Heuristics and Hyperbole:
Logic & Rhetoric — By Joe Carter on December 1, 2005 at 12:35 am
How Not to Argue (Part I)
“Experience keeps a dear school,” said Ben Franklin, “but fools will learn in no other.” Unfortunately, experience�s curriculum is comprised almost exclusively of tests. That is why fools like me tend to have rudimentary knowledge about what to do while possessing a Pavlovian understanding of what not to do.
Because that is the case I thought I would share my insights on how not to argue. I would much prefer to write a series on the proper way to use logic and rhetoric but I haven’t the faintest clue what that would entail. All I can offer is a set of heuristics, commonsense rules intended to increase the probability of solving some problem, which might help others avoid the tuition costs of experience’s school for debate.
A heuristic, as Wikipedia usefully defines the term, is a way of directing your attention fruitfully. Because our cognitive abilities are finite, it often becomes necessary to find simple means of using such resources most effectively. Heuristics are not infallible, but they tend to provide suitable means of “directing our attention more fruitfully” to recurring problems we face.
An example of a rule of thumb that I find to be particularly useful in helping to avoid problems is to avoid, whenever possible, willfully stupid people. Intelligence is, of course, a relative concept and everyone (except for the World’s Smartest Person) is just a little less bright than someone else. Willful stupidity, however, is distinct from IQ because it consists of a moral failing: Choosing to be dumber than you have to be.
One way to recognize a willfully stupid person is to examine the role hyperbole plays in their rhetoric. Take, for example, those who, like Pulitzer-nominated author Stephen Pizzo, say that “George Bush is the worst president of the United States of America, ever. Hands down.” Whenever I encounter such people I walk the other way for fear that such stupidity might be contagious. For anyone to make such a claim would require a basic understanding of Presidential history, an objective standard for comparing other Presidents to George W, and an ability to make nuanced judgments. In other words, it requires the very skill set that would generally prevent a person from making such an inane claim in the first place.
(I should note that this is not just a failing of left-leaning progressives. Willful stupidity is certainly not a partisan issue; we heard the same sort of claims about Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The only difference is that Bush became President during the Age of the Blogosphere when the effects of echo-chamber ranting became more pronounced.)
The problem with making such a hyperbolic claim is that such exaggerations are not meant to be taking seriously. When the person who makes them treats them as if it were a rational claim then it shows that they themselves are not worthy of being taken seriously.*
The reason this is the case is that hyperbole is a form of metaphor, a figure of speech used to paint one concept with the attributes normally associated with another. As Aristotle explained, metaphors perform a role in learning. In order to understand a metaphor, the hearer has to find something common between the metaphor and the thing which the metaphor is referred to. As the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy explains:
[I]f someone calls the old age “stubble,” we have to find a common genus to which old age and stubble belong; we do not grasp the very sense of the metaphor until we find that both, old age and stubble, have lost their bloom. Thus, a metaphor does not only refer to a thing, but simultaneously describes the respective thing in a certain respect. This is why Aristotle says that the metaphor brings about learning: as soon as we understand why someone uses the metaphor “stubble” to refer to old age, we have learned at least one characteristic of old age.
Metaphor also can be considered to be a balance between the ground and the tension. The ground consists of the similarities between “stubble” and “old age” while the tension of the metaphor consists of the dissimilarities between the two concepts. The problem with hyperbole is that in amplifying the ground (the similarity) you also amplify the tension (the dissimilarities).
Even when the ground is strong, hyperbole causes the tension to be increased, thereby weakening the effectiveness of the metaphor. Though some might not see it as an instance of hyperbole, I believe a prime example is the phrase “the holocaust of abortion.” Even those who agree with the similarities between the terms “abortion” and “Holocaust” (the wanton slaughter of innocent human life) find it difficult to overcome the undeniable tension and differences. Although the intentions may be noble, the effect is that it merely produces a weak metaphor that denigrates both tragedies.
Hyperbole has a legitimate role in rhetoric. But when you want your audience to focus on the similarities in your comparisons you must downplay the dissimilar aspects. In order to more fruitfully direct their attention to your argument it is best to avoid exaggeration. Metaphors work best when they are fresh, not when they are loud.
But even when the arguments fail to convince your audience honing your use of metaphorical language can aid in shaping your own thinking. Sloppy, trite arguments should be avoided not only because they are ineffective but because they encourage you to become a sloppy, trite thinker.
* At this point you might be inclined to disagree with this particular rule of thumb. If so, then I recommend you consider how you apply it in your own life. Think of the people whose analysis and judgment you most trust, the ones you consider to be sober and scrupulous thinkers. Now think of the people who are most prone to exaggeration and to making comments that amplify certain aspects out of proportion to reality. I suspect that, like me, you won�t find much overlap between the two groups.