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Rhetoric Class Part 1: The Problem

 The following is a first post in a new column by Joshua Leland on teaching rhetoric. Upcoming topics will be on the modes of persuasion, examples of fallacies, appropriate appeals and more, and we hope it is helpful for other teachers who like Josh are charged with teaching the subject of rhetoric.

Unfortunately for my students, the first year I was tasked with teaching a rhetoric class was my initial introduction to the formal study of rhetoric. This ancient art was new to me (though I did have some logic training) which meant I had to learn a lot, and fast. Because I did not have many resources at my disposal, when it came time to teach fallacies I turned to the internet to compile examples of how these pernicious monsters looked in the real world. Surely someone had compiled a useful list that I could plunder.  

Basically, a fallacy is an inappropriate, unfair, or illogical use of an argument. But here came the problem: There are number of examples you can find on the internet of various types of fallacies, but I fundamentally disagreed with many of the examples given of fallacious arguments and reasoning. Some of the “fallacies” seemed perfectly valid and reasonable to me, and I slowly began to realize a very important fact that somehow had never been successfully communicated to me in all my years of study: there is no universal agreement of what arguments are fallacious and which are not, and you cannot simply look at the form of the argument to determine whether it is a fallacy. What one man calls a fallacy, another calls truth—and there is no simple, formulaic way of determining which is which. But I and many others thought that there was a formula—we had memorized it in logic class! 

 You don’t have to look far to see this is true, as a quick scan of internet comments and messaging boards will illustrate: Have you ever seen someone post something online in a disagreement only to be informed by someone else that what they have said is a fallacy? And how many times has that person stopped and admitted, “Oh, yes, I see that now—you have shown me that I have unwittingly committed an ad hominem fallacy. I recant!” No, it doesn’t happen, and it is not just because people are stubborn or too proud to admit that they are wrong. It is because what we determine to be fallacious requires making value judgments based upon our beliefs and assumptions about reality. And people disagree on that stuff. 

 Because we make value judgements so constantly throughout every day, we are often unaware that we are even making value judgements—we think we are simply stating objective facts. The things we assume and believe most deeply, the most obvious truths for us, are often very difficult to see and identify. As Owen Barfield put it, “The obvious is the most difficult thing to point out to someone who has genuinely lost sight of it.” Just as the tip of your nose sits before your eyes all day invisible through familiarity and repetition, so our own beliefs about reality can become invisible to us. Paradoxically, what is most obvious is often the hardest to see, and our beliefs are no exception. Children always universalize their experiences and assume that everyone else sees the world the same way that they do. This is part of the beauty of art: you get to break free of your own paradigm and experience the world through someone else’s perspective. But for the most part, our own assumptions about reality remain quietly in the background—like colored lenses tinting all that we see. What we consider fallacious will depend upon the value judgments we have made. 

 But I, like many people, was under the false assumption that there is some objective, universal list written somewhere that contains all the fallacies in the world; or that a fallacy is something that will be universally agreed upon to be false or untrue. It would be wonderful if the world were that way, but unfortunately it isn’t. Just as many people mistakenly assume that science is an objective, infallible guide to truth, devoid of human judgement, desire, fear, and error, so many people assume that discerning truth from fallacy is just some formulaic process that can be standardized and universalized. As we will see, there do exist forms within rhetoric, but wisdom requires that we examine not just the forms of arguments but also the content—and this is primarily where the confusion, disagreements, and arguments lie.  

This makes it extraordinarily difficult to teach fallacies, especially when you are speaking to an audience of diverse beliefs and backgrounds. Even in a fairly homogeneous group, you might be surprised how much disagreement there is about an appeal which you find to be obviously fallacious (or true). In the following posts, I hope to lay out a clearer understanding as to how we should think about fallacies and forms of arguments, and I have tried to do it in a way which simply presents examples of the appeals being used in different spheres of life. It is my hope that teachers could use this as a resource for giving examples to their students, or at very least for learning how to generate useful examples in their own classes. But above all, I hope that these posts help you to love your neighbor better—in thought, word, and deed.  

 Next up: What even is Rhetoric? 

3 thoughts on “Rhetoric Class Part 1: The Problem”

  1. Thank you! I had the same experience teaching logic. There were so few examples of fallacies, that I thought I could find a tidy list on the internet. I ended up getting more confused. I look forward to your future articles.

  2. Good food for thought. I hadn’t ever considered that fallacies hadn’t been canonized. At least their examples, anyway.

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