Rhetoric and Propaganda

From Logic


Sophistry and the fine art of rhetoric emotionalism? - bah!

I usually leave such nonsense to this robotic roustabout Ever since I began the logic page, I have naturally considered sources that only deal with the subject of logic. Recently, I have decided this was a mistake.

My feeling now is that in order to really delineate logic from other modes of persuasion, I would need to specifically point out the other methods. This has led to my addition of a Sophistry section - on the art of rhetoric.

A little history on the Sophists - the first advocates of rhetoric

The ancient Greek Sophists were the first organized group of philosophers to point out the fallacy of naive empiricism - the natural assumption that what we take in with our senses represents the totality of reality, without error. The Sophists argued that in a rapidly changing and evolving world, no one could get a true reading on reality. As Heraclitus said: How can we know anything in a world that never is, but instead is always becoming something else? While many Sophists, such as Gorgias took this to the extreme of nihilism, denying that anyone could ever know anything (so, how did he know that?), all sophists agreed that our view of reality was at best subjective, prone to error, and not capable of creating certain premises for logical arguments. Today we tend to agree with the Sophists on this point.

Since empirical evidence was flawed at its root, the Sophists claimed that the only valid means of persuasion was rhetoric - an appeal to our emotions. Rhetorical appeals clearly had benifits over empiricism - we could be more certain of our own emotions, and they could be counted on to motivate us to action.

The Sophists took this view to "heart' and became experts in the use of rhetoric, to the point that it irritated their enemies - who then became desparate to find something that could be certain - i.e.: clear, unchanging and perfect, that would be suitable for a premise.

Soon, Socrates would come up with the idea of reals, a mental construct of reality, that suited this need. Eventually, the concept of reals would be used in Aristotles art of logic. Since the school of the rationalists and the empiricists won out over the Sophists, and, as history is written by the victors, the Sophists would come to be seen in disparaging terms, to the point that the words sophistry and rhetoric now have negative connotations, even amongst the common man.

However, to be fair, it should be stated that rhetoric does have a value - and in fact, this is recognized by its still popular use today - mostly in the hands of (not, surprisingly) lawyers and politicians. While the extreme skepticism of the sophists is in disfavor, (Betrand Russell makes the point that I inferred above, that extreme skepticism is merely a dogmatic belief system, and as such prone to error itself) it would do us good to know the methods of the sophists today.

So, in order to better explain the value of logic, and to explain how politicians work, I have listed the basics of what I consider to be the inferior tool of rhetoric here:

Rhetoric - The use of persuasive words to win an argument

There are two general ways to argue, although both forms are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first is through logical argument, the second, through rhetorical persuasuion. In logic, we attempt to convince through logical necessity - if one accepts our premises, they must accept our conclusions. While emotions of course play a part, they are not directly appealed to. When one attempts to persuade as opposed to convince, they rely more on emotion than on logic.

Therefore, in rhetoric, we refers to "premises" as appeals. When one wants to appeal to another's emotions, they call upon different strategies - they attempt to personalize the argument, appeal to our own vanities. Here are some of the most common methods:

Anecdotes, Stories, Metaphors

These cast an issue in a favorable or unfavorable light, or can highlight or suppress certain aspects. They work by suggesting a likeness between a character and the listener, or a situation and the listener's. In logic we see that this appeal often commits the logical errors of the small sample bias, weak comparison, and excluded middle.


One way of getting a child to eat her vegetables is to offer a "choice" "Would you like peas or spinach?" Regardless of the alternative chosen, your desired objective is met. "Which kind of environmental bureaucracy do you want -- one that stifles business and innovation, or one that burdens American industry with impossible extra costs?" In logic we see that this appeal often commits the false dichotomy error.


This works by getting you to accept both parts of a statement because of how they are linked; one part might be reasonable enough by itself, but. . .

"Unless you want the earth to turn to a barren crust, you must oppose corporate capitalist pigs, tooth and nail." In logic we see that this appeal often commits the logical error of false dichotomy or hasty generalization.


How does the author go about building a sense of friendliness and receptivity on the part of the audience? Some methods are friendly introductions ("my friends"), complimenting, showing respect, speaking the speakers 'language,' and conveying optimism. These are important communicative techniques! Rapport is important. We just have to be aware of its use in persuasive contexts. Used car salesmen use rapport. In logic we see that this appeal often commits the Red Herring Fallacy.


A speaker may claim in many ways to be an authority; sometimes external checking of this is called for. Sometimes the "authority" is specious, or openly fallicious. In logic we refer to phoney cases of authority as an "appeal to authority", A perfect example would be "Dr. Laura" who, in fact, does not have a doctorate in psychology, but physiology. (If she attempted to do this in professional practice, she would be sanctioned by the APA)


Humor has a great way of defusing our critical faculties. Whenever Ronald Reagen couldn't deal with facts, he'd make a joke. The most famous case was his uttering "There you go again!" to Walter Mondale during a debate. The fact that Reagen was saying this because Mondale nailed him on a fact he couldn't escape from, was lost to the audience. They prefered the humor of Reagen to the reality of Mondale. In logic we refer to Reagen's use of humor as "missing the point"

Emotional words

Advertisers are especially keen about the emotional qualities of certain words, and the sway they can give a speaker, just by their associations. Consider the possible power of: winner, loser, infantile, powerful, lovely, courage, freedom, radical. How are these kinds of words employed to generate a certain response in the listener? What purposes are served? A fine example would be Newt Gingrich's "GOPAC" an organization that existed to postively define conservative values and negatively define liberal values. One should ask: If conservative values are clearly superior to liberal values, why would a conservative need to create an organization that purposely tried to redfine liberal values with negative words? Is this not a implicit admission from conservatives that both liberal and conservative values are in many way, on an equal par, and that that one must purposely attempt to create a distinction in order to devalue one of them? In logic we see that this appeal often commits the false "emotional reasoning".


How do you move a listener along to your conclusion? Certain phrases help a speaker move us from one idea to another, regardless of whether strong connection or evidence has been established. Don't let phrases like these lull your assessment of the argument: "Naturally..."; "Certainly then..."; "Surely..."; "Without question..." But we must question any of these terms, particularly when we have no proof of the validity of their appeals. In logic we see that this appeal often commits various fallacies of presumption, as well as circular logic and begging the question.


Jacobs points out 3 ways posing questions helps a persuader do her work. 1. A question can substitute for a request (recall the peas and spinach). 2. While a listener is searching for an answer, the speaker can give his own answer to the question. The listener is more likely to accept it than if it were given as an assertion. 3. A question can have a suggestion embedded in it. Sales people skillfully use questions to lead the listener and control the discussion. In logic we recognize that true questions are not logical arguments at all - making them the perfect tool for a rhetorician.


We've all heard "never say never"; any totalizing statement is likely to result in a fallacy. But words like "don't" and "must" creep in and can give a writer's statements and indisputable air. In logic we see that this appeal often commits the false dichotomy error or fallacies of presumption.

An overview of the technical aspects of Rhetoric - Grounds, Warrants and Conclusions

Much of this work is culled from Enviromental Sociology - by J. A. Hannigan

Rhetoric, according to Hannigan, involves the deliberate use of language in order to persuade, without providing logical proofs.

Rhetoric can be said to be based on two methods: One of Emotionalism, or appealing to strong subjective emotional states (during which people usualy don't make the best decisions, wouldn't you agree?) and the second on Aesthetics, or the concept that whatever best appeals to you is what is true. A fine proponent of this is any politician, who usually makes the claim that whatever you yourself desire is what is best for the country. Sounds ridiculous? Well, why do Republicans claim that Tax cuts are the solution to every problem while liberals believe a losening of restrictions is always what is needed? Because they are playing to the aesthetic desires of their constituents! (For more, see philos, dictionary section.)

Now, these emotional and aethetic rhetorical statements contain 3 principal components: grounds, warrants and conclusions. Let's go over them.


Grounds are the data furnished by the speaker to support his cause. This includes:

Persuasive definitions: (Slanted definitions i.e. a person against abortion can be called either a "pro lifer" OR "anti choice" depending upon which side is referring to him or her.)

Unscientific statistics, (often biased, if not wholesale falsified - i.e. Ronald Reagan's use of statistics), and/or

Case study examples - Easily identifiable victims, usually of a rare and extreme nature - i.e. Rodney King beating by L.A. police is held to be indicative of normal police/black populace interaction, or , on the other side, Ronald Reagan's use of a fictitious welfare queen (a complete lie) is held to be proof of the misuse of welfare.

Again, case study examples are shown by psychological study to be extremely convincing, since one personal example bears more weight than a bookload of negating statistics. For proof, try telling a person afraid of air travel that jets are safer than cars. (Also, see my Social Psychology page for more...)

One should note from this open definition, that it is entirely possible for rhetoric to include valid, logical data. Usually, however, even when this is the case, it is often used in emotional or unscientific ways, or along with a conclusion that goes much further than the valid evidence supports.


Warrants are justifications for the speaker to demand action.

Usually, a claim that basic rights have been violated or impinged upon. Two main modes are used:

Rhetoric of rationality

Our sense of logic must compel us to agree. It makes sense for others to agree with the speaker, since they will benefit by agreeing. This is the most valid of rhetoric, because, again, it comes closest to apeing the art of logic. However, while appearing like logic, often rhetoric is tinged with emotionalism, slanted views or unobjective judgements.

Rhetoric of Rectitude

Our values or morality should drive us to agree. No pretense of logic is made - instead, other, more important drives should motivate us, that go beyond logic. Hmmmm...

Within these two basic modes, stereotypes are called upon, called rhetorical idioms:

Rhetorical Idioms

These are schemas or groups of cognitions that one stereotypically has about certain areas of moral significance:

Rhetoric of loss: We are losing our innocence, our ability to enjoy nature Rhetoric of unreason: we are being manipulated by a conspiracy - that somehow avoids are detection - but this is just further proof of its insidiousness! (Hey, if we could detect it, then it wouldn't be a conspiracy, right?) Rhetoric of calamity: Favorite of religion - Deteriorism - the world is falling to pieces and judgement is at hand, therefore, we should change this (but, if it is preordained, can you change it? Or, even, should you??) Rhetoric of entitlement: We have the RIGHT to kick the foreigners out of our country, etc. I haven't made a nazi reference in a few paragraphs, so I will note that our favorite Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, used this technique, to justify his actions towards the Jews. Rhetoric of endangerment: We must build 50,000 nuclear bombs, or the soviets will be feeding us borsch by June. And borsch sucks!

Rhetorical motifs

These methods all use recurrent metaphors - with an unbelievable persuasive power to change others minds, regardless of the reality of the situation. Examples include the claim that aids is a plague, or that the hole in the ozone is a ticking time bomb, or that we are suffering under a worldwide population explosion. They appeal to all facets of rhetoric, from emotional appeal, to moral to logic. The sad truth is that all of us have swallowed more than a few of them whole, without any critical examination!

(Example: - There is no ozone hole - a recolored infrared reading of ozone leaves the THINNING LAYER of ozone clear, making it look to non professionals that no ozone exists over the arctic circle. Aids is not a plague, its a sexually transmitted disease (also, through blood transfusions) and it has hardly killed off 1/2 of the worlds population like the true plagues did, and lastly, the population in Europe is decreasing, and leveling off in America - its only in 3rd world nations where the growth is still quite high (and even there, the population increase comes from longer longevity, not increasing birthrate.) None of this is intended to say these are not problems, its only intended to show that rhetoric causes overstated misperceptions in the cause of rectifying what the speakers honestly feel are horrible problems.


What action is needed to solve this problem. Usually this is simply stated as just agree/vote with/for us, and we will do the job...

How to further delineate Rhetoric from logic - look for "Intent signals"

I've certainly provided you with much already that stresses the differences between logic and rhetoric, but there is yet another indicator. There are things to look for in persuasive language that reveal putative self-serving motivations. Self-interest is fine, but too much of it, especially in the apparent pursuit of helping others, should cause us to question the integrity of the speaker. We call statements that reveal an abundance of self interest "intent signals" - i.e. what someone's real intent may be. Whether the presence of any of these in writing is cause for rejection requires analysis; their presence should call up further examination.

Look for the following themes...

Us vs. Them

Does the speaker see two "sides," with the other side being in some way inferior or denigrated? This happens all the time in environmental discourse, and often tends to cloud the real issues, and impede useful analysis. Many techniques of propaganda employ this technique: name calling, touting how great it is to "belong," using one-sided testimonials of famous people, simplifying issues for slogans, emphasizing being on the right side of the competition.


Although there is nothing wrong with asserting superiority, it can suggest a need that is stronger than the desire to give a sound argument.

Absolute Certainty

Science doesn't provide it; scholarly research doesn't. Mathematics has it, but only within its self-defined deductive systems. When someone asserts they know something with absolute certainty, it can really only be based on self-evidence, faith, or mythology.

Righteous indignation

To quote Jacobs from his text On Rhetoric (1994, p. 74):

When someone is so full of guiltless virtue and vengeance because of "unjust treatment," his information is likely to be biased and inaccurate. Ultimately, this could hurt a worthy cause. Admittedly, what is truth and what is worthy are difficult things to know. But if this is not appreciated by a persuader, it could indicate he has taken an easy path to his position. It shows he may not have carefully analyzed his assertions. It is not likely he has open-mindedly compared his ideas to other viewpoints. The listener should thus question his information.


There are numerous rhetorical devices used in propaganda. Here are the most commonly employed propaganda tools used by Bill O'Reilly:

The seven propaganda devices include:

  • Name calling -- giving something a bad label to make the audience reject it without examining the evidence;
  • Glittering generalities -- the opposite of name calling;
  • Card stacking -- the selective use of facts and half-truths;
  • Bandwagon -- appeals to the desire, common to most of us, to follow the crowd;
  • Plain folks -- an attempt to convince an audience that they, and their ideas, are "of the people";
  • Transfer -- carries over the authority, sanction and prestige of something we respect or dispute to something the speaker would want us to accept; and
  • Testimonials -- involving a respected (or disrespected) person endorsing or rejecting an idea or person.
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