Rhetoric 001

Smoke and Mirrors: Protecting Yourself from Time-Honored Fallacies.

A rhetoric primer.

The Internet has brought a resurgence of instant and universal public dialog. No longer is it necessary (or even possible) to walk down to the town square or commons. No longer do families huddle around the household radio to hear the great scheduled debates. Today, one can walk from the dinner table to the PC keyboard and plunge instantly into crude or sophisticated debates over most any topic in the world.

The arguments have changed, but the techniques used to make them and to persuade others on matters of truth and falsehood, have not. What else has changed? More so than ever, we, the citizen-participants, have become disconnected from the teachings and methods used to sway and polarize us into one prefabricated camp or another. We don’t recognize these techniques when they are being used against us.

The aim of this discussion is to connect the dots, to reconnect the techniques to their origins. Some of the debating techniques which at first glance appear so sophisticated as to be beyond unraveling (their intentional design), are actually cheap smoke and mirrors tricks that were invented and discredited in the time of Ariostotle.

The misuse of logic and persuasive technique to accumulate converts for fraudulent ideas is the world’s second oldest profession.

Thumbnail history of rhetoric

The ancient Greeks classified and studied debating techniques for swaying crowds and public assemblies, and for winning others over to one’s own position. The Greeks named this art “Rhetoric”. They analyzed why some debating techniques might safely be considered underhanded, deceptive and dishonorable, while others are regarded as enlightening and honorable.

Educators over the centuries have attempted with mixed success to interest students in recognizing common rhetorical techniques, both for improved persuasive and communication skills, and for their own protection. Pitting amateurs against skilled debaters is like throwing chum to sharks.

Because of its popularity and financial returns for people in sales, political life and promotion of religious and ideological causes, rhetoric has never quite shaken its association in the public eye with con men, demagogues, flim-flam artists, and meddlesome reform-minded people with hidden agendas or “axes to grind”.

Popular sales training courses like Dale Carnegie and ‘Zig’ Ziglar use specialized rhetorical technique to teach millions of sales executives and representatives how to more effectively “close the sale”. They owe their success to a combination of socially acceptable rhetorical technique, sales motivation, lay psychology and common-sense ethics and business principles, such as hard work.

Complete the following sentence: “A ____ and his money are soon parted.”

Although many fine and successful people pass through these programs, rhetoric is blind. The same techniques can equally be used effectively by the completely unscrupulous. Since many of these techniques trickle down into the popular domain, we may as well invest a few minutes of our time in understanding how they work and where they came from.

Knowing even a few of the elements of rhetoric can not only help protect you against exploitation, it can make you a more effective speaker and writer. Don’t you agree?


Here are some classic examples of debating tricks you want to avoid, both from others and in your own presentations. They are considered dishonest and underhanded. Whenever usage of these techniques has been detected and identified, it can effectively be used to discredit and invalidate all the other parts of an opponent’s position as well.

For further analysis of common argumentative fallacies, we have provided links to a site called Nizkor, who in turn publishes a copyrighted summary listing and analysis of 42 popular fallacies published by Dr. Michael C. Labossiere, the author of a Macintosh tutorial named “Fallacy Tutorial Pro 3.0”. We found this worthwhile site quite by accident on Google.

We recommend you spend some time at the site and bookmark the page for general reference. This articles goes on to discuss about 10 variants of four basic fallacies, but we ended up reviewing the case studies of all 42 fallacies in the index.

Nizkor turns out to be a site dedicated to remembering the millions of Holocaust victims, and fighting Holocaust denial or revisionism. It is not surprising that rhetorical analysis would be part of the Holocaust survivor’s toolkit: Ever since World War II, false rhetoric and demagoguery have been used sporadically to promote the false idea that the Holocaust never really happened, or wasn’t as bad as claimed.

Ad hominem – this describes an argument “against the person”. This argument form substitutes an attack against the individual promoting an idea, for any discussion of the facts and logic of a case on its own merits.

Example: “Bill says that circles are round, but Bill’s statements about geometric figures have always been a pack of lies. Bill’s claim is false”.

Analysis: By undercutting Bill’s credentials for making this claim, the speaker hopes to circumvent any discussion of the facts that Bill actually asserts.


(a) Assertion is always false or inappropriate. Example: Bill has always been a yellow-bellied, lily-livered congenital liar. Nothing Bill has ever said is ever true. Analysis: An attempt has been made to categorically discredit past, present or future statements by Bill without further examination. See also Poisoning the Well, an ad hominem variant.

(b) Assertion is sometimes true but it does not follow that it is true this time. Example: Bill has been wrong before. Analysis: it does not follow that Bill is wrong this time.

(c) Assertion is always true but conclusion does not logically follow. In the Nizkor example of Ad Hominem, Bill says he believes that abortion is morally wrong. Dave answers that of course Bill would say that, because Bill is a priest. Dave invalidates all Bill’s arguments on the grounds that as a priest Bill has to say abortion is wrong, and further, Bill cannot be believed because he is a lackey of the Pope.

Argument of Intimidation – this is an open-ended variant of the ad hominem. It attempts to intimidate the listener into not joining a class of people who have just been invalidated.

Example: “Only a fool would fall for Bill’s argument”.

Analysis: “You don’t want to be labeled a fool, do you? So don’t listen to Bill”. In Labossiere’s 42 categories of fallacy, this might be the “Ad Hominem Abusive”. Note that there could be an almost infinite combination of any two or more of those categories.

Straw Man – A person substitutes a falsified version of another’s position and then demolishes the false version. This fallacy uses the “bait and switch” tactic in which the argument itself, rather than the proponent, falls victim to the con man’s shell game.

Example: (topic is gay marriage): “What is next? Polygamy? Apparently many of you would already accept this. Consensual relations between adults and minors?”

Analysis: This actual live argument combined at least two fallacies: Straw Man and “Slippery Slope”. (a) The speaker has equated gay marriage with two even more unpopular concepts, one of which is linked by law to child molestation legislation. This is defamation. The speaker previously set a context by denying being a gay-basher or homophobe. The speaker dodged personal responsibility for making any final actual connection between gay marriage, polygamy and child molestation. This was done by the common device of leaving the actual shock conclusion unaddressed. (b) The speaker also infers that if you support the one, or it comes to pass, then you probably would also accept the second or third, which will come to pass also.


Smears, slander and defamation are not steps in the reasoning syllogism, but “set-up” steps often used to attack an argument by misrepresenting the opponent. As such, they are the factual precursor to the actual ad hominem attacks.

If you recognize the smear or defamation for what it is, you can often stop the syllogism in its tracks. The Nizkor Fallacies index page says: “A fallacy is, very generally, an error in reasoning. This differs from a factual error, which is simply being wrong about the facts.”

“Smear” (noun or verb) unusually refers to the intentional distribution of a falsehood, often one of association: false, unfounded or unfair accusation against another individual.

Example: “Michael is guilty, because Paula heard him say he likes to hang out with vampire murderers by the light of the full moon” is slander if Michael never said any such thing, and if Michael was never associated with the class of people in question.

Usage: the message content is emphasized over its source or authenticity. A smear is usually said to be directed against individuals, not groups. “Paula’s smear job against Michael has undermined his ability to receive an impartial hearing.”

“Slander” (noun or verb) is a variant of the smear, more often with emphasis on the intentional falsification by the message bearer:

Example: “It’s a proven fact that Michael murders vampires by the light of the full moon.”

Usage: “I don’t believe Paula’s fabricated story about Michael. It is outrageous slander, and she is a complete slanderer.” The message content is perhaps not as important as its source or authenticity. The victim of slander may be either an individual or a group. “Smear” and “Slander” are seldom far apart in usage.

“Defamation” is a smear or slander applied to members of an entire group, race, nation or culture.

Example: “What else do you expect of Michael? He is from Patagonia, where everybody knows they all murder vampires by the light of the full moon.”

Usage: More than one thing is going on here. The first premise, a false and scurrilous accusation against all who are from Patagonia, defames all Patagonians. The second premise is that Michael, supposedly from Patagonia, is therefore himself a vampire murderer. The third premise is that there is something wrong with you if you expected more of Michael or were thinking about holding out for further examination of the case. The personal making this argument is not even your friend. He is trying to intimidate you, too.

No discussion of the particulars of Michael’s case seems to be required here. If he is a member of the defamed class, as charged, he is smeared by association with the class, and is thus automatically guilty according to this faulty logic. The inference of the arguer here is that if you know about Michael, you won’t even waste our time with silly talk of a hearing and fair trial based on the facts of the case.

Real-world fallacies

As you can see from these few crude examples, a skilled debater who is also unethical can trap the unwashed and unwary into a whole variety of false and unjust conclusions. In many cases the skill of presentation is such that the uncritical listener will walk away with the impression that the debater didn’t actually say or do anything. Worse, in many cases this IS the case; the debater “set up” the listeners, and they jumped to the very conclusions it was intended that they should jump to.

This is like the man who leans over to his neighbor in the crowded theater, and whispers, “I overheard some people in the lobby talking about some kind of fire in the rest rooms.”

We have drawn largely upon hypothetical examples to illustrate identifying features of classroom fallacies. Real-world fallacies are often much more sophisticated (where do you think the word “sophistry” originally came from?) and the damage they do can be much more pervasive.

People whose personal or professional cares and concerns range to civil liberties, minority rights and civic reform need to remain aware at all times that the stakes being discussed and the stakes being affected can be on very different planes of importance and impact. Never assume that “it’s all just so much rhetoric”. It’s the resulting back-room deals that can kill you.

Adapted from the longer La Parola article, Rhetoric 101, ©Alex Forbes, February 29, 2004

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