In an age where absolute truth, consistent virtue, and unwavering principle are viewed as figments of human imagination, where relativism and secularism hold sway, and the satisfaction of individual desire is paramount, short personal accounts of incidents or events – known as anecdotal arguments – have largely taken over the Democrats’ debate strategy. Whereas anecdotes have conventionally been long used to exemplify and illustrate the concepts implicit in a general argument, it now seems that they are more and more used, especially by Democrats, in such a way as to become the general argument itself. In grammar, it’s like an adjective that exceeds its place as a simple modifier, arbitrarily becoming the subject or object of the sentence – preempting and unseating the proper figure of speech. The traditional place of a modifier, of course, whether it be in grammar, in logic, or in rhetoric, is to sharpen and delimit an identified concept. But in today’s culture, liberal politicians have made it the concept itself.
Take, for example, a political debate concerning a proposed law. On one side of the issue, the proponent offers reasons to justify its passage; the opposition then attacks those reasons and counters with other reasons warranting its defeat. In the course of sustaining their respective positions, the competing debaters used to be rigidly obliged to recognize certain bounds beyond which they dared not go. A common understanding of certain unchanging ethical and moral principles kept each side “in touch” with the other, limiting the scope of the argument and allowing the debate judges to rule in accordance with pre-determined markers. In other words, the game was logically structured. In order to win it, a player had to shape his arguments to fit the commonly accepted debate structure.
Today, most of the issues in a debate – as posed by Democrats – are less likely to be championed by the demonstration of either adherence to principle, congruence with a universal morality, or traditional ethical positions. The more likely path to be followed lies in a crafty two-fold strategy. First, the argument is saturated with carefully selected stories about individual people, events, or situations designed to emotionally nudge the audience in the direction desired; second, the story is presented in such a way as to convince listeners, readers, or spectators that the proffered anecdote is more than just a single isolated story among many, but is rather the dominating story that not only exemplifies the debate issue involved, but justifies its suggested resolution. This tactic differs from one that simply uses examples or stories to illustrate and bring to life a concept previously justified, analyzed, and rationally presented, one that has been tempered and shaped by criteria commonly accepted by the disputants, the audience, and the judges. Where the facts of a claim are ill-defined, where the logic is defective, where consistency is lacking, or where contrary evidence is ignored, anecdotes will more likely be escalated from their place as supporting modifiers to the more dominant role of ”proof per se.”
Although both political sides may select and shape anecdotes in ways that represent any of a wide spectrum of appeals – ranging from the tightly rational to the openly emotional – the kinds most often used today by Democrats are designed to exploit the sentimental vulnerability of human beings.
We generally view “sympathy” and “empathy” as more or less synonymous. But there are some very important distinctions that can be made between them. They are both, of course, acts of “feeling”; but whereas sympathy connotes sorrow or pity for another’s plight in a given situation, it does not rule out rational analysis of the situation itself, what it is that brought the situation about, its applicability to people other than the individual victim, the history leading up to the situation, and its effect on society in general. Empathy, on the other hand, implies a greater personal involvement, a much more active and integrating process that immerses the observer in the event or incident to a point where he or she may actually don the very mantle of the victim’s emotional reactions. Although such intense personal feelings do not always preclude the possibility of further analytic probing, they do tend to dampen inclinations in that direction, making it less likely that the observer will dispassionately evaluate the situation in terms of its potentially positive or negative effects on other human beings, their institutions, and the public “good.”
It seems clear that those who would carry their arguments on the backs of anecdotes that encourage blind acceptance, exploiting the human susceptibility to sentimentality and over-romanticizing, show disdain for their audience by leading them down what they know to be “the garden path.” Should their opponents attempt to point out important considerations that go beyond the sentimental case in point, those critics will certainly be accused of heartlessness and cold-bloodedness.
It would be impractical to try to describe all the examples of demagoguery that are encapsulated in the anecdotal strategy of the liberal left and how a citizen might parse the campaign message each carries; but by checking the story lines, images, and tag lines of the anecdotes themselves, it isn’t difficult to develop a list. Here are a few illustrations:
- the photo of a young girl with pleading eyes, obviously pregnant, sitting alone in a poorly furnished room across the street from an abortion clinic; the caption under the photo reads “What else can I do?”;
- a video showing a black woman being examined by a physician while she registers heartfelt thanks to a Planned Parenthood operator for caring for her health;
- a magazine article painting a pitiful picture of callous religious efforts to discourage a young harassed woman from exercising her sexual “rights”;
- another video clip of two distraught young men lamenting their inability to marry because of “the hatred and bias” of dedicated bigots;
- a candidate for political office announcing that his “opinion” (translation: “moral code”) on homosexuality has “evolved”, and how “fairness” actually calls for making same-sex marriage the law of the land;
- a newspaper article describing an impoverished family being gouged for rent by a landlord who is portrayed as refusing to carry his share of the country’s tax burden;
- an ad taken in a college newsletter depicting a black sitting forlornly on the steps of the school, with the caption “what happened to affirmative action?” - and so on.
Don’t fall for them!
Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey (Creative Commons)