Schopenhauer’s Handbook for Neutralizing Rhetorical Devices

Article by Alessandro Zerbini | Illustration by Louseen Smith

In 1830, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote a very special short essay entitled The Art of Being Right. Breaking with millennia of logical pondering in search of objective truth, he admitted that, in real life, having the right on one’s side will not be sufficient in winning acceptance for one’s propositions. On the contrary, to defend the truth, it is necessary to master Dialectic, notably ‘the art of disputing, […] whether one is in the right or the wrong’. Having arrived at this realization, Schopenhauer presented thirty-eight replicable ways of twisting arguments and winning debates.

Two centuries later, political talk shows give the most straightforward demonstration of how little establishing the truth actually matters, and how relevant debating skills are for effective political communication. When picking a side, we often get carried away by the guests’ mastery of rhetoric, rather than by the soundness of their arguments, ending up unintentionally embracing ideas that we would rationally disagree with.

Although nobody is immune to the compelling charm of dialectic, awareness can help us avoid falling for cheap rhetorical tricks and see through the clever tactics of politicians and political commentators alike. Let’s take a moment to review today’s most popular dialectical devices chosen among the thirty-eight presented in Schopenhauer’s essay.

Where there’s a will there’s a way

As a general rule, half an ounce of will is more effective than a hundredweight of insight. The easiest way to persuade someone to do something is to convince them that it’s in their interest, in doing so they will embrace a cause even without fully understanding it. Indeed, it is often the case that, once we are convinced that a certain issue is bad for us, we refrain from seeing it in a different light. For instance, if we became persuaded that inflation is outright harmful, we would unconsciously shun any discussion on the topic on principle rather than reason.

Strategic labelling

An easy way of demeaning any argument is to put it into some odious category. By attaching an unpleasant label on a statement, you implicitly assume that the assertion in question is identical with the category cited and that the system referred to has already been refuted. For instance, if we are told that a certain economic policy is tantamount to austerity, we would automatically transfer our preconceptions from the category to the policy, regardless of whether the policy actually results in economic hardship.

Persuade the audience, not the opponent

When debating in front of an unlearned audience, accuracy of information becomes insignificant. If the spectators are not familiar with the subject being discussed, using erroneous arguments will not harm one’s credibility. On the contrary, your opponents’ efforts to show the falseness of your argumentation would require a long and complex explanation, which would hardly hold the audience’s attention, let alone convince it.

For example, one could argue that an easy way to reduce fiscal pressure and stimulate savings and investments is to implement a flat tax. However, such a statement might be true only under specific circumstances and, in any case, a similar tax system would also entail serious downsides. Needless to say, hoping to disprove the original argument by explaining the intricacies of economic models to an inexpert audience would face long odds.

Interrupt, break or divert the dispute

When the discussion gets tough and the prospects of winning it are bleak, Schopenhauer recommends to prevent the opponent from concluding their argument. This can easily be done by interrupting the speaker, breaking off the dispute, or changing the subject. When political talk shows are involved, this tactic also has the welcome advantage of appealing to the audience.

State a false syllogism

When your opponent makes an argument, a good way to cause them problem is to ‘state a false syllogism’, that is, purposefully jump to the wrong conclusions. By making the consequences of his statement seem harmful or absurd, you weaken their position and prevent them from concluding their line of reasoning.

For example, if the intent were to undermine an argument about the importance of migrant integration, one could pretend to accept the premises only to point out the potential side-effects that this would have, such as higher unemployment or lower wages for the rest of the population. In doing so, you would also make the audience think that the integration of migrants is simply not in their interest, thus sabotaging any prospect of evidence-based discussion.

Find one instance to the contrary

A particularly effective rhetorical trick to disarm an opponent’s argument is to present one case that contradicts it. Although their statement may be logically sound, knowing that in one instance it was proved wrong makes it suddenly look invalid. For instance, the seemingly rational argument “wearing face masks prevents the spread of COVID-19” would appear much less compelling if challenged by an anecdote claiming that in one occasion face masks didn’t suffice to stop the contagion.

However, taking the anecdote at face value, that is, without enquiring about the circumstances that might have made face masks insufficient (e.g. the quality of the masks, whether they had been used properly, whether contagion had already taken place, …) can risk incentivizing harmful behaviour. Therefore, it is important to assess whether the exception actually overturns the original argument.

Become personal and rude to make your opponent angry

If your opponent is having the upper hand in the debate and you’re out of arguments, talk about them instead. By attacking them personally, you distract the audience’s attention away from the debate and make your opponent angry, thus hampering their judgment. Alas, for well-intentioned debaters there isn’t much to be done to counter this tactic. According to Schopenhauer, the only way an opponent can respond to this trick is by doing the same, with the risk of coming to ‘blows, or a duel, or an action for slander’.

Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca once bitterly remarked, “Everyone prefers belief to the exercise of judgement”. In a nutshell, if we all tried to go beyond the oratorical façade of what we are told and think more critically about the actual content and meaning, most rhetorical devices would simply be ineffective. Hence, the ultimate lesson we can draw from Schopenhauer’s wisdom is that, to avoid falling for rhetorical tricks, we must exercise our own judgment.

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