Rhetoric - Any verbal or written attempt to persuade someone to believe, desire or do something that does not attempt to give good reasons for the belief, desire or action, but attempts to motivate that belief, desire or action solely through the power of the words used.

The difference between fallacies and rhetorical ploys is understood most easily as a difference in the function of the language being employed. As we saw in Chapter 1, politicians, advertisers and newspaper columnists tend to be experts when it comes to using rhetorical ploys. Rhetorical ploys typically make a more or less direct appeal to feeling and emotion rather than to reason, which is the domain of argument. Fallacies, on the other hand, are simply defective attempts at argument (they may be defective in any of various different ways, as explained below). They may fool us into thinking they are not defective, but they are still presented as attempts at argument. Of course, many writers and speakers will use a mixture of rhetorical ploys, fallacies and genuine arguments when attempting to persuade us of the truth of their claim. In fact, it is possible for a given form of words, as advanced by a would-be persuader, to constitute a fallacy, yet, at the same time, function as a rhetorical ploy. For example, the following sort of advertisement is ubiquitous:

More mothers use Namby-pambies for their babies than any other disposable nappy. Shouldn't you?

As we will explain in more detail below, this is an example of the fallacy of majority belief: The advertisement wants mothers to accept the argument: X is used by more people than any other product of its kind; therefore X is the best such product. That argument is fallacious because its implicit premise - that the most popular thing is the best, or most popular belief is true - is unjustified. But the advertisement also exemplifies the rhetorical ploy of appeal to popularity: the mere fact that something is popular often causes us to desire it (possibly by awakening a fear of being left out). The point can be put this way: the detection of fallacies is an exercise in logical and factual assessment: it involves the assessment of reasons. The detection of rhetorical ploys, on the other hand, is an exercise of psychology: we consider ways in which our desires, fears, beliefs and actions could be non-rationally influenced by uses of language which are intended to persuade us to hold beliefs and perform actions.

As critical thinkers, we aim to become adept at distinguishing and identifying these different types of sham-reasoning. We want to understand how they work, and how to avoid being taken in by them. In the next section, we consider specific types of rhetorical ploy and examples thereof. Later we turn to a comprehensive consideration of fallacies.

Rhetorical ploys Appeals to specific feelings

There is a range of rhetorical ploys that attempt to tap into specific feelings in order to influence our behaviour and opinions (especially our consumer behaviour). Here we discuss a number of the most common. Some of them are not strictly or specifically linguistic ploys, but this will not affect the points we need to make.

Appeal to novelty

Here someone attempts to persuade us to try or buy something because the item is new and, by implication, different from and better than existing related items. Often this ploy appeals to our desire not to miss out on a new trend, or arouses our fear of appearing outdated in our tastes. Sometimes it appeals to our (vain) sense of our selves as flexible and willing to try out new experiences. It may also persuade us that because the product is new, it must be an improved version of the existing product. Familiar examples of the appeal to novelty include the renaming of the Labour Party as the New Labour Party; advertising that attempts to persuade us to upgrade to frequently newly released, but little-changed or improved computer software packages, and attempts to persuade us to switch to allegedly new and improved washing detergents. The appeal to novelty may also be employed to persuade us to adopt new ideas or beliefs. Again, this operates on our desire not to appear inflexible or stick-in-the-mud. Thus we might be enjoined to give up a belief in the value of trade union participation on the grounds that trade unionism is 'old-fashioned' and 'has no place in the workplace of the twenty-first century'. Notice that we have been given no reason to reject trade unionism, we are just told that it is 'old-fashioned' and thus, by implication, something undesirable that we wouldn't want to be involved with.

Appeal to popularity

Like the appeal to novelty, this ploy appeals to our desire to run with the crowd, not to appear different from the norm and not to miss out on what others have. Again, it is commonly used to persuade us to buy things, but also occurs frequently as a means to persuade us to adopt a belief or to follow a certain course of action. Consider the following attempt to persuade students to buy a computer software package.

Get Hotstuff! - the best-selling comprehensive software package among today's students - and turn your assignments into hot stuff.

Such an advertisement can work in various ways. It makes a straightforward appeal to our desire to have what others have and not to miss out on the benefits enjoyed by those who already use the package in question. But in addition, it tends to lead us to make some unjustified assumptions about why the product is the most popular ('best-selling'). If we take insufficient care, we are inclined to think that the most popular product must be the most effective, but its popularity might stem purely from its competitive price or the success of the marketing campaign. The software package's being the best-selling does not give us a compelling reason either to buy the product or to conclude that it must be the most suitable software package for student use.

Like many rhetorical ploys, the appeal to popularity can sometimes be construed as presenting an argument - in this case, as presenting a reason to buy something. As we can see from the following reconstruction, the reason given is not typically a good one (so the argument is fallacious):

P1) The software package that sells best amongst students must be the best software package for students. P2) The software package that sells best amongst students is Hotstuff.

C1) Hotstuff is the best software package for students.

This argument would be valid but almost certainly not sound because the assumption made explicit in PI is not plausible; it is not the case in general that the best-selling product of a given kind is the best of that kind (see the discussion of the fallacy of majority belief, below). Certainly if you were a student intending to invest in an expensive software package, you would want much stronger evidence that Hotstuff is the best (and furthermore, you might well think that since different students have different needs, the claim that a given software package is the best for students in general must be pretty vague, and without any direct implication for you, with your particular needs; we will discuss this kind of vagueness in more detail below).

Appeal to compassion, pity or guilt

This common rhetorical ploy operates by attempting to move us to do something purely by evoking a feeling of compassion towards the recipients of the suggested act or belief, or a feeling of guilt about their plight. The feeling alone does not provide a good reason for us to perform the act in question. Examples of this ploy are myriad. Charity appeals and advertising provide plenty of instances. Pictures of hungry children, suffering animals and so forth accompanied by simple slogans are designed to tweak our feelings of compassion, pity and guilt about the situation of the people or animals featured. Remember that the primary purpose of our examination of rhetorical ploys is a critical one; that is, we encourage critical thinkers not to be persuaded by rhetoric and to avoid rhetoric in their own attempts rationally to persuade others.

As we pointed out in Chapter 1, however, rhetoric can play a useful role when put to good ends. In the case of the appeal to compassion, it serves a positive role by pricking our conscience and opening us up to rational argument regarding how we should act in the given situation. Feelings of compassion can prompt us to look for arguments that do provide good reasons for the course of action recommended by the rhetorical ploy. Suppose for example you read a charity advertisement that appeals to your sense of compassion towards hungry children. You may go on to reason that if one can do something to alleviate hardship, one should; and if you are in a position to do so then you should make a donation to the charity. Such an argument might look thus when reconstructed and rendered in standard form:

Rhetorical ploys and fallacies

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