Fallacies and a Few Fun Techniques

Overview: The goal of rhetoric is to amplify the emotional impact of your argument – sometimes when your evidence or inferences aren’t as strong as you would like. The following fallacies and techniques are powerful tricks, and understanding their names and how they function will help you win arguments, both by employing them to your advantage and by pointing them out if your opponent tries to use them on you, thus rendering them ineffective. If you are a student please remember: These should be used for the forces of good rather than the forces of evil.

1. Ad Hominem – (Latin for to the man) – Attack the person instead of the argument. You might point out that your opponent lacks expertise, that he or she is somehow biased, or simply that he or she is a jerk.

Example: Billy – “Too much homework raises stress levels in children!” Mean Teacher: “Why should I listen to you? You’re just a kid!”

2. Red Herring – Change the subject to something emotionally compelling. This is a classic escape move used by anyone who doesn’t want to answer a hard question or grapple with a tough argument. Politicians do this when reporters ask them questions they don’t want to answer. They just talk about something else.

Example: Billy’s Mom: “I’m so tired of this mess! You promised to clean your room this morning, and look at it! It’s filthy!” Billy: “You’ve never loved me.”

3. Straw Man – Mischaracterize your opponent’s arguments to make them seem shallow and silly, then explain why they are shallow and silly. Politicians paint a false portrait of the opposition. They describe them as having terrible values and crazy positions, then they explain why those values and positions are terrible and crazy.

Example: Billy: “My mom is always screaming at me to be the maid. It’s bizarre. I really think I should be spending more time studying and volunteering down at the old folks’ home. There are laws against child labor for a reason, right?”

4. Obfuscation – Scare off your opponent by burying the real issues in lots of technical mumbo-jumbo. People are always scared that they aren’t smart enough to be debating, so if you pretend to be super-crazy-ultra smart, most people will back down.

Example: Billy: “While homework might raise some basic measures of aptitude, it is unlikely that salient quotients can be ascertained without a promontory of quantum and mitosis-based inquiries into the core polymorphous dichotomies. Do you disagree?!”

5. Equivocation – Using a key term in two different ways to obscure meaning and confuse your opponent. Most words have several definitions, and some words, especially values, mean very different things to different people (see Appeal to Common Values).

Example: Billy: How can homework build intelligence when intelligence is require to simply walk down the street, and everyone learns how to do it without these boring worksheets?

6. Appeal to Common Values – Wrap your position in popular values. Figure out what your audience loves. Is it freedom? Opportunity? Safety? Equality? Whatever it is, repeat that value over and over again. It doesn’t matter that these values mean different things to different people. Your audience will see what they want and associate it with you.

Example: Billy: “Now that I’m running for class president, I need to let you know that I value freedom above all else. I am the candidate for liberty, for comfort, for community, for hope. Don’t you guys like hope? Then you’ll love me. I hope all the time.”

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