group? Are you attracted or repelled by the speaker, or more importantly by the people that you associate with the speaker? Which groups seem to want to include you, and how do they do that? People mocked—quite rightly—the question of which Presidential candidate they would want to have a beer with, but in a broader sense, that question of who you are comfortable with and who seems comfortable with you is a tremendously persuasive matter.

      And that’s what I’m getting at here: the shitposters in question are having fun, are making a generally understandable point (which I disagree with, obviously) and are setting out a kind of us/them boundary, and tricking (I think) responders into placing themselves on the “wrong” side of that boundary. While your response addresses that logically and directly, I’m less convinced that it addresses it performatively. But, as I say, I have no idea how to successfully address it, in any way that would be persuasive to those who might be persuaded.

      And by ‘persuaded’, I don’t think I mean ‘persuaded to vote for My Party’s Candidates in General Elections’ but something more like ‘persuaded that there is less danger in widespread diversity than in widespread conformity’ or even ‘persuaded that People Like YHB and my Gentle Readers are okay’. And I don’t know how that works—particularly since People Like YHB and my Gentle Readers do in fact enjoy discussing Shakespeare and Drag Queens or Extremely Violent Children’s Books of the Nineteenth Century in tremendous detail.


      1. Chris Cobb

        I’d suggest that the first thing they need to be persuaded is that shit-posting to promote arguments isn’t innocent fun, and the people who are doing it are doing it to manipulate people and sow conflict. Persuading people that diversity is ok comes later. If they begin to recognize that it’s the people seeding conflict that are causing the conflict–that the conflict doesn’t arise simply because diversity exists, that’s probably a key first step.

        I am not sure that there is an effective performative response, because to be drawn into performativity requires accepting the terms of engagement of the troll. I haven’t tried these tactics in spaces where tribal divisions are on display, but in the online spaces I have spent time, my experience has been that posters who stay calm are admired and posters who engage in performative displays are, ultimately, found to be tiresome. The more calm one can spread, the more stirring up trouble is revealed as stirring up trouble, and I am confident that the majority of people on both sides of the cultural divide are tired of trouble.

        That’s not so say that I have confidence that the style of response I’ve suggested will be effective, but I am doubtful that a response that tries to address trolling performatively can be effective. But better performers than I might be able to do it.

        1. Vardibidian Post author

          You make an excellent point about convincing people that shitposting of that kind isn’t harmless—and again, I don’t know how to actually do that. I suspect that, to some extent, recognition of the harm that sort of manipulation does is a matter of experience, and thus at least partially a matter of age. On the other hand, we don’t yet have a generation of people who grew up on massive open forums (like Twitter, f’r’ex) and shitposting, and whose attitudes toward those places and their social norms have evolved over decades. My early social forums were quite different, if only because of a much, much smaller reach.



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