When I know I’ve beat you

By far and away the most common emotionally-based rhetorical tactic I see employed is reflection. It’s a perfectly valid rhetorical tool when used the right way, but most people tend to use it in more of a “Nuh-uh! I am rubber and you are glue!” sort of way. Let me explain.

Think back to when John Kerry said he voted for a bill before he voted against it. It was a political flub that rhetorically made him look awful. Even if he could have logically justified his voting record through simple distinctions or nuanced discussion, it didn’t matter. (Please don’t discuss the specifics of his votes.) The Bush campaign and other Republicans picked up on the phrasing, mocking it endlessly. It was effective. That is the best way to use reflection.

Now take the comment section of this post from back in my May. The person I was ‘debating’ constantly used my language, either using my phrases or emphasized words. I believe I referred to what he was doing as projection, but reflection is the more accurate term. (See my breakdown of his reflection here.) And he was doing it wrong. He wasn’t trying to mock me, but rather he just wanted to use my vocabulary and rhetoric. What that says to me – and what it always says to me whenever someone does it – is that I’ve gotten my points across in a way that grinds at his argument. As I discussed with a psychology grad student friend of mine, this is almost certainly due to some sort of bitterness. It’s sort of like when something embarrassing happens to a kid in grade school who in turn tries and do something more embarrassing to someone else. Or, equally, when a kid drops his ice cream on the ground, so he goes and knocks his brothers’ ice cream down too. Something negative happened to a person and that person wants to reflect that negative thing onto someone else in order to make himself feel better.

Now let’s turn to a more current example. In the comment section of PZ’s post about the Elevatorgate USA Today article, I jumped in and made the same point I made in my recent post: PZ is lying when he says it isn’t his side that caused this nothing-story to be a big fuss. Now before I get to the reflection that quickly took hold in the responses, I want to note something PZ said in his original post:

I had no idea we had such power [to blacklist people], and I don’t recall ever posting a list of people we should not invite to meetings…whereas the other side has been positively shrill in demanding the immediate excommunication of “radical feminists”.

Emphasis mine.

PZ knows this is a gendered word and he knows if a man used it to describe any woman, whether it was accurate or not, a shit storm would pursue. He has intentionally used the rhetoric of the other side because it makes him feel better.

But now to the comment section. Remember, I called PZ a liar here (the only time I am likely to do so). Now let’s take a look at some of the comments:

If your contention is true, you can surely cite and/or quote repeated instances of this.

(Go to it, or let it stand that you’re a bold-faced liar)

Michael Hawkins, you’re worse than wrong, you’re a liar who is wrong.

Look what a lying fuckwitted liar just said.

(The first two quotes are from John Morales. The third is from Nerd of Redhead.)

The entire point of calling me a liar is because I have upset these two users by first calling PZ a liar. That is a negative thing which has happened to someone they like, so they have sought to have that same negative thing happen to the person who initially caused it. But that childishness isn’t the best part. No, even better than that is the fact that John Morales is calling me a liar on the basis that I’m just making up PZ’s claim that the Watsonites have been the calm ones. Not only is that the wrong argument to take since it shouldn’t even be in the least bit of dispute (he should be arguing that PZ’s side has been the calm ones, or at least that PZ really believes what he has said), but the guy even went so far as to dig up an old post giving explicit credence to my claim. So apparently I’m a liar, even though John Morales has found direct evidence to support what I said. I would mockingly call him a liar (thus using this piece of rhetoric correctly), but I just think he’s stupid.

Watch for rhetoric like this, though. I used to see it a lot from a few conservatives on my friends list, and that’s when I knew I had basically won the argument. (Whether or not I was right is a different issue.) Of course, it isn’t particular to any ideology – my focus in this very post comes from a liberal blog – but it is almost always telling. If the person isn’t using this rhetoric correctly, he is using it because he wants to make himself feel better for having his argument/position verbally tossed around.

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2 Responses

  1. Myers’ pharynguloids don’t think any more; they’re just a Greek chorus now.

  2. I didn’t know they ever thought, but they seem worse now than I’ve ever seen. Nerd of Redhead is particularly pathetic. Though I’ve never tangled with him myself I’ve seen his repeated baseless and valueless insults (only towards those who go outside the party line, he’s loyal even if he’s a bitter troll) and boasting about being a “Final degreed” doodad.

    PZ Meyers is a pseudo-skeptic, and pseudo-rationalist, and his readers don’t even try to pretend to be either, they just wear their partisan colours on their sleeve then insist over and over that they are being rational and skeptical by agreeing with the party line.

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