There’s no shortage of opinion online. From established media outlets to blogs (including this one) there’s a cornucopia of opinion. It’s often said that everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but that doesn’t mean all opinions are equal.
Let’s delve into the minds of polemicists and commentators and look at some of the rhetorical tricks they resort to when they’re pushing opinions that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
In the debate about the anti-Trump protests in the UK, whataboutery is the weapon of choice of those who disagree with the protests. Arguments such as, “Why didn’t they march against the state visits from Saudi Arabia or China?” are put forward by almost everyone questioning the marches and the petition seeking to stop Donald Trump having a full state visit.
Superficially, it is a simple and powerful argument. It doesn’t, however, address any of the issues raised by protestors. It’s simply deflection by comparison.
It can also blow up in your face as Piers Morgan learnt recently in an interview with Owen Jones.
Can’t knock down your opponent’s argument? How about attributing an argument to them that you can knock down? The straw man is a newspaper column staple. Just say those you disagree with believe something they don’t and then spend a few hundred words taking it apart.
Ever lacked decent evidence to back up your point? Why not simply recount a personal anecdote and scale it up to a societal insight? Had a bad meal in a chain restaurant? Your experience can’t be unique. Why not scale it up to a problem with that chain in general? Be suspicious of anyone using anecdotes for anything but colour.
Having difficulty building your argument? Why not start by presenting your conclusion and then working backwards from there? This way you can pre-load any supporting premise with assumptions that make it support your point. It also embeds your argument and then everything reinforces it. Even though it’s really weak.
Life can be a lot easier if everything is black and white, good or bad, right or wrong. Life is rarely that simple, and neither are arguments about it. Why not make it simple? Indeed, why not present two options as if they are the only options and then argue your point? Make sure the two options you offer are reasonable (yours) and totally ridiculous (the one you’ll compare yours to).
Ad hominem attacks
If you can’t take down the argument, take down your opponents. Is there something dodgy about them? No? Pick something and make it dodgy, suggest they’re “too clever by half” or that people “have had enough or experts”.
Object to a small change in something? Don’t want to look unreasonably upset about an insignificant tweak? What if it’s not a tweak? What if it’s the beginning of an all out assault that irrevocably ruins the world? Make a mountain out of a molehill.
Think of the children
Trying to argue about something that most sensible adults would take no issue with? What about children? Why is no one worried about the children? Drag in the children. Who’s going to beat you in an argument when you’ve constructed rhetorical human shield of children?
This is by no means a comprehensive list. What rhetorical tricks do you regularly notice in opinion pieces? Which ones wind you up the most?