#5 On rhetoric


You got me. I did have a draft letter composed a couple of days ago… anyway, missed the deadline. In the words of Alex, the Beethoven-loving rapist from Clockwork Orange, appy-polly loggies my droog.

Anyway, I’m now convinced by your argument, in conjunction with mine, that one should do work that feels vital rather that popular, etc. I also share your suspicion for pipedream attempts at rigour. You seemed to be be saying something that style is often more important, especially once you’re in terrain that’s nowhere near the precision of say maths or physics. Copy that. But this made me think of the importance of rhetoric (your word, but one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately).

I’ve been going down this dubious road because I feel like I have some small capacity at arguing: using words in certain ways to get a point across. And yet we normally think of rhetoric as bullshit, spin, able to be directed to any end, devoid of facts, or even honesty. Rhetoric is redolent of opinion pieces in newspapers, literally the biggest waste of time there is, something I’ve tried to cut out of my life with my staunch no news policy.

But what pulls me back in to this foetid, depraved world, is the amount of rhetoric I see directed against science, against atheism, against climate action, against free expression, blah blah — topics I care about or know something about. So I’m no better than anyone sounding off on a comment thread because I end up composing (albeit just in my head) counter-arguments to fundamentalists, conservatives, conspiracy theorists, religious apologists, relativists, etc. And I often feel like I have a good rhetorical strategy to beat them, on top of, one hopes, some basic commitment to reality. Often I have some ironic or satirical method in mind, but frequently I come up with serious techniques too…

Case in point: I’ve been casually reading religious apologetics over the last year, trying to get the best arguments in favour of traditional religions. So far everything I’ve read from serious theologians or popular preachers has been weak as piss (it’s a bit stronger from secular apologists). So I feel as though, if needed, I could fairly eviscerate someone on this topic. And defeat them in an argument too. Maybe it’s a case of using one’s powers for good rather than evil… but that sounds very quixotic.

Indeed I’ve previously criticised climate change campaigners and science communicators for failing to adopt the dark arts of PR, marketing and spin routinely employed by energy companies, creationists, anti-vaxxers, etc.

But is this the kind of rhetoric you say you prefer to rigour?