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Some points which may or may not be useful:

  1. Rhetoric is a tool of persuasion, not of factual analysis. It was originally developed by lawyers and philosophers who wanted to know how best to sway crowds, judges and juries.

  2. Arguing with people isn't rhetoric, it's arguing. Debate isn't necessarily rhetoric, although anyone who's skilled at debate will use rhetorical techniques - not always consciously.

  3. You can be good at rhetoric and useless at arguing, and vice versa. You can win a debate with rhetoric and have no idea what you're talking about otherwise. You can be totally clued-in and in posession of an accurate picture of the facts, but still lose a debate to someone who's better at rhetoric than you are.

  4. It's very hard to find classes in rhetoric now. It was once taught as a formal skill, because it was so useful. I assume politicians still learn it somewhere and somehow, because pols do rhetoric for a living. But if you're looking for useful rhetoric and not just a list of obscure grammatical constructions, it's not so easy to find that.

  5. Rhetoric is mostly dishonest slight of mind. It doesn't do substance, it does appearances. E.g. one example of a simple rhetorical technique is that you can sometimes appear to invalidate a general position by apparently invalidating a small and inconsequential part of it.

  6. Rehtoric is based on narrative logic, not on scientific logic. Narrative logic creates stories which sound plausible, but the connection between facts and conclusions can be anywhere on a scale from approximately plausible to ridiculous and non-existent. In narrative logic everything is confused and out of proportion, and connections don't stand up to scrutiny. But it feels convincing, so it can seem persuasive.

  7. Neo-liberal economic theory is mostly rhetoric. The Laffer curve, trickle down, deregulation - these are all rhetorical positions supported with narrative logic.

  8. Rhetoric works because people mostly think in narrative terms, not in scientific terms. Thinking scientifically, in a truly reality-based way, is hard. It's even harder not to slip back into rhetorical positions even when you've made a scientific start.

  9. Narratives rely on unconscious ethical positions. The reason some rhetorical points are 'obvious' is because they're based on a moral - i.e. emotional - argument. If you can sway an audience emotionally by appealing to its prejudices, it doesn't matter how silly - or not - your facts are.

  10. Everyone has prejudices. No one is immune to rhetoric.
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Dec 4th, 2008 at 12:30:16 PM EST

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