School Choice & the Irresponsibility of Choiceless Rhetoric

“Since rhetorical proof is never a completely necessary proof, the thinking man who gives his adherence to the conclusions of an argumentation does so by an act that commits him and for which he is responsible.” The New Rhetoric, 62

Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca offer argumentation as an alternative to the false certainty of the ideologue who believes despite contrary evidence and the skeptic who will not believe even with evidence (62).  When we engage in persuasion, we take on responsibility for putting forth and responding to arguments knowing that certitude cannot be found.  We try to convince others when we believe we are right, but our position is not “right” in a way that is obvious and incontrovertible to others (or else we would not need to turn to argumentation).

There are of course different standards against which we can judge arguments to be responsible–standards of consistency, evidence, politics, and ethics.  However, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca identify a more basic sense of responsibility that can be lost amidst these standards.  Arguments are responsible to hearing and responding to other arguments.

No matter how good our reasons are, they are never “compelling reasons” in the sense that others will be unable to object (514).  Yet all too often in trying to put forward the most persuasive case, people produce arguments that deny the existence of alternatives.

Today’s Austin American-Statesman offers a couple of examples from a school board meeting.  The board heard public comment on whether IDEA charter schools should take over two Austin public schools:

IDEA student Debbie Fuentes, who touted IDEA’s benefits, told board members that “it hurts to know that people do not want to accept IDEA’s help.”

The Austin district media team, which was tweeting during the meeting, posted only positive comments about the IDEA proposal.

The second example, selectively posting only positive comments, clearly evades acknowledging different opinions.  The choicelessness conveyed by the first example, though, is more difficult to see, though it is no less problematic.

Fuentes is no doubt sincere in her belief that IDEA can help improve education, but that is the very matter under dispute:  can IDEA help?  In assuming that IDEA does help, in arguing as if everyone else must agree that it helps, Fuentes avoids having to respond to those voices critical of IDEA’s merits.

At moments like these where one discussant avoids his/her responsibility to other positions, the debate can quickly derail.  In this case, the question of the quality of IDEA’s program can shift to whether IDEA’s critics threaten the quality of Austin children’s because they are too stubborn to accept help.  Once the argument shifts onto the moral character of the participants, the debate over the merits of policy can be lost entirely.

About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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