Strange ways to argue

George Weckman

June 18, 2014

Rhetoric, persuasion, selling ideas — these are important dynamics of communication. They are the essence of advertising and politics. But as in love and war, anything goes if it’s successful. Watch out for the tricks of this trade because gullibility can be dangerous.

Following are some ploys of argument that are used in discussing gun control, as examples of this problem. Much the same could be said about discussion of other disputed issues like abortion, warfare, and welfare.

“All or nothing” seems clean, neat, and attractive until we realize that hardly anything in life is so clear. Neither universal gun ownership nor complete prohibition is feasible. Yet many argue as if we must choose one or the other extreme position.

“Slippery slope” comes in next when the debate projects into the future. It is argued that even one regulation or permission eventually leads to absolute abolition or complete freedom — if anything is admitted, the whole cause will be lost. Is life really so slippery?

“Experts say…” usually enters the fray when arguers call on science to address human social issues. If they are wise experts, however, their insights are never without exception and context. Good science recognizes complexity; every medicine has some unwanted side effects.

“Religion demands (or prohibits)…” is a notoriously bad argument because there are different religions and different commandments. Loving one’s enemies has not stopped Christians from “just” warfare and loving one’s neighbors might involve defending them.

“Trust us to keep you safe” is dangerous advice. This confidence is unwise, whether it’s in government armies and police or in citizen militias and individual vigilantes. Trusting armaments is even more ambiguous.

“Self-defense” might be natural or paranoid. Some arguers avoid analysis of strategy and situation, and few people like surrender, even when it is necessary.

Nuanced argument and complex analysis rarely attracts much of a following but it is truer and more rational than these argument triggers.

George Weckman is a retired professor and director of music at Christ Lutheran Church in Athens.