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Saturday, December 8, 2007

The symptoms of malice

I wish Professor Blanchard would stop reading the Northern Valley Beacon and confine himself to the study of the convolutions of his own navel. The Beacon provokes his obsessive rage out of its usual level of petty insult and abuse, which he regards as “witty repartee,” into outright libel, such as in this example: ”Professor Newquist likes to accuse me and others of logical fallacies but, oddly for a former English professor, he doesn't seem to know what any of these fallacies are.”

Prof. Blanchard assumes a prodigious responsibility when he calls into question more than 55 years of the study (including a doctorate), the practice, and teaching of rhetoric. However, the point is that there are more appropriate and effective venues to resolve such accusations than on Internet blogs.

For readers and contributors who frequent the Internet for purposes of information and discussion, the issue is the definition of terms which describe rhetorical errors. The teaching of rhetoric as a discipline has been displaced by the teaching of technical production of the electronic media. While some universities have tried to include the complications of hypertext writing in their courses of instruction, there is more involved than can be accommodated in the ordinary college curriculum. Dakota State University, for example, offers a curriculum in writing for information systems and deals with what is sometimes referred to as the “new rhetoric” as writing applies to computer technology and the way visual and aural images affect communications.

One can enter any term for a rhetorical fallacy into an Internet browser—such as ad hominem, straw man, bifurcation, equivocation—and come up with thousands of sites that offer definitions of the terms. Nearly all of the definitions will be accurate, but none will be comprehensive. (Ad hominem on Google produces, 233,000 citations.) That leads some people into choosing a definition they prefer and concluding that others are inaccurate. Rhetoric, as with all disciplines, has many facets and dimensions. The purpose of scholarship is to make essential distinctions and to work toward a comprehensive knowledge. That does not mean dismissing definitions that are merely inconvenient or disagreeable to one/s purpose of the moment.

The ad hominem fallacy is the most frequent error to occur on the Internet, but it is a general term that covers many forms, such as the abusive ad hominem, the circumstantial ad hominem, and ad hominem tu quoque. These categories adhere closely to the categories that define libel. Many of the Internet sites provide definitions in the context of formal debate and provide examples of syllogistic reasoning that focuses on statements that can be reduced to formulas. They examine argument on the level of grammar, which deals with words and how they form sentences.

Words and sentences, however, do not occur in isolation. Statements have pretexts, texts, subtexts, and contexts. The meaning of words is often controlled by when, how, for what purpose, and in what context they occur. In addition to their grammatical meaning, words are signs that draw their significance from their contexts. These contexts are amplified and complicated in the electronic media. Contemporary rhetoric, therefore, requires not just a command of grammar, but a command of semiotics—the study of signs and symbols that comprise the range of human communications and how they relate and influence each other.

Some sources suggest that it is an error to cite all instances of personal abuse as ad hominem fallacies. However, anytime someone tries to discredit what another person says and to discredit the person, the pretext and the context and the subtext broaden the focus to the person, and the text must be perceived as part of those circumstances.

Forms of debate governed by Roberts Rules of Order and the rules of order of the U.S Senate have elaborate measures to prevent any dialogue from becoming personal. For example, one always addresses the chair, not members of the body. When it is necessary to refer to another member, it requires that it be done so with great courtesy, such as referring to “my esteemed colleague.” The pervasive damage of the personal attack cannot help but detract from and debase the legitimacy of an argument. Very often, arguments are raised as the pretexts for making personal attacks.

It is pointless to try to defend oneself against the malicious. That is why many of us who write wonder if we are not merely inciting more malice when we write for blogs. It is terribly wasteful to use a resource like the Internet for personal vendettas. There has to be a better way to engage in discussion, and some of us are set on finding it.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States