Two (more) cheers for rhetorical coolness
posted by David Fagundes
Dave’s awesome post from a few days ago, along with the ensuing discussion, got me thinking a bit more about the virtues of humility in reasoning (the Kahan paper he cites calls this “aporia,” but for all I know that could really be Greek for “platypus” so I’ll just stick with good old English). I’m a fan of the approach to discourse that Dave describes in the post, which I will refer to herein as rhetorical coolness (to contrast it with overheated rhetoric, and because it think it actually is cool, in the sense that Fonzie is cool).
By “rhetorical coolness,” I refer to a style of reasoning that entails respectful consideration of opposing arguments, evinces due humility about the inevitable limitations of one’s capacities to reason, and avoids the kind of hysterical tone that characterizes much public dialogue these days, especially cable news and the blogosphere.
It doesn’t seem to me particularly surprising that people should give carefully articulated reasons for their positions rather than engage in all-caps, red-faced, Nancy-Grace style ranting. But then again, if you take a look at the viewership of cable news or the readership of blogs, it often seems like the hysterical style is what really moves people, so I may be in the minority on this.
Hence my encouragement at reading Dave’s citation to literature suggesting that while people may feel gratified by (and hence seek out) inflammatory information outlets that tend to confirm their preexisting positions, what tends to persuade people to change their minds is balanced, non-hysterical reasoning that evinces rhetorical humility as I’ve described it above.
I haven’t done the kind of empirical research that Dave Hoffman or Dan Kahan have on cultural cognition, but I still wanted to advance a pair of non-quantitative (but still empirical) reasons in praise of the cool style. I articulate these reasons below the fold. Fair warning: in the ensuing discussion, no one will be compared to Hitler.
First: tone is cheap. We all learned in first grade how to engage in name-calling, and by junior high most people can engage in basic sarcasm. It doesn’t take a genius to do either. Hence my puzzlement by the use in Dave’s thread of the phrase “strong rhetoric” to characterize the kind of angry, overheated discourse that pervades public discourse. I’d concur with calling this rhetoric “loud” or “hysterical”, and I think equating it to using all caps in writing is about right, but this strikes me as a far cry from strength. Just the opposite, really: When someone’s major argumentative move is to yell, or deploy an ad hominem attack, or to use pejorative adjectives in place of substantive reasons, I think this usually means the speaker/writer lacks anything of substance to say, and needs to rely instead on volume or snark or an angry tone as a fallback crutch. That’s weakness, not strength.
Consider, for example, Supreme Court advocates. The several that I was fortunate to know when working in D.C. were strikingly soft-spoken. They didn’t rant or yell or call people idiots for not agreeing with them. But this enhanced, rather than distracted from, the power of their rhetoric. The reason they were soft-spoken was that their arguments were compelling enough on their own that they didn’t need to hide behind a smokescreen of bluster, and could let the content of their arguments win the day for them (as it usually did).
Second: excessive certainty may be inversely correlated with credibility. A few years back, the Dunning-Kruger effect grew into an internet meme (and an often misunderstood one). The D-K effect was named after a study by two Cornell psychologists who found that in surveys of various intellectual skills, responders who exhibited the most confidence about their skills in reasoning and logic actually tended to have the weakest actual abilities in those areas. And the converse: Those responders who evinced skepticism about their reasoning and logic skills tended to exhibit more abilities when actually tested. (Full disclosure: subsequent work has contested some aspects of the D-K study’s results.)
The delicious irony of the D-K result is that while people take cocksureness as a sign that a speaker should be trusted, just the opposite may be true. Simplistic, rock-solid certainty may actually be a good reason that we should be especially skeptical of whether a speaker has actually carefully reasoned through his arguments in an accurate, rigorous way. Contrariwise, speakers who exhibit rhetorical coolness—which as I’ve defined it above includes due respect for and consideration of opposing claims—may tend to be more credible because they have likely advanced more nuanced, and hence more rigorous arguments.
[Having said all this, I’ve gotta admit that maybe I am simply engaging in the kind of blinkered cultural cognition that Kahan et al expose in their really interesting work about all this. We’re all subject to motivated reasoning, after all (which I take to be the reason that rhetorical humility can be effective—it acknowledges the limitations of the speaker/writer rather than cloaking their words in a false veil of objectivity, which can infuriate those who don’t agree). So my defense of rhetorical coolness could simply be largely the product of my desire to extol the virtue of my segment of the legal profession, which deploys this form of reasoning. And I’m well aware of the possibility that other elements of the legal profession use—and probably require as a matter of professional norms—a more overheated, frenetic style of reasoning.]
Finally, my defense of rhetorical coolness is a limited one. I am a believer in this stylistic approach in public discourse about serious matters. But hotheadedness can have its virtues in other areas. After all, what fun would it be to use the cool style when watching your favorite team play football? “True, the ref called holding on our offense, but let’s keep in mind that his vantage point was superior, so we should defer to his expertise.” No way—it’s much more fun to rant and rave and call Rex Ryan a morbidly obese foot fetishist.
But of course, football and sports are for fun, while the stakes in law and policy are much, much higher. And the concern about the growing use of the hysterical style in public discourse is that people are indulging in the gratifying fun of “trash talk”—which is perfectly acceptable in the context of something that’s ultimately nonconsequential, like football—about issues that are serious business. And that means that overwrought rhetoric may not only be an impoverished form of reasoning for the substantive reasons I’ve outlined above, but that its widespread use could have negative outcomes for the polity as well.