“That’s just rhetoric!” Like many of us today, Aristotle saw how politicians could use words to manipulate the people. Worried that demagogues might subvert the world’s first democracy, he wrote a guide to using rhetoric for the public good. More than 2,000 years later, students still learn Aristotle’s principles.
In the early United States, the study of rhetoric was seen as a foundation of classical education and essential for government by the people. Today, college students study rhetoric through public speaking courses that are part of their general education requirements. The state of Texas mandates these courses to teach critical thinking so that tomorrow’s citizens can tell sound logic from faulty logic.
In its recent report on Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse, the National Academy of Education defines civic reasoning as “think[ing] through a public issue using rigorous inquiry skills and methods to weigh different points of view and examine available evidence.” This leads to civic discourse about “the challenges of public issues in order to enhance both individual and group understanding,” thus “enabling effective decision making aimed at finding consensus [or] compromise...”
A month ago in this space, I published “An Open Letter to White Evangelicals.” In that column, I argued that “love thy neighbor” means following public health guidelines that protect our community. Three dozen responses, however, illustrate why a lack of civic reasoning produces polarization.
Among reader comments, one faulty logic stood out. That faulty logic is called “allness,” or stating that something is true of an entire class of things. So, did I commit the fallacy of allness by implying that all white evangelical Protestants oppose masking and practice divisive politics? I believe not. “An Open Letter” described a diversity of opinions among white evangelicals and advocated open discussion and a respectful exchange of views.
One commenter, however, typified the allness fallacy. “I can only surmise ... that you support the Dem Party and therefore its platform,” he wrote. “Since abortion on demand is a major plank of that platform how can you quote the bible and say that we must care for ‘the least of these.’” By this logic, all masking proponents are anti-Trump Democrats who support abortion on demand and deny the Bible—never mind that many evangelicals, conservatives and Republicans believe Trumpism goes against their historic values.
To be fair, the allness fallacy is found on the political left as well as the right. But here’s my point. The allness fallacy fundamentally changed discussion of “An Open Letter to White Evangelicals.” The original point about loving your neighbor by wearing a mask was quickly left behind. Once allness was introduced, the exchange was reframed in “either/or” terms.
Allness claims then swiftly spread to both sides. As a result, the thread devolved into trading barbs about abortion, immigration, alleged voter fraud, and the media. Absent civic reasoning, civic discourse became impossible—along with any prospect of consensus or compromise.
This exchange is a microcosm of the polarized politics that divide us today. Is there a solution? Aristotle taught that ethical speakers strive for a “golden mean,” or a moderated balance between logos, pathos and ethos—what we might translate as logic, emotion and character.
Logic must be sound but by itself is sterile, without power to motivate public action for the common good.
Appealing to an audience’s sense of justice and the common good is ethical but arousing extreme emotion is not. And the ethical speaker shows a moral character by putting public interest above personal satisfaction and advantage.
Protecting public health is a common good. So is protecting our tradition of individual liberty. But in that tradition—a tradition as old as Aristotle—freedom is conceived not merely in the negative sense of an absence of restraint. Freedom is also conceived in the positive sense of the freedom to govern oneself to do what is right for the common good.