Home > Dave's Favourites, General Politics > Of Pulpits and Straw Men

Of Pulpits and Straw Men

SokratesPossibly the oldest rhetorical trick in the book is to ascribe to one’s opponents a position which the readers of, or listeners to, your polemic dislike. This tactic is evident all through Plato’s dialogues, Xenophon and pretty much all of the surviving court speeches from ancient Athens. Commonly known as ‘building an argument against straw men’ this tactic has not gone away.

Reading through an article the strap line of which is, “Those who say the teaching of religious belief to the young is a form of child abuse are blinded to human rights,” the straw man tactic appears along with a couple of other rhetorical forms that bear mentioning. No doubt any budding rhetoricians will be familiar with these strategies for making an opponent feel stupid, but everyone else can sit back and enjoy.

Tactic 1. Impute false arguments to the enemy.

“We’re all familiar with the evil things done by religious believers blinded by the love of God.”

This is the first line of the article cited above. At one brush stroke it claims the consensus view that crimes are not committed by religions, crimes are committed by people. The events this calls to mind – the crusades or the burning of a million European women as witches – exist in the popular consciousness.

Many anti-religion commentators have ascribed these events purely to religion and thus sought to designate religion as evil. The article is attempting to generalise this half-formed view into a talisman held as truth by all atheists – which is of course not true. This is a neat trick which might lure opponents in to arguing in favour of the fallacious view of some atheistic commentators.

Once opponents are lured into that argument, they make a web to trap themselves because however sensible the argument might appear on the surface that religion is to blame for the crusades or whatever, it does not stand up.

Tactic 2. Tar your enemies with the same brush.

“There have been states that treat religious believers like that, and I have talked to some of their victims. The Russian state used to exile Baptist parents to Siberia and put their children in orphanages. The Chinese are still doing very similar things to the children of Muslims, Buddhists, and even followers of Falun Gong.”

Do you think the author has mentioned enough totalitarian states which are popularly considered to be atheistic? By mentioning these the author invokes the spectre of human rights violations against atheists. Having differentiated between religion and the religious as mentioned previously, the author invokes the opposite argument against the atheistic.

It is at this point that a very common rhetorical topos, or ‘place’, is offered.

“I don’t want to claim that atheism must lead to a totalitarian view of human rights.”

The function of a rhetorical topos is to deflect attention from the goal of the preceding statement. A very common idea in Athenian law courts was to say, “I could talk about my opponent’s anti-democratic sentiments, but that is forbidden by law and I don’t want to.” The rhetorician has mentioned the anti-democratic sentiment and held himself out as respecting the law.

In this case, the author has connected atheism to crimes committed by supposedly atheistic regimes and then attempted to distance himself from the connection by denying he was trying to make it – making himself look like an honourable opponent at the same time.

Tactic 3. Dig out the least palatable skeletons in the enemies’ closet.

“And then there is Sam Harris, one of the dimmer lights of the New Atheism, who spends quite a lot of one of his little books constructing an argument for the torture of Muslims.”

That tactic pretty much speaks for itself. There are few people, atheists or not, who aren’t repulsed by the idea of torture – whether Muslims or otherwise. So here is the author of the article declaring an atheist to be engaged in an attempt to “[construct] an argument for the torture of Muslims.”

Whether or not that is what Sam Harris did in one of his several books I have no idea – I have never read anything by the man, and nor, I suspect, have most of the audience of Comment is Free. So the author is taking a risk-free leap to secure once more the connection between atheism and torture.

Tactic 4. Equate your chosen proposition with a universal positive.

“Logically and psychologically, belief in human rights and religious belief are independent of one another. You can have both, either, or none.

But I want to make one slightly wider point too: that human rights and religious belief do share and have to share a certain attitude to hope and truth.”

Did you note the rhetorical topos in the first paragraph? The authorial disclaimer this time precedes the statement with which the author anticipates argument.

Now, in truth, there is no such thing as a universal positive – but the concept of human rights is certainly widely enough respected that it can serve as such. Moreover, fewer still are going to dispute the positive attributes of ‘hope’ and ‘truth.’

The author has quite subtly packaged all these things together and added that these conceptual qualities of human rights are shared with religious belief. Whether or not these are actually positive concepts is not discussed, which leads to the final tactic.

Tactic 5. Jump over any premises in dispute.

“I don’t want to get into arguments about the metaphysical realities of either human rights or deities. I merely want to observe that both have a metaphysical dimension if anything does. We want to say that they exist even when they are ignored, and even when no instances of their being can be observed.”

Hopefully readers will immediately have picked up the rhetorical topos in the first line quoted above. Mention something you don’t want to engage with, then dismiss it, neutering the counter argument. The premise dismissed is the question of the validity of ‘metaphysical realities’ – a question central to the whole concept of religion and central to the concept of human rights as the author understands them.

Of course if you deny the metaphysical reality of both, then religion collapses just as human rights collapses and the whole article disintegrates. From a Marxist point of view, I have no problem with that contention. Talk of ‘human rights’ obscure real class antagonisms which would be better fought through to a conclusion by winning such rights not in the name of objective good – which doesn’t exist – but in the name of the working class determining its own destiny.

Yet even if we don’t dispute the question of metaphysical reality overall, the question of human rights are still not set on a metaphysical plane with religion. Human rights have a long philosophical history which is ultimately grounded in empirical observations regarding how the world works, such as social contract theory. Human rights are empirically derived with the goal, not of ‘good’ or ‘happiness,’ but as a tactic to cushion the status quo against destabilising influences – whether those influences are capitalistic or socialist is irrelevant.

Behind the 1945 United Nations and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stood Churchill and Roosevelt and their much more pragmatic Atlantic Charter.

Some thoughts.

Simply because someone uses rhetorical device, we cannot say their argument is wrong nor can we say it is right. Though in this article I have explicated the rhetorical device and then proceeded to attack the argument, that is not to say that any argument which makes use of rhetorical device is flawed or somehow lesser for it.

One of my long-standing contentions is that children should be taught the actual components of advanced argument – that is, rhetoric. Many arguments are judged persuasive simply because the reader cannot see through the rhetorical subtleties, which often perform sleights of hand with facts and concepts which are heavily in dispute.

Having a knowledge of rhetorical tactics inures people to their charms and perhaps we might take a rather more detailed view of exactly what charismatics say. This is something I feel to be particularly relevant since the US elections are nigh and one of the candidates is gaining support all over the place because of his charisma.

Training in debate – not the half-assed, public speaking-style debate that most schools wastefully indulge in – is important in a democratic society where argument can rule the day. It gives us some protection against those material interests who do not have our interests at heart but who can employ in devious ways such tactics.

  1. Samuel Skinner
    February 26, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    For the record Harris believes that torture can be justified- he uses the argument that if we are willing to kill people and maim those nearby, why aren’t we willing to torture them? Does the visible nature make a differance? If we made a drug that put them in a state of paralysis and unimaginable pain so that when they snapped out, would we object?
    You can check it out. For the record though Harris doesn’t reflect the views of all atheists- after all he is a member of the militant wing of the salvation army:)

  2. February 26, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    I did cast around for information but as per usual wikipedia is particularly vague on the subject.

    At any rate, being an atheist and a member of the National Secular Society, I know Harris isn’t a normal atheist regardless of his views on torture. He seems a bit of a nut to be honest.

  3. Samuel Skinner
    February 26, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    Hitchens and Harris are… unusual. Excommunist and a person who is extremely interested in mysticism. So they wouldn’t represent the mainstream. Dawkins and Dennet are more mainline- or atleast polite and through.

    I don’t think he is a nut. I think his level of abstract moral laws is lower than yours (aka more pragmatic). As for the mysticism he isn’t interested in supernatural stuff- he is one of those guys who wants to manipulate their minds using their mind. I have no idea how that works.

  4. February 27, 2008 at 8:23 am

    Wasn’t he one of those defending paranormal stuff though?

  5. Samuel Skinner
    February 27, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    To the batgoogle!

  6. Samuel Skinner
    February 27, 2008 at 8:57 pm


    Got this. Not looking good for Harris. He might be a little on the looney end. You see, this is what happens when you only have one criteria…

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