Over at Simple Justice, Mark Bennett weighs in on the subject of online anonymity in the comments section:

“Those who want it otherwise—who wish that their anonymous arguments would bear the same weight as the arguments of those who have nothing to hide—ignore at least 2,500 years of the study of rhetoric. Whether in the barroom, in the bedroom, in the courtroom, or on the internet, ethos matters. Whining about how unfair it is will not change that.”

In other words, he’s from Texas and he’s agin’ it.

But see here.  What does “…2,500 years of the study of rhetoric” tell you?

As in so many aspects of western thought you can start with Plato or you can start with Aristotle.  They differ.

For Plato, rhetoric was a suspect skill employed primarily by sophists.  Sophists, from whom we get our pejorative word “sophistry”, were like the Tony Robbinses of antiquity.  They were not intellectually respectable.

Aristotle had a different take.  In theoretical, intellectual analysis rhetoric had no place.  It was beneath those lofty tasks.  But on the practical level, such as civil discourse or politics, rhetoric could be employed as a means of persuasion, and if it was Atistotle identified three components of rhetorical persuasiveness:

1.  Ethos – the credentials and quality of the speaker

2.  Pathos – appeals to emotion; and

3.  Logos – appeals to reasoning, deductive or inductive.

So.  If one wishes to reference “2500 years of the study of rhetoric” it is fair to summarize that rhetoric is a largely discredited and anti-intellectual methodology of public speaking with deceptive tendencies.  Aristotle thought rhetoric was marginally legitimate insofar as it can be used for practical persuasion.  But even for Aristotle, only one of the three main elements of it pertain to the qualities of the speaker.

To the extent online anonymity runs afoul of the principles of rhetoric, then, one answer is that conforming to the rules of rhetoric is the domain of sophists and other snake oil salesmen; and the other answer is that even if rhetoric is tolerated in the limited fashion advocated by Aristotle, online anonymity would affect only one out of the three methods of persuasion he identified.

Put another way, complaining about someone’s online anonymity is at best a relatively unimportant quibble; more likely it is an attempt to open the door to ad hominem arguments – which are of course invalid, however effective they may be for lesser minds, or even fine minds caught in a moment of lapse or weakness.

For many attorneys, the ad hominem attack is a staple of cross examination.  If you can discredit the opponent’s witness, it is felt, you will weaken or defeat his case.  Sometimes this is true, or seems to be.

But it is quite dangerous to rely on this too much, as if it was an article of faith, like when appellate judges defer to fact finders because they observed the witnesses’ “demeanor” whereas the appellate court has only a “cold record” to look at, which ignores the simple truth everyone knows – that some people are good liars and their demeanor is just misleading.

Many cases are lost notwithstanding “brilliant” cross examinations where opposing witnesses are “torn to shreds”.  Sometimes all a brilliant cross examination accomplishes is to convince a jury that the brilliant cross-examiner is not to be trusted.

A lot of jurors have read Plato, you know.



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2 responses to “Rhetoric

  1. Enjoyed this piece. Spent many, many hours in court rooms listening to bullshit and over rated expert witnesses with over rated credentials.

    Like the rhetoric breakdown. At the end of the day, it’s still let the buyer beware. Like to check those three things against motivation. Sometimes good people are actually motivated by pure and unselfish intentions. Exceedingly rare, yet possible.


  2. Pingback: Defending People » Aristotle Wept

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