First published on 19 Dec 2012. Updated on 19 Dec 2012.
Anyone can win an argument by being right, but as generations of politicians, newspaper columnists and talkback radio hosts have demonstrated, that’s for losers and scientists. It doesn’t matter whether what you’re arguing is correct – what matters is that you win.
So what are the best ways to avoid clambering over all those pesky “facts” and reach the lofty peaks of the moral high ground? Here are three handy rhetorical ski lifts.
Ad hominem attacks
“Ad hominem” means “to the person” and the idea is to argue that an argument is bad because of the person proposing or supporting it rather than because the argument itself is weak. It’s all about casting aspersions on a person’s motivation or credentials (“You say smoking is bad for you, but you didn’t even finish school! And you’re a smoker yourself!”), forcing them to defend themselves rather than pursue their line of argument. You can even do it pre-emptively in a move called “poisoning the well”: “…and now we’ll hear from my opponent, the convicted shoplifter.”
Begging the Question
This is a trick where the argument implies its own correctness without actually making any sort of case for it. For example: “letting people eat addictive substances like jellybeans means we’re going to end up with jellybean addicts” – the premise is the same as the conclusion, so it in no way bolsters the argument. But it appears to, and that’s the main thing.
Politicians love this one, and with good reason: it can be used as an ad hominem attack and only the very brave and clearheaded can slash it down. Ask your opponent “Have you stopped downloading child porn?”: both a yes or a no answer imply they’re a perve, so they’re going to spend valuable time arguing that point rather than whatever it was that you were discussing initially. Again: win!