Episode 2 - Christopher Tindale - Rhetoric, Argumentation & the Pandemic

Sahana: Hi everyone! Welcome to In Limbo Conversations! Today, we have with us Professor Christopher Tindale from University of Windsor. His primary area of research is argumentation theory,rhetoric, and Greek philosophy. We are going to be talking with him about his research work in relation to the pandemic situation going on. Also I have with me, my colleague Alan Isaac. Thank you so much for joining us Christopher. I'll get to the first question.

In the current pandemic situation, there are many debates which are going on- where the sides could resort to using rhetoric. When do you think that the use of such rhetoric could be considered unethical or considered to be a form of manipulation?

Christopher: It's an interesting question because most people think any use of rhetoric is a form of manipulation and so there are elements of rhetorical theory that really recognise and respect those that we're talking to. If we go back to the roots of this in the philosophical tradition, we will go back to Aristotle and Aristotle's Rhetoric and it's quite clear there, at the beginning of his Rhetoric that although he wants to explore every aspect of rhetoric including the exploitative sense of it, he is really addressing the ethical components of rhetorical theory. So, for example, his rhetoric has to be someone who exhibits goodwill- eunoia and has to exhibit virtue and has to exhibit practical reasoning, procthesis, so there's a relationship for Aristotle between his rhetoric and his ethics.

That's quite clear and I think that needs to carry through. That got lost somewhere in the western tradition. Maybe around the time of Petrus Ramus where he started to shift attention to logical theory and was worried about some of the things that went on with rhetoric- but in the recovery of of rhetoric, in the last 50-60 years by rhetoricians and now, by philosophers, there is the need to look at it from, what I think of, still as that Aristotelian tradition- where one treats people with respect- so you give them the full information, you don't try to exploit their weaknesses in terms of only giving them partial information and things of this nature. So, it is a form of really invitational communication- inviting people into a conversation and recognising them as real legitimate audiences- people that are worth talking to. When you engage in that kind of encounter with individuals, you respect them as autonomous individuals that can contribute something to the conversation. That's a roundabout way to address that question. Go back to the roots in our tradition.

Sahana: Generally, there is a power relationship between the speaker and the listener often- like in the case of using a visual image of the hero where we are trying to invoke people towards a rhetoric of care from a rhetoric of struggle. So, there's a certain power relation where people hold the doctor as an authority. So, how do you think the power relation between the participants in a debate, say like a doctor and her patients or a government and its citizens, how does it affect the ability of the listeners to reason?

Christopher: It does affect them of course and few people really look at the inequities in the relationships between communicators that are at work there. So, many of us come from traditions, I know in my own parents for example, had a kind of unthinking respect for authorities- they would never question authorities. Now we've shifted, over the last generation or so, to the opposite extreme where authorities now become subjects of real suspicion and obviously, some of the political voices have encouraged that kind of suspicion.

What's happening now, I think, in this pandemic, that your people are really torn on this because they've been led to suspect the experts to a certain degree but now they're caught up because they need to look at these experts. There is "Well the experts are saying this and that." and they're listening to the experts but they're concerned that there isn't a voice of consensus there. That's a kind of recovery of the ownership of the issue where people are asserting their own authority and the web does this quite readily, of course,it's more egalitarian than many of our other platforms for communication that we've seen before. So, it treats people in a more equal way and allows them to think seriously about the nature of authority here. I talk there in that paper about the rhetoric of care- we have seen how medical authorities have really presented these these arguments by putting forward figures that are recognisable and figures of respect. In that sense, the nurse who wears a mask, she becomes the new hero- the hero of of today whereas in the past, she was just another professional who fell back into the background really.

Sahana: So, if I am someone who does not know much about the Coronavirus- I do not know the the biological aspects of what it means to have the virus, the symptoms- I am someone who does not know how to read the evidence- how to check the research to know if the evidence really matches up to the claims that are being made. For someone like that, what are the kind of fallacies you generally see readers making when they are reading a social media post or a news?

Christopher: Yeah, that's a problem. We're all vulnerable to the inadequacies of our own background. We don't have the information we need and so, we rely on authorities quite readily. I think people fail to recognise that the the whole notion of testimony is crucial to our epistemic lives. We draw on testimony from from very young age- from the earliest age- we draw on the testimony of others- people that we respect- much of what we learn, we learn through these kinds of of sources. So, of course, that also then creates a kind of ideological base or a belief system at work in us so that sometimes there's a clash between what now the culture is trying to present to us- which is the evidence of these kinds of concerns and our own ideological perspectives. I think you see that, for example in the mask debate that's going on where the the actual scientific aspects of that argument are hiding deeper ideological beliefs about freedom- my ability to do whatever I want to do irrespective of what's imposed upon me.

To get to your question, I commit, perhaps, selective fallacies-I only see what I want to see in an issue. I create very quickly straw man- or straw person reasoning- because I assume that what I'm hearing is the same old argument and I jump in very quickly. So, there's a failure to listen there- the failure to listen to the other person. To go back to what I said in response to your first question- to respect the other individual as someone who's worth listening to- I hastily draw a conclusion. I'm committing all kinds of fallacies here- I've got the hasty generalisation- I rush to a conclusion here, I commit some straw reasoning because I assume that the position I'm hearing is a position I know how to caricature. I'm really quite selective in what I'm reading and that feeds from the belief system that has sustained me over time and which is now being challenged.

What we've got is this remarkable situation where everyone in the world is suddenly faced with the same prospects- political authority or no authority at all-they're suddenly thrown into a completely new environment where all the rules have changed and they have to find their way and from a philosophical point of view, that's a really interesting social experiment to watch playing out- you couldn't ethically conduct such an experiment but suddenly the world has created it for us.

Sahana: Do you think that the use of rhetoric since we are using, specifically for the emotions, do you think in some way that makes some people more prone to making these fallacies? Do you think there are certain..like the nature of rhetoric in itself?

Christopher: Well, yes. Unavoidably so. We are rhetorical beings, we're ethical beings, we're political beings, we go back to all the ways in which we are epistemic beings. We overlook the fact that we are rhetorical beings. We are open messages, we are communicators on every level. So, given that that's a neutral aspect of our social being, given that- then yes, we are vulnerable to committing fallacies- to falling into some of the cognitive biases that then lead to fallacies. This is unavoidable- it's part of the the give and take- the giving and taking of reasons in the marketplace of reasons, as Robert Brandon talks about this. We cannot avoid moving into that that marketplace and so, we are going to always be vulnerable. The study of argumentation, rhetoric, philosophical reasoning is important because it allows us to protect ourselves against these these natural risks I suppose.

Alan: Professor, continuing with the theme of the pandemic and the different groups that you tend to see. Like you mentioned in your paper, there are certain groups that try to- correct me if i'm wrong- you can say they're trying to push a narrative or to trying to sort of shape a narrative in certain sense, there's another group that is using their rhetoric to shape a certain other narrative. So, do you see, since your work deals a lot with the audience also, is there a greater awareness of the audience nowadays? Especially with social media, you tend to know who your audience is like never before- probably now you have different parameters to see who they are and the social groups and all of those things. Do you see a lot of that factoring into modern day rhetorical practices in that sense?

Christopher: Yes, absolutely. You can't control the narrative unless you're fully aware of those who are being addressed and those who are going to be influenced or you're trying to influence by what you're saying. That's a real shift for those that have looked at argumentation in the past. There's been a tendency to focus on the product of argumentation, which is an argument. And that's one of three aspects of the argumentative situation-the other is, of course, the arguer, whoever she is or it could be a group and the audience.

When we look at an argument, we lift it out of context and we evaluate it and and talk about whether it has a sound structure and things of this nature, but that fails us in these kinds of situations. You could say "Well you know these audiences here- we have good arguments- they should be persuaded by those arguments" but that's just looking at an argument as an internal relationship of propositions which the logician is able to test and tell us if it's good or bad.

In the actual context of ordinary reasoning, what we find then is- what Sahana mentioned before and you're mentioning now- the emotional aspect comes into play. The character of the audience is crucially important and these are elements that are going to impact whether good reasons are adopted or not. Aristotle made this point and others have made the point that- we have to recognise that some audiences don't get good argument- they don't get it. So, if we're going to interact with them with goodwill, with practical reasoning, these other important components, we need to recognise where they are and appreciate that different audiences are going to respond in different kinds of ways and move from that base. So you start not with a solid argument and then try and put it into a context. You go into the context and look at what's at work there- what are the assumption, what are the belief systems that are operating within that audience- so you have to know that audience. Then, you work from that environment, with the ideas that are already operative there, so we don't reason in a vacuum. And that's often what the logic class encourages- that thought- we take an example and we look at it and is it a good argument? Whereas when we actually reason- there's a history right there and there's a social component to that reasoning. People respond to arguments because of how they've responded to previous arguments, how they think about that issue, how they've been engaged in a debate and that's what we mean by understanding the audience and that has to be recognised and work with as we move forward. The failure to do that is the failure to really address the argumentative situation in what John Austin the speech act theorist would have called the total speech situation. That's what we're looking for.

Alan: Thank you for that professor. That's quite an in-depth look at that, so never thought about that way. So that's quite nice.

I was wondering that in today's world, have you seen any differences that the digital media itself makes to the arguments? Has there been a shift in the traditional sort of senses of rhetoric or is it the same thing, like, say 'on steroids'-is it like doubly amplified? Is there anything new that you see because of the way we both consume media nowadays or consume news and all of these things or is it just the same thing in a different skin?

Christopher: There are very many different aspects and people are really only touching the surface of studying how moving to the internet and the world wide web changes communication generally because it's more difficult to know what your audience is. Some of the theorists I've done some work on, the Belgian philosopher Chaïm Perelman for example and he's quite influential in my own work but he defines an audience as those who the arguer is trying to influence. Now, that means that the arguer has a very specific conception of who his or her audience is- you can't do that on the internet, as we were talking before. The plus of this is that it's more egalitarian environment- it treats people equally. But then, of course, what we recognise is that people don't necessarily have the resources, the background to engage equally and there's also what I have sometimes called with my students 'the Gollum Effect' because they've all watched the movies of the Lord of the Rings and so they know this character Gollum who puts on a ring and disappears and the internet allows you to do that, right? The internet allows anonymity and a dangerous kind of anonymity. So, we become invisible.

We can choose to be invisible, right? Three of us are really quite visible now but we could have conducted this without identifying ourselves. We could have conducted this without video and all kinds of ideas can float around there that don't have real sort of ownership and that's the danger of this. So,now we're dealing with conceptions of audience which are difficult to track down. It's similar to the problem that arises when we look at historical audiences. So when Plato writes, he couldn't imagine us. Plato is writing for an audience. But now, generation after generation to generation, they pick up the Republic and they read it and they understand it for them. But of course, what previous generations understood in the Republic, what we understand and what Plato might have meant intended may be quite different. So, that's comparable to the kind of thing that's now happening in virtual environments where you, the arguer, really does lose control of her or his message material. It comes back to, what I said before, about us being rhetorical beings where we register things which are for us. That's an interesting thing to study and to think about- why I am drawing more to this or to that and that leads us into then a very different study of audiences.

It's a good question as I said. We've, I think, only started to scratch the surface of understanding how moving to in virtual environments modifies a lot of the assumptions that we've made about how communication and argumentation works.

Alan: I think this goes back to what you were saying a few questions before-about context- like especially when you take the Plato's example- Plato had a context, his readers had a context- and even when we read them now, we build up that context in order to follow those arguments. But like you pointed out, in the internet, it's almost impossible in some cases to even have a context and that kind of becomes quite troubling. Yes, I think that makes sense.

Christopher: Context is one of those words/concepts that we bandy around and everyone thinks they understand what it means. But it's a very difficult concept and this sort of illustrates what components make up a context. Again, we're still talking and studying those kinds of things.

Alan: I guess I have one more question, possibly in relation to this. I'm not sure if there's a solution to this question that I'm asking. I would like to get your thoughts about it as somebody who has studied rhetoric and has looked at the audience. Every day, there is something new that comes up with relation to the pandemic, with relation to health regulations or what is safe or what is not safe. Without going into larger issues of truth or post truth and related matters, what are your thoughts on how an audience would react to this constantly changing, this constant flux of information where you're not able to hold on to anything certainly? What kind of long lasting effects does it have, if any, on somebody who's experiencing this?

Christopher: Yes. I think it should have long lasting effects because what this whole situation is doing is challenging a lot of the assumptions about the way so-called ordinary life operates and how we go about our business. We move through whole networks of communication and we make assumptions about what we can trust and what we can't trust and now those assumptions are being challenged- so people have had to become more, I think more wary, they become- I wouldn't say more suspicious- but more skeptical- in the positive sense of skepticism, if we go back to the history of skepticism, where you hold things in obeyance and you're also continuously weighing the strengths of the positions you're getting but you're not definitively closing off. These questions, I think, have the potential of creating a more positively skeptical citizenry who become aware of their need to defend themselves against false information and how they can best do that. It's a turn back to the principles of critical thinking to learn how to become good judges of of information, how to weigh evidence and how to trust sources, assumptions about who qualifies experts, which experts can be trusted. It's really drawing attention to ourselves as autonomous epistemic beings in the social world and how we operate in that environment. The questions and potentially a more positive way forward will follow from this because we've learned that we cannot just accept everything we hear, we need certain kinds of filters-what I think of as critical thinking filters and we need to have them in place and clearly operating.

Alan: So, professor, I would assume that there should be a space for this kind of thing in pedagogy, not just at, say, a research level, when you reach university or something. Maybe we start doing this at a younger age, to our students and kids and get them aware of rhetoric, so that you can ingrain them a bit.

Christoper: Absolutely. Not just rhetoric but critical thinking in what we call , at Windsor, informal logic because the University of Windsor is well known as a place where informal logic has developed and we have a PhD program in argumentation studies and a number of students in that program are interested in pedagogy, in how to take some of the skills they're learning about critical thinking and to put it into the curriculum at various levels. So yes, those kinds of studies are operating and it's not just what we do at our level but how early in the life of the mind can we instil this critical attitude that we're thinking of here. Indeed, the whole program of philosophy for children of course looks at this and there's an important component of critical thinking at work in that movement as well.

Alan: Thank you professor! I think that's that's all the questions I have. Sahana, do you have any questions you would like to ask?

Sahana: No, I don't have any questions. Christopher, thank you so much for doing this with us.

Christopher: I've enjoyed this. When you're asking questions like this and I'm thinking about the answers, then it helps me to clarify my own thinking on some of these things so it's two-way.

Sahana: I would love to see a "Good Reasoning Matters" book about just the pandemic related exercises- full of exercises from pandemic related social media posts and visual images.

Christopher: We are working on the sixth edition right now and we are putting in examples from this situation indeed.

Alan: I was going to ask, do you have any one or two practical things that people can take back in order to deal with the current situation? Like- how to identify misinformation or maybe how to better navigate the flow of information we have?

Christopher: Yes, you have a book and generally, don't go with the first source and don't just read sources that fit your ideological perspective. Try to engage the other position which you might otherwise disagree with, because they are intelligent people on all sides of the debate and..and that's what makes a society interesting right? If everyone thought the same way, you might think, "Yeah, if everyone thought like me, that would be a better world", right? But really- when we give that a little bit more attention, we realise 'No, that's not a world I'd find attractive.'. I want push back, I want people who disagree with me to some degree, within limits of what's respectable there. So yes, I think that's going to be quite important moving forward that we look at the range of positions and way the different reasons that people give, why they believe what they believe. Where they don't give reasons- that's the problems, that's where argumentation debate breaks down. But we can demand of people that they support the positions they they hold.

Alan: Thank you so much for joining us and enlightening us about your research and the pandemic and showing us how to navigate this very weird time that we have. Thank you so much for giving us your time!

Christopher: I've enjoyed it and thank you for taking on this initiative. I hope it's very successful. Thank you.

Read more about Christopher Tindale's research at: https://www.uwindsor.ca/philosophy/327/dr-christopher-tindale.