Aug 11, 2020

The center-left has a rhetoric problem

Liberals have a persuasion problem. If you're upset that I'm picking on liberals specifically, please understand that conservative arguments take the form of direct reality manipulation and reinforcement of fascist ideals through repetition, so their media is outside the scope of this type of analysis. Everything they do is bad, but also immune to useful critique. Everyone who agrees with it is so thoroughly inside the reality distortion field that nothing can help them outside of intense soul-searching and counseling; everyone who already knows it's bad doesn't need further convincing. The apolitical centrists to whom the bulk of corporate media is targeted are the only ones worth trying to reach.

(also, I'm not implying that the left-left doesn't have a rhetoric problem; many of them do, particularly authcoms aligned with Marxism-Leninism, but at this stage of our neoliberal dystopia, they're so marginal that they're not worth focusing on. There's also the vampire castle, but that's a fight for another day.)

The most pernicious type of bad liberal argument is the hypocrisy call-out. There's nothing liberals love more than pointing out a logical inconsistency between two contradictory viewpoints a conservative claims to hold. Most of the "destroyed with facts and logic" posts you see shared featuring monologues from pundits like John Stewart and John Oliver take this form. These arguments are popular because they're easy, and a good performance can make them superficially impressive. The problem is that they don't work. Calling out hypocrisy has never moved the needle on any conservative's approval rating, at least not in my lifetime. As long as they didn't do anything illegal, there's nothing stopping them from ignoring, deflecting, and distracting from these types of callouts ad infinitum. It doesn't matter how thoroughly the person was "destroyed", they continue their reality distortion project and everyone forgets about it a few days later.

For the self-identified apolitical status quo conservative (which I'd argue describes most people in the US), the total lack of substance in these arguments has the opposite effect. It makes the quote-unquote "leftist" making the argument look weak and ineffective, and makes them less likely to want to associate with them. I'm not saying this is a huge blight on discourse, and those people are likely to move to the right anyway, but it's definitely a waste of effort.

One incredibly common hypocrisy gotcha I've seen time and time again since the Pandemic's been underway goes something like this: "Oh, so you want to tell women what to do with their bodies, but you complain about being told to wear a mask? Doesn't feel good, does it?"

Even the liberal knows this argument doesn't hold water, because they know the psychology of the conservative, and they know that anti-abortion activism comes from systemic misogyny. Deep down, they know this isn't going to change anyone's mind, no one's going to look at this and say "good point". This is the kind of argument that crumbles instantly with even the slightest bit of pushback. Imagine you say this and someone says "Ok, you're right, we'll start wearing masks if it means we get to keep controlling women's bodies", or "You're right, we'll stop pushing back against abortion so we don't have to wear masks."

There's no response at this point. The person's addressed your charge of hypocrisy, so if you continue by saying "no, we want women to have autonomy AND we want people to wear masks", now the liberal is the one who looks dishonest. Why were they calling out hypocrisy if hypocrisy wasn't the actual issue? Because it's an easy argument. It's an insubstantial gotcha that does nothing but score points with other liberals but is the opposite of convincing to anyone else.

The article that inspired me to write this is one that I saw shared on social media recently, Stop Tossing Your Banana Peel On The Trail. The author argues that organic litter like banana peels and apple cores are just as unsightly as potato chip bags and plastic bottles, and doesn't decompose as quickly as people think it does. This isn't necessarily a liberal/conservative framing, but environmental protection is often seen as a liberal cause, and conservatives and reactionaries are the ones who are going to have a problem being told what to do, so I think it's applicable.

Now, this isn't something I've thought about before, and I'm sure I've carelessly tossed food on the ground before, but since I'm a reasonable person, I think "Oh, some people don't like that. Well, no problem, the next time I'm in the woods I'll make sure I have a baggie in my backpack so I can hang onto food trash until I can throw it away."

But if you were you only trying to reach reasonable people, you wouldn't even need to write a persuasive essay. You'd say "hey, when you throw food on the ground in the woods it sticks around for awhile and a lot of people think it's an eyesore, could you not do that?" People are aware of the problem, they can now correct the problem. But that's not much of an article, so you gotta come up with some points.

The problem is, the points suck. The arguments are weak. If I wasn't a reasonable person, I not only wouldn't be convinced, I would probably double down, because I recognize that way the author is framing the issue is dishonest, self-serving moralizing.

The next time you witness such casual tossage, then, ask the perpetrator: Would you be cool with a stranger flinging a “natural” banana peel into your front yard? No?

Yes, actually. I would most likely not even notice it. Don't ask a hypothetical question, and continue with the assumption that the reader answers the question the same way you would. It weakens all of your other arguments.

In fact, an apple core can take two months to decompose; a banana skin or orange peel, two years, leaving plenty of time for animals who shouldn’t eat it to come along and eat it.

That's awful! Why shouldn't the animals eat it? Is it poisonous to them? Are they going to choke on it and die? What actual harm is it doing to animal life in the area? Are there statistics about animals harmed by food litter? Oh, you don't know, it's just another assumption you're making so readers feel bad about maybe potentially harming hypothetical animals. I know there's a perception that apple seeds can be harmful to dogs, but the actual risk is extraordinarily small, and a small dog would have to eat 100 apple cores before any significant risk of toxicity. Are other animals harmed by banana peels or apple cores? Is there another risk I don't know about? I don't know, but that would've been a great subject for the author to research before writing a persuasive essay.

Please don't mistake these rebuttals as my own; if other people think that food scraps are an eyesore and we shouldn't throw food on the ground, I am 100% ok making the small change to my behavior that you're requesting. But again, I'm not the one you're trying to convince. If I, a reasonable person, feel like your arguments are annoying and condescending, how do you think someone not on your side is going to react? Do you think these arguments are persuasive? Are they going to change anyone's mind? If not, then why are you writing it?

Photo of an apple eaten almost down to the core
When I was a kid I was told that if I throw an apple core in the grass where there aren't a lot of trees around, there might be an apple tree there someday. I don't know if seeds from supermarket apples can really sprout in the wild like that, but I never saw any harm in trying it.
And sure, I'll take my own medicine: do I think that my arguments are going to persuade anyone that they should think harder about their arguments? Well, maybe. I'm no master of debate, I haven't studied rhetoric, but I feel like I'm being honest, and my points ring true at least to myself. I'm not making any assumptions, I'm just talking about my observations and how I feel about them. I think it's not impossible that a sympathetic but misguided reader will see this and think a little more critically about these types of arguments in the future; but also, this journal is mostly written for myself, I don't advertise or make money from this, and I don't think my writing should necessarily be held to the same standard as those in Outside Magazine. They're intentionally seeking engagement. They're trying to draw in new readers with sharing widgets, calls to action, SEO and syndication. (That's where I first encountered the story: it was republished on Mozilla's "Pocket" service and shared on my facebook feed.) I think that makes this story a worthy subject for critique, whereas I might not have bothered if I stumbled across the same piece in someone's livejournal.

Of course, I could be wrong too, so leave a comment if you have a counter-argument and I'll think about it some more.

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