Here in the Butcher Block Bunker, we have received the transmission of US Rep. Adam Schiff’s response to a personal attack from a Republican member of his committee (most of the news networks have shown the video). Schiff, the Democrat who heads the House Intelligence committee had a choice to make about how to react to the Republican attack, and Schiff chose well. I am neither a partisan supporter of Schiff nor do I agree with a number of his views on public policy; however, I do think the route he chose for his response is instructive. My interest here is not the politics but instead the nature of the rhetoric and the reasoning behind it.
For good or ill, we have known for at least 2000 years (check out Cisero, De Oratore) that there are specific techniques we can use to make our point of view more persuasive. Ad hominem or personal attacks are a coarse, sleazy, and dishonest tactic used by people who don’t want to discuss the issues at hand. It’s like shooting the messenger because you don’t like the message.
Schiff could have chosen to respond in kind, a sort of response would lead directly to things like shouting matches and the impugning of the opponent’s motives. These approaches seldom bring us closer to discovering knowledge. Instead, they shift the basis of the discussion from rational analysis to purely emotional reactions. And this is why ad hominem attacks can be so effective. I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell’s observation that most people would rather die than think, and most people do. Emotional reactions are easy. They don’t require any thought at all. Clear thinking requires some work.
Instead of responding in kind, Schiff chose to view the attack as an opportunity to recapitulate a lot of Trump’s questionable behavior with clear point-by-point argument. In other words, Schiff turned the personal attack into an opportunity to recapitulate the issues. Schiff spent a good five minutes (if not more) reviewing Trump’s flaws and the reasons for the committee hearings. In doing so, he made use of several techniques that are honest and sound.
A couple of the techniques he uses are so fundamental as to seem obvious and not worth commenting on, but they are powerful tools: enumeration and repetition. And Schiff uses a couple other techniques that are more subtle and sophisticated: parallelism and antithesis.
We’ve already made reference to enumeration. It’s the simple listing of items, in this case Trump’s and his associates’ shortcomings, which helps us organize the material in our minds as we listen. It also begins to prioritize the material, with items at the beginning and end of the list getting the heaviest emphasis. The use of repetition also helps by keeping our short-term memory focussed on the message. It has a kind of double effect: it reminds us where we have been and leads us to anticipate what is coming next.
Schiff’s use of parallelism drives the point home by providing a structure that supports the message. The phrases Schiff repeats–“you may think…I do not”–exemplify all three techniques. The fourth technique, antithesis, is like a tolling bell moving us back and forth from this side to that, this side to that. Antithesis sets up counterbalancing claims in the argument: “you may think it’s OK…I do not.”
All of this leads to yet another million-dollar idea that I give to you for free: bumper stickers. Yes, bumper stickers that read, “It’s not OK.” You may not agree with Adam Schiff in this instance, but I do: it’s not OK.