Thursday 27 September 2007

The rhetoric of evasion, or the art of changing the subject

Trying to make sense of articles like this one often makes me wish I’d studied rhetoric (for once I’m in agreement with Terry Eagleton, who has suggested that the study of rhetoric should be reintroduced into schools, to help children develop skills in decoding media messages and political propaganda).

But even without any rhetorical training, I’ve begun to detect a number of familiar strategies turning up in the writings of those we might loosely group together as root-causers, blowback theorists or po-mo leftists – well, you know who I mean: the Milnes, Steeles, Buntings and Pryamvada Gopals of this world.

Here’s a quick guide to some of their favourite rhetorical tricks:

1. Invent a straw man
The idea here is to concoct a totally fictitious opposing argument and then score points by knocking it down - before your readers have a chance to notice that nobody was actually arguing for it in the first place. A good example was Pryamvada Gopal’s invention yesterday of mythical ‘self-proclaimed liberals’ who think women’s equality is a western concept. Andrew at Wongablog quotes an even better example from Ahmadinejad’s Columbia speech: ‘Maybe you think that being a woman is a crime. It’s not a crime to be a woman.’ This manages to compress both the set-up and the knock-down response into two short sentences: obviously a master of the art.

2. Taint your opponents by associating them with a universal bogeyman
Labelling your enemy’s argument ‘neoconservative’ will usually do the trick. You need to get across the idea that anybody who supports your opponent’s view is either a paid-up neocon, or is unwittingly serving their interests. Thus William Dalrymple here and here, and Seamus Milne here (and just about everywhere). This device will save you from actually having to deal with your opponent’s arguments. So if you want to avoid criticising Ahmedinejad, Chavez or whoever, simply imply that anyone who does so is probably a closet Bush supporter.

3. Suggest that your opponents are just as extreme as those they criticise
Otherwise known as the all-purpose ‘moral equivalence’ device, equally useful for religious types who want to create the impression that secularists are as fundamentalist as the faith-based extremists they oppose, and for political types like Pryamvada Gopal who advances the bizarre thesis that ‘self-proclaimed liberals’ who campaign for equality are ‘useful collaborators’ for ( = just as bad as) ‘authoritarian chauvinists from outside the west’ who oppress women.

4. If in doubt, blame the West
Also known as the strategy of looking in the opposite direction, or ignoring the bleedin’ obvious. This avoidance tactic is especially useful in the aftermath of terrorist outrages, when the aim is to direct attention away from the actual perpetrators and on to the usual suspects – Britain, America – even if they happen to be the victims. Best-known example: the New Statesman rebranding the 7/7 attacks as ‘Blair’s Bombs’. Echoed the other day by William Dalrymple: ‘As long as the west interferes in the Muslim world, bombs will go off’. See also BBC reporter Martin Asser here, castigating the Israeli government for failing to protect the people of Sderot against terrorist attack, with not a word of reproach for the jihadists who actually fired the rockets.

5. Always treat non-westerners as passive victims
Also known as the ‘denial of agency’ strategy. Suggest that the only people who have any power are westerners and that everybody else just ‘reacts’ to their policies. Useful for analysing the ‘root causes’ behind terror attacks, or the ‘provocation’ that leads to riots over cartoons, etc.

6. Attribute the characteristics of your own side to your opponents
Or, get your retaliation in first. Are atheists raising concerns about the role of religion in public life after violent protests over cartoons? Then label them as ‘aggressive’ or ‘militant’. Secularists daring to stand up for basic freedoms in the face of campaigns against ‘offending’ religion? Describe them as fundamentalist. Then sit back and watch as these terms become the accepted way of describing your opponents (as in ‘the new aggressive secularism’, ‘the new militant atheism’, ‘Enlightenment fundamentalists’, ‘muscular liberals’, etc.).

It’s interesting how many of these rhetorical tricks are really avoidance strategies. They make it possible for the author to avoid having to state where s/he stands on specific issues, such as freedom of speech, religious and political pluralism, or whether terrorist violence can ever be justified. In other words, the characteristic response of these commentators, when faced with a thorny political issue is always the same: don’t answer the question, and change the subject.

To be continued!

1 comment:

Jim Jepps said...

Thanks for this.

5 is a particular bugbear of mine where we asign whole continents the role of passive victim / puppets of what has been done too them with no conception that they are actors too for good and ill.

We really should do people the courtesy of accepting they make real choices too