A close friend and I were discussing the relative merits of dialectic and rhetoric the other day. He spoke of the invective bafflingly spewed against Christians since the Muslim terrorist attack in Orlando and mentioned debating fellow members of certain online communities on the subject.
When I advised him that the most effective weapon against anyone caught up in the throes of so glaringly irrational a Narrative is a more visceral, rhetorical approach, he insisted that appeals to logic had in fact convinced the anti-Christian commenters to moderate their positions--or at least to make apologies.
While it's possible that my friend has stumbled upon the secluded valley, accessible only once every thousand years, where the fabled Rational Leftist unicorns ruminate on opposing viewpoints before logically refuting them or, perhaps, modifying their own, I submit that a Christian venturing onto the internet shouldn't expect the same warm welcome.
The first principle of online debate is simple: if your opponent argues logically, answer him with logic. If he argues from emotion, answer with rhetoric.
Dialectic vs. Rhetoric
If you're unfamiliar with the difference between these two concepts, the short version is that dialectic is logical argument wherein premises are put forward in order to arrive at true statements. If all of the premises are true, the argument is structured correctly, and the conclusion follows from the premises, then the argument is sound and the conclusion is true.
Rhetoric is the type of argument that primarily tries to convince people by appealing to their emotions. As you'd imagine, rhetoric is pretty informal, though good rhetoric mimics the structure of dialectical arguments. The most important difference is that rhetoric is completely unconcerned with fact. Its purpose is to produce conviction; not deduce truth.
The naturally dialectically inclined tend to look down on rhetoric, or even denounce it as evil. When they argue with natural rhetoric speakers--i.e. most of the population--they often balk at "stooping to the other side's level" and plug away citing statistics, quoting Scripture, and calling out logical fallacies.
Meanwhile, their opponents ignore them like Italians being lectured in Chinese and proceed to run rhetorical rings around the logicians.
Think back to a frustrating argument you've had online. Everybody's been there. You hammer away at the other guy's flimsy argument with meticulously researched facts and quotes from great thinkers. You call him out on his straw men and personal attacks.
But nothing works. All your best arguments roll off his back like water. He changes the definitions of words, down to prepositions and articles, and pinning him down is like nailing Jello to the wall.
You got owned by a rhetorician. It's frustrating. But it doesn't have to happen.
Rhetoric isn't evil. Like any tool, it can be put to good or bad use. Since most people make most of their decisions based on emotion, rhetoric can be a powerful force for good if you use it to move people toward wise action.
Consider smoking. Your kids' peers don't argue them into smoking with a risk/benefit analysis. Kids are pressured into it via social proof. Likewise, lengthy diatribes about higher incidence of lung cancer and how much money smokers waste on astronomical taxes are far less effective deterrents than having an admired member of a kid's peer group tell him he looks like a loser with that fag hanging out of his mouth.
"You're a cigarette!"
Case Study: Slaying Trolls at John C. Wright's Journal
Getting back to the talk I had with my friend, I only regretted that I lacked a counterexample to his successful use of dialectic. The very next day, Providence supplied the perfect live demonstration of dialectic vs. rhetoric in action.
The inestimable John C. Wright, Grand Inquisitor of the Evil Legion of Evil, recently published a partial list of jihadist attacks on American citizens during the current administration. You'd rightly expect such a post to draw a school of trolls nipping at this intellectual Leviathan's tail. On this occasion, John landed a marlin--a bigoted, feelz-spasming marlin.
Yes, in the wake of a tragic massacre committed by a terrorist who swore allegiance to ISIS, Captain Moral Equivalence busted in like Jonestown Kool-Aid Man to tell us all how his cherry-picked, torturously literalistic readings of the Bible prove that Christians are the real terrorists*.
*Excerpts repositioned for space and ease of reading.
Many strove valiantly to confound the troll with facts.
Pointing out the troll's rank irrationality likewise failed, but the rhetorical barb planted in the comment made the troll reveal his own weak point.
Troll 2: still less shoddy and more coherent than the troll's arguments
Troll vs Rhetoric
I'd been hanging back and watching the bull in a china shop-style proceedings, observing the troll's virtuoso performance with awe and pity. The comment above gave me my cue to wade in.
Disclaimer: I normally maintain a principled stand against engaging with this kind of dirtbag. Unlike the philosopher kings my friend hangs with, trolls like Mike can't be reasoned with and can't be convinced. There are only two valid reasons for talking to them: 1) there are neutral observers on the fence who might be drawn to your side by a good troll-shellacking; 2) as an object lesson in rhetoric, which the troll readily served as, and which I now submit for your edification and enrichment.
Rule 1: don't meet trolls head-on. Talk about them with others to draw them in. That way, you set the terms and terrain of the exchange.
That comment's just an example. It also didn't draw the troll in. For that job, I baited my hook with the sweeter meat which our dear troll himself provided.
Instead of making inflammatory accusations and answering others' responses with insults, Mike is now compelled by his inner demons to answer me. Result: he cedes the initiative.
Note how much wordier Mike's responses are than mine. He's also growing even more incoherent. This tells me he's experiencing cognitive dissonance, which tells me I've found which button to push.
Dimly aware that he's lost ground, the troll flails about in a desperate attempt to justify himself. He musters an effort to regain control by leveling an insult at me that he thinks I have no choice but to refute. He's wrong.
Rule 2: trolls like this are all offense, so never let them put you on defense. Never answer their questions. Always answer their attacks with an attack.
Though batting Mike around like a pinata was more fun than the law should allow, I had actual work to do. Since I could now lead him around by the nose, it was time to drag him onto my turf for a good old-fashioned clubbing.
Evidence I can document: my major award-nominated, category best selling books
The troll takes the bait and is reeled into an alien, waterless world where he writhes, gasping.
Mike's rantings have revealed him as a compulsive braggart and know-it-all who can't resist calling others ignorant to stroke his own ego. Now that pride has led him into an arena--publishing--where he knows precisely jack squat, it's time to jab my pen through his temple.
Exit the troll, to seek less rhetorically fluent prey.
Far from inflating my own ego (to my knowledge, I have none to inflate), let this post serve as instruction and encouragement to rational folks who find their favorite online watering holes beset by periodic troll infestations.
Being treated with honor is a privilege exchanged among civilized men. Barbarians give, and should expect, no quarter.
The vast majority of the populace understands only rhetoric. Engaging them with dialectic won't get you anywhere. Debate them only if you must, and when you do, answer rhetoric with rhetoric.