by Dwayne Holmes
Whatever I thought about Muhammad Ali, as a boxer, it all changed when I saw When We Were Kings. (1) For those who haven’t seen it, the movie documents a fight between Ali and George Foreman, which took place in Africa. It was a match I’d heard about, one that I knew Ali had won, but I was unaware of its importance; that it had proven just how great a boxer he was. While Ali faced the possibility of loss right up until the end (which makes any fight great to watch), in reality their fight had extended well beyond the ropes. It was a contest of wills and skills, where Ali managed to beat Foreman inside and outside the ring in order to come out on top.
Why am I talking about this? Because boxing matches, especially those as important as Ali v. Foreman, demonstrate situations in which participants and spectators alike enter with an expectation of honest dealing. There is an ethical dimension to this type of fight, which is not present in other fights, such as street brawls or trench warfare, where the only object is to live, by hook or crook. In a boxing match, we come to see who is best, within a set of parameters designed to limit otherwise irrelevant factors.
If it turned out the documentary was only a piece of Ali propaganda, I would be upset. Just as the audience of the fight, and Foreman himself, would have been upset if it was discovered that Ali had put lead in his gloves, or bought off trainers to drug Foreman. We would have understood immediately there was no contest of wills or skills and consequently, no determination of anything. At least nothing we came to see. We would have been cheated.
So, you might ask, what does this have to do with anything?
Well, to my mind, it has a lot to do with the question of whether rhetoric or logic is more important to argumentation. (2) That is to say, boxing makes a useful analogy, because arguments are another situation where we bring an expectation of honest dealing and where the entire enterprise is undercut if the ethical dimension is not satisfied.
It’s true that most human communication is meant to persuade. And rhetoric, being the art of persuasion, has a lot to contribute to human communication. But to say that the goal of argument is simply to persuade seems to be missing something. Like boxing being a type of fighting, argument seems a type of communication, a subcategory of attempts to persuade, set within limits, to achieve specific goals.
I know that if I engage in argument with someone, or accept arguments from them, it is with an understanding we are trying to persuade each other toward the best beliefs or actions for both of us. It is meant to be a contest between ideas, where, like boxers, the best one comes out on top. And the best, when it comes to ideas people usually want to debate, are the ones that are most sound (factually accurate, logically valid). Those engaged in argument want to find out which are able to withstand scrutiny and/or are most likely to achieve promised results.
This is not to say that rhetoric is inherently cheating, or unworthy, in argument. Rhetoric can be used to draw and keep interest in an idea or the contest itself. Make them exciting, and focus attention where it needs to be. But when rhetoric is used to cover deficiencies in logic, or in place of valid reason, it is to serve personal, rather than expected goals, and so is as good as slipping lead in a glove or paying off the judges. There is no serious contest between ideas, and less sound ones will prevail.
That is not a trivial thing, since, for most ideas, the last contest will not be between people in debate. The real title fight comes (an idea may only be considered undisputed) when it is tested against the real world, where no amount of rhetoric will help, and the stakes are more than applause.
Given this reality, serious argument is normally entered with an expectation that both sides are engaged in a fair exchange of information, using only what is believed to be valid logic, and not using rhetoric to cover flaws. Those who use rhetoric that way are not engaged in an honest exchange of information, and so argument. They are engaged in manipulation or deception, under the cover of argument. This would be similar to a boxer going through the motions of a fight when the fix is already in.
While manipulation and deception are valid forms of persuasion, and so communication, it is not the kind of thing that promotes further argument. It is corrosive to the entire project.
Without a general expectation of honesty, there would seem to be little reason to engage in argument at all. In that case, we might as well, and likely will, limit communication to commands, requests, provocations, or entertainment.
I’ve found that those arguing for the primary importance of rhetoric often hang their hat on the existence of cheaters. They point to people having successfully manipulated or deceived others, to suggest how important persuasive techniques are, how critical it is that people can recognize and use such tools. While I would agree on the recognition part, the use part not so much. Analogously, I would agree that boxers and audiences ought to know what kinds of things to watch for, in case someone was cheating in the ring, while making sure people understood that these were not important for boxing, and in fact illegitimate to the point of helping define what is not boxing.
Scott Adams, creator of the popular comic strip Dilbert, is a pretty good example of this kind of promoter. Adams views persuasion as paramount in communication, and has found a second avenue of fame, by predicting Trump’s win early on and claiming that Trump is some sort of “master wizard.” Adams defines this as a person who exhibits an amazing level of persuasive knowledge, and he’s connected some of Trump’s techniques with those used in hypnosis. (3) Since the election, Adams has continued to follow and document Trump’s wizardry, chuckling as the left falls for all his tricks. (4)
To some extent I think Adams, and others like him, are correct. Persuasive techniques are powerful, and Trump in specific seems pretty successful at using them.
But to a larger extent, I think Adams and the rest are way off.
To start with, Trump is not engaged in argument, or at least I have not seen it. To the extent that he is using these techniques, it is to avoid argument, by creating diversions or attacking others personally (as Adams’s account seems to corroborate). So it’s not like his success can tell us anything about the merits of rhetoric versus logic in serious argument, only manipulation and deception.
Ignoring that first point, for sake of argument, if he is such a master wizard, duping people unaware of his powerful rhetoric, where is the evidence he’s convinced people of anything, especially those who started out disagreeing with him? Trump has had and continues to have historically low approval ratings. And some of his suggested policies even lower. His attempts to get an agenda passed have been slow and surprisingly hard for a guy enjoying a partisan lock on all branches of government. And even then, things have only been passed along strict party lines, with a few of those votes needing procedural tools that may come back to haunt Republicans later. Being limited to strict partisan power plays is hardly the sign of someone making inroads with the public at large.
The best that could be said is that (with all these vaunted powers) he has managed not to lose his core supporters, and got a few things done that any other Republican would as well.
Not exactly a Svengali.
More important to me, however, is the underlying worldview held by these promoters of rhetoric. Adams is explicit about this when discussing Trump. His claim, in an interview with Reason magazine (ironically enough), is that persuasion tools are important because people generally don’t use reason when making decisions. (5) This belief in everything running on automatic, without reason, has led to his actively describing people as “moist robots” (including in Dilbert). Rhetorical tools, according to that model, are presumably just knowing which emotional buttons to press to program a specific decision. This is the exact kind of reductionist “meat puppet” position I have criticized for a long time. (6) It ignores that we can set ourselves against such tactics (intellectually and emotionally) and/or alter our environment (the nature of our interactions) to lessen the ability of people to make plays around our reason.
Adams seems to understand this (at least subconsciously), as indicated by one of his “sign off” lines. He alerts his followers, “There is a lot of persuasion out there. Stay alert. Stay alive.” (7) That warning, as well as being ironic, given his stated position, pretty well makes all the points I want to make. Apparently, the rhetoric of others can end up getting one killed, and by “staying alert” one can avoid rhetorical wizardry. How important then, is rhetoric compared to logic in actual decision making, and so argumentation? It is unlikely you’ll hear someone say (on entering a science department for example), “There is a lot of reason here. Stay alert, Stay alive.”
But what about all of those Trump supporters, those on the left may very well ask. How can their steadfast support be explained? Since logic (showing all his clear contradictions, lies, hypocrisies, etc.) has not moved them, does that not show the power of rhetoric? And how can one break them free, except getting them to understand the tools being used by Trump, or using stronger versions of those same tools in kind?
Adams’ videos suggest that Trump is only using his rhetorical magic against the left, like some white wizard deflecting harm directed at him by delusional liberals who are imagining all these problems (contradictions, lies, hypocrisies, etc.). Meanwhile, those on the right are already seeing reality, which one day the left will wake up to and admit that Trump is a good (or not so bad) guy who has done a lot of good (or not so bad) things. (8)
From my perspective, Trump’s success at maintaining a core set of supporters, no matter what he does, is mostly about the environment and the audience, and so the actual project going on, rather than some unusually strong power of persuasion he has in the service of argument.
Remember, I started the essay talking about boxing, and the expectations people bring to that situation, as an analogy for serious argument. There is another sport, where people bring a different set of expectations, which would explain the very things we are seeing today and that is professional wrestling.
No one cares about whether some wrestler cheated, lied, or acted hypocritically during some match. After all it is fake sport. Theater. It is all about the spectacle. Blood on the mat. There are the villains and there are the heroes, and it doesn’t matter if they do the exact same thing in the ring. The hero just has to say what the audience wants them to say to be hero-like, and make them feel good.
For the most part, Trump has not been trying to convince anyone of anything they don’t already believe (in some form). He is playing to an audience. They want to hear ABC and see XYZ. It’s largely about symbolism, and as long as some things they generally want come their way, they could give a shit about whether off-screen he might have been saying or doing QRS.
This is not to criticize his voter base. Should they want more? Should they be treating politics like boxing, worrying if the politicians or policies are the best? Why? The politicians (of both parties) haven’t been playing that way for years. And the media, which shifted to 24-7 infotainment long ago, only rewards the pro-wrestling model of politics.
In a society feeling alienated by government in general, and the political establishment in particular, why wouldn’t a large segment come to view politics as a series of rigged games, and so go for what makes them feel good? Worry about the entertainment value.
That’s about all one is likely to get out of Washington and the never ending election cycle.
Last week, Trump tweeted (or re-tweeted) an animated image of himself fighting in a pro-wrestling match – yes he actually did that – with the CNN logo edited in over the head of the guy he was fighting. (9) To me, this was a graphic vindication of my concept from Trump himself. Some on the left went bonkers, trying to read into it some sort of message, while his supporters simply ate it up. Adams was right that his base viewed it as fiction, but blew his analysis in thinking it was some genius move, capable of persuading anyone of anything that they didn’t already believe. (10)
Anthony Zurcher, on the other hand, nailed it.
[Trump] has shown time and time again that he views politics as performance art; another reality television competition where the more drama and conflict there is, the better. Candidate Trump belittled his Republican opponents – Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and company – then shrugged it off as part of the game. He turned Hillary Clinton, whom he had once praised and buddied around with at his wedding, into a “crooked” caricature who should be shipped off to prison.
He portrayed the media, and CNN in particular, as cartoon villains that he can rhetorically beat into submission.
Mr. Trump’s choice of a professional wrestling clip for his latest tweet was particularly apt, as throughout his campaign he treated the political process like a World Wrestling Entertainment match. The drama is contrived; the action is fake; the outcome predetermined.
He pulled back the curtain on the show and laughed along with his supporters at the spectacle. He encouraged his crowds to cheer the hero (him) and berate the villains (everyone else). (11)
This interpretation has seemed obvious to me for some time, which is why I never understood pro-rhetoric people using Trump as an example of anything having to do with argument, much less rhetoric versus logic in normal life.
Trump simply gets the medium and expectations related to the actual project his voter base is interested in. And it is probably not a coincidence that his unwavering voter base fits the same demographic as pro-wrestling enthusiasts and those suffering in the ongoing opioid epidemic. Both groups are seeking, perhaps need, a form of escapism, and he is offering that to them: an escape.
And really, are Democrats any better? The Clinton campaign, while different in tone, was basically devoid of policy. It was Boo Trump and Yay Hillary, though mostly Boo Trump. On the campaign trail, how many inconsistencies and lies and hypocrisies were revealed and then ignored by those on the left?
Maybe Clinton’s problems were less worrisome than Trump’s, but that doesn’t exactly erase my point. That both contestants in a match get caught “cheating”, and none of the fans do anything except Boo louder at the one they already hated, tells you this ain’t a boxing match. It’s pro-wrestling and the expectations are different.
As I said earlier, in a world where trust in honest communication has been eroded, all that remains is provocation and entertainment. And in an escapist environment, in fiction, rhetoric is king.
There is no contest over policies or ideas. This is governtainment.
If things are going to change in politics, including public discourse within that sphere, it will have to come from within the populace. (12) It will require the public reassert (if it has ever asserted) a different set of expectations on candidates and those in government than currently exists.
They have to care that they are getting an Ali and Foreman in the ring, and what that contest says about those contestants, rather than say a Trump and McMahon (the other guy in the clip) and how entertaining the results are.
Politicians and the media could help drive this change, if they cared. But there is little money to be made in that, so I doubt it will happen. The goal of the establishment (especially neo-cons/liberals) is to create a large underclass that is disinterested in government, beyond pulling a lever to determine power shifts between different groups of families. Kind of like pulling a lever at a casino, getting excited at the whirling lights, with the same vain hope this time things will change for the better.
Perhaps this change will come when times get bad enough escapism is no longer possible. When the real world steps into the ring and keeps cleaning the clock of anyone relying on rhetoric to make choices.
When, of course, the need for serious argument, and so logic, reasserts itself.
1) Information on the movie at IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118147/?ref_=nv_sr_1) and Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_We_Were_Kings) and the fight itself at Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rumble_in_the_Jungle).
2) Arguments involve two distinct components: the rational and the emotional. Rational components are facts and lines of reasoning, which work to support the validity of claims. Emotional components are a broad mix of contextual information, personal appeal, or artistic device employed to promote emotional investment in the author, topic, or claim (regardless of validity). For convenience, I refer to the rational and emotional components as an argument’s logic and rhetoric, respectively.
5) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55NxKENplG4 (same as 3, starting from 6:58)
6) It is true to say that we make decisions to achieve emotion-based goals, rather than reason-based goals – logic is the slave of the passions and all that – but that is not the same as saying we do not use reason in our decision making, or that reason cannot explain the decisions we are seeing.
7) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zlc4BEnA3pA (same as 4, starting from 8:54)
8) Intriguingly, Adams somehow ignores how those that voted for Trump could be falling for the same techniques. He counts each thing achieved as per campaign promise (even if not really achieved, or by him) as showing Trump is a man of his word, and the voters not having been suckered by persuasion techniques, while never mentioning the obvious reversals and inconsistencies with other campaign promises. As he laughs at the cognitive dissonance of those on the left, I am getting some laughs of my own watching his similar failures.
10) This is Adams’s take on the brilliance of Trump’s pro-wrestling tweet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uCCoxrwi8I), which he makes while pretending to criticize it. But then he seems to have missed the people, including on the Republican side, who have not found it persuasive at all: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PIYh9UZsL8 , https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNPlmaiU-s4 , and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWsXe36WNbs
12) I’m being a little hyperbolic here. The problem is not with everyone in the US. There are plenty of people on the left and right that take matters seriously. The problem is that there is a strong and seemingly growing voter base on both sides who don’t. The fact that there was low voter turnout (a form of protest) and relatively high interest in third parties during the last election, and people criticizing their own parties since then, gives me some hope that change may occur sooner rather than later. It could be that this latest experiment in novelty presidents will not last past one or two terms. Plenty of damage could be done in that time, of course, but that may only increase the likelihood for change.
* Bonus footnote: It’s interesting that I had written most of this before Trump made his tweet, and Zurcher’s analysis. So it was some pretty great timing, only I wish I got it out beforehand so that I’d seem prescient rather than following in the wake of others, and did not have to rewrite the end of my essay. If that were not enough, while checking my links for the final submission, I just found that Adams posted a new video associating Trump with Muhammad Ali, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOE7K1tgP2E) suggesting that he may be using a rhetorical rope-a-dope, the very technique Ali used in the fight I mentioned at the beginning of my essay, to get healthcare passed.
So now my essay seems derivative. Adams also goes on to skewer (or so he thinks) the argument I make in this essay about Trump’s low approval indicating he is not a master persuader. I’m not rewriting the whole essay again, but will address the argument: Trump is President isn’t he? The criticism being made is not that he cannot persuade anyone of anything or that he has never in his life done so or that he did not do so with respect to something important. Rather, it is that he did not do any of this using some amazing ability of persuasion. Ali beating Foreman showed us his skill because these were two great fighters in a fair contest. Even if this last election involved having to persuade the electorate of something substantial, rather than being a “root for your favorite wrestler” piece of governtainment, this was hardly The Rumble in the Jungle, but more like The Stumble out in the Styx. Trump beat a largely disliked and un-charismatic figure (who had to cheat to get the nomination), by narrowly defeating her in a few key locations (where she didn’t bother to put in much of an effort), which allowed him to win the election despite having a lower number in the popular vote. This does not suggest we witnessed some level of brilliance in persuasive capacity, however unexpected his victory was, rather than the failure of a weak opponent. Adams goes on to argue how evident failures of persuasion once in office, like healthcare, are signs of a genius winning strategy, but while I agree that those on the left who demonized Trump were way off, Adams really seems to be drinking his own brand of Kool-Aid, in defending everything the guy does as signs of genius.