Monday, 23 May 2011

Good Points and Straw Men (Or, The Rhetoric That Reduces)

This originally started in my head as a response to an e-book vs. paper book post on Historiann's blog, "Codex Rules, Kindle Drools. (And I told you so)." I posted a comment responding to it, but cut myself off because I could go on all day. Digital publishing is a bit of a hobby horse for me, so I thought I'd continue here. But now I'm here, I think I've said it all before. What's interesting to me right now as I think of it is the way we approach arguments here on the interwebs (and, sometimes, in scholarship). It's the question of posturing that shows up in disputation from Plato down to the present: how do you restate your opponent's argument?

See, when Historiann wrote this: "The only good argument for e-books that I’ve seen recently was from my commenter Susan, who noted their usefulness to people with failing eyesight. That’s not a trivial usefulness, to be sure–but for most scholars, codex [her term for paper publishing, I'm assuming] is still the superior technology. Plus: they aren’t fatally damaged if you take them to the beach or try to read them in the bathtub, and they’re still supremely easy to annotate with a pen or pencil and awesome Post-It technology."

My thought was this: "What a straw man argument is this. But lovely rhetoric."

There's a trope in argument (the source for which I've just spent an hour looking up -- I assume it's in the Rhetorica ad Herrennium, but I can't find where) where one seems to agree with one's opponent on a minor point in order to show that the major point is untenable.

This is something that rhetoricians have been doing for thousands of years. If you go back to read Plato's Symposium, you'll see that it's all about restating your opponent's argument in such a way as to control the outcome. Control the definitions, control the argument, control the outcome. To a degree, we do this instinctively; it's a part of our process of analysis. In reading an argument, we make judgements and react -- not to the initial argument, but to the judgements we have made of it. But sometimes in restating our opponents' arguments in order to refute them, we restate them in such a way as to make them easier to knock down.

Intentional or not (and it can and is used intentionally by some) it can also have a tendency to reduce the scope of an opponent's point of view to something that can be easily overcome: for instance, reducing all the arguments for e-books to "well, they're good for people with bad eyes". Straw men don't fight back.

So that's what this post was going to be about. But I realized as I was writing it that it's just as much about how we treat each other here in the blogosphere.

Case in point, this post, by Larry Swain. It's sparked a lot of debate, during the course of which feelings were hurt and misunderstandings abounded. Most of it, I think, has to do with not what was said, but how and where, and the the ways in which the things that were said were understood and reframed for comment.

Larry's post, if you haven't read it, was well-meaning (and, as it would seem, easily misconstrued) advice to both graduate students and professorial types alike in the wake of K'zoo 2011. I'm going to try to stay away from commenting on the content of the post, because it's not what I want to discuss. Part of the problem with the situation was that a long discussion of the post went on here, at In The Middle in the comment thread to a response by J. J. Cohen. And, as sometimes happens on the interwebs, nobody thought to inform Larry that a discussion that, while ostensibly about his post was in many ways about him, was taking place in a public forum.

Vaulting pointed out to me this morning that the same thing happened re: a while back, and my response was that they didn't have the option of commenting on that site because (if I recall correctly) comment threads weren't enabled there. To me this seems more like a certain post I wrote in 2009 which touched a few nerves. While I meant to discuss a trope in scholarship, a reference to Jeffrey's phrase "originary geotemporality" gave it at least the impression (unintended, I hope you'll believe) of a personal attack. Especially because it was in my own blog, and not in the comment thread to his.

Which leads me back, by a circuitous route, to my main point: as bloggers, where we choose to address a point can be as meaningful as how. Starting a new discussion on one's own blog (as I suppose I'm doing right now) is a way of reframing an argument. Whether we mean it or not, it has an effect on the discussion that can be taken in different ways. Without the full text to which our posts refer, our readers are left to interpret based on those reduced parts of it we have selected to discuss. That's why this post isn't about what Larry said, or what the commenters on Jeffrey's post said he said, or what Larry's follow-up post said they said he said. I'm reframing the issue as about reframing the issue, or at least I'm trying to.

I, of course, would urge that we give each other the benefit of the doubt (and the benefit of rebuttal) but that won't always happen. But as recent events show, it's at least important to remember that the blogosphere (such as it is) is a discussion -- sometimes a heated, frustrating discussion, but a discussion nonetheless -- and that there's a whole new rhetoric of (dare I say it?) geotemporality that comes into effect. Where and when we post is a rhetorical choice in itself.

1 comment:

theswain said...

Point. Well said.