Wednesday, October 06, 2010


In "Strategies for Dealing With Denia"l( Part I, Part II, and Part III), I discussed some of the common rhetorical ploys used when someone is attempting to deny or avoid reality. As that post explains,
"The difference between fallacies and rhetorical ploys is understood most eaily as a difference in the function of the language being employed....politicians, advertisers and newspaper columnists tend to be experts when it come to using rhetorical ploys. Rhetorical ploys typically make a more or less direct appeal to feeling and emotion rather than to reason, which is the domin of argument. Fallacies, on the other hand, are simply defective attempts at arguments....They may fool us into thinking they are not defective, but they are still presented as attempts at argument. Of course, manny writers and speakers will use a mixture of rhetorical ploys, fallacies, and genuine arguments when attempting to persuade us of the truth of their claim."

the most common rhetorical ploys are:

-Appeals to FEELINGS : this type of ploy is very common and the user tries to appeal to specific feelings or desires. For example, you may be enticed to believe what is said because of the passion with which it is said (rather than analyzing the content); or because it stimulates compassion, pity, guilt, fear or any number of other feelings.

Eliciting fear is also known as using "scare tactics", and should be distinguished from genuine warnings for which there is a good reason to act and/or experience the emotion.

Additionally, when one appeals to feelings; emphasis may be placed on the novelty of the idea; or popularity ("everyone thinks this!") or the sexiness or cuteness etc.; all of which can easily distract from a rational analysis of the idea or product.

-Direct attack is simply the unapologetic assertion that something is true or not true without any evidence presented.

-Buzzwords are the use of emotion-laden terms that subtly influence the listener but which offer no information about the truth of what is being said.

-Scare quotes are used to mock the opposition (I use them myself at times!) by calling into question a particular concept (e.g., terrorism vs "terrorism").

-Smokescreen is diverting attention from the topic of discussion by introducing a new topic.

-Equivocation is deliberately making ambiguous statements in order to mislead.

In the days leading up to November 2, you are going to be seeing a lot of all of these techniques. Pay attention to see who is using them because those will be the people who are not running on their record; or avoiding real issues; or, avoiding reality itself.

Thomas Sowell demonstrates for us one recent example of the "red herring" technique:
In an election year, this is the time for an “October surprise” — some sensational, and usually irrelevant, revelation to distract the voters from serious issues. This year, there are October surprises from coast to coast. There are a lot of incumbents who don’t want to discuss serious issues — especially their own track records.

This year, the October surprise that is getting the biggest play in the media is the revelation that California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman once employed a housekeeper — at $23 an hour — who turned out to be an illegal immigrant. It is great political theater, with activist lawyer Gloria Allred putting her arm protectively around the unhappy-looking woman.

But why anyone should be unhappy at getting $23 an hour for housekeeping is by no means clear. Maybe she is unhappy because Meg Whitman fired her when she learned that the housekeeper was an illegal immigrant, despite false documents that indicated she was legal when she was hired.

What is Meg Whitman supposed to be guilty of? Not being able to tell false documents from real ones? Is that what voters are supposed to use to determine who to vote for as governor of California? A far more important question is whether voters can tell false issues from real ones.(emphasis mine)

And that is the key. The use of the rhetorical ploys listed above are designed to raise false issues with voters so that the real and important issues do not have to be discussed.

The preponderance of this type of political discourse is directly tied to "politics of political destruction."

Far too often, narcissistically flawed individuals are hopelessly attracted by the grandiose opportunities of the political arena (as well as the Hollywood arena) like moths to a flame. Their sense of self is starkly invested in the desire for power over others (always, of course, "for their own good") , constant admiration and adulation and grandiose ambitions.

This makes them remarkably adept at what has become known as the "politics of personal destruction"--a phrase ironically popularized by Bill Clinton, a master of the game, during his impeachment trial.

For the narcissist it is always a zero-sum game he or she plays with other individuals. From the perspective of the narcissist, if someone else "wins", the narcissist "loses". It cannot be otherwise, since on some level they know that their own talent and skills are way overblown. Hence, they cannot hope to "win" based on those talents alone. Thus, the behavior of the classic narcissist is mostly directed toward making others lose so they can win by default. To that end, there is no behavior or tactic that is considered out -of-bounds or over-the-top.

Hence the current state of political discourse and the ubiquitous personal attacks that have become the trademark of all political campaigns.

If you want to understand why politics has become so virulent and personally vicious you need not look any farther that this sad truth. While politics still occasionally brings out those who have strong personal integrity and values; often it is the people of no integrity and values who are obsessively attracted to the field and are triumphant--and that is true on both sides of the political spectrum.

By that, I mean that those who would actually make the best leaders generally opt out of the process, because they tend to be too healthy to generate the continual rage necessary to destroy all opponents; or they lack the required-- and mostly distorted --sense of personal "perfection" and grandiosity that drives the power-hungry.

I am frequently reminded that it is hopelessly naive these days to expect the electorate to vote for a person based on what that person actually stands for; instead, these days most people respond to the negative campaign ads that slice and dice the other guy; and are mainly influenced by botoxed faces and Hollywood-packaged good-looks rather than the content of any candidate's character. The less they know of that character, the better!

Do you imagine that a Golda Meir or a Margaret Thatcher would have a chance to become the first woman president of the US. Not these days, for sure.

But real personal integrity and character comes from having a consistent set of values and exhibiting behavior driven by those values. It has nothing to do with looks or rhetoric. Today's classic narcissistically-driven politicians can only flutter in the political winds, and Zelig-like easily take on whatever characteristics their public desire to project onto them. Obama is an excellent example.

It is easy to be tough and ruthless with political adversaries in the US political battlefield. The kind of threat political adversaries pose is hardly life-threatening (though in other, less civilized nations it may well be). Political bullies (like the Obamas or Clintons) feel perfectly safe in viciously attacking and denigrating those who oppose them. And, when it happens occasionally that a political adversary unexpectedly shoots back and won't go away, the bully easily falls back on the "victim" role and whines about "vast right-wing conspiracies" , "racism", "hate" and the like.

This is not the kind of person who can face real threats in the real world very effectively because this is not the kind of person who can effectively deal with threats they do not perceive as personal--why should they care much about any other kind, unless the polls indicate they should?

The best leaders are not obsessed with themselves; with polls; or with accumulating power by pandering to all sides. Those leaders may, in truth, have many other personal flaws--but not particularly of the dangerously narcissistic variety. Whatever those flaws (and we all possess them), they are characterologically able to be more concerned about dealing with external reality; rather than in preserving a distorted and fragile internal one. Avenging petty slights and insults is not a high priority to a psychologically healthy person. Those healthy individuals are far more likely to direct their psychological energy toward dealing with real-world geopolitical threats that endanger both their country and the people they have the responsibility to protect; rather than using that country or the power of their office to counter threats to their endangered self and act on their grandiose fantasies about themselves.

The latter is the same psychological pathology that is rampant among dictators and dictator wannabes of all stripes. Their concern about others in their group/nation is purely of the “l’├ętat c’est moi” variety. Look at Saddam's behavioral legacy. Observe the recent behaviors of Ahmadinejad or Chavez or Kim Jong Il -- or any of the other despots and thugs that somehow claw their way up to the top of the food chain in their respective countries.

That the needs of the nation, or the people they serve, might be different from their own; or that doing the right thing is often different from doing the popular thing, are foreign and dangerous concepts. The only reality they know--or care about--is the one inside themselves.

So the next time you see politicians of the political left, center or right use any of these kinds of rhetorical ploys on an opponent, you will have evidence that they are avoiding dealing with the real and important issues they will have to face if elected.

And if you vote for them anyway, then you only have yourself to blame for what follows.

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