When we hear many politicians try to add weight to their arguments, they often will add references to their own lives, “I served in the Army for 20 years,” or “Having been a lawyer for 35 years.” In this way, they seek to promote their argument through the weight of what they possess. One of the most common that was used by Congressional Republicans in order to prove they are not misogynists like Trump was to bring their “wives and daughters” into their argument. This is a technique that I like to call rhetorical quantifying, a way of attempting to prop up a fairly weak, or entirely unoriginal argument by showing how one’s relates to the topic, whether it be through family, friends, acquaintances, or personal possessions.
I’ll be completely honest; this tactic really annoys me. A valid argument will always be able to stand on its own without the help of some extra quantitative fluff. It doesn’t matter that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is married to a woman, nor that he has a daughter, what matters is that his argument is valid. Yet what makes this tactic go by with so little press is that the general public has largely accepted it. People in all situations will attempt to bolster their position in a discussion, argument, or even a fight by trying to show how much better they are than someone else.
On Saturday, at the height of the chaos unleashed by White Supremacists on Charlottesville, Virginia, a 20 year old from Ohio named James Fields drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors killing one and injuring nineteen others. Upon hearing the news from reporters, his mother in the spur of the moment used this same technique pointing out that her son “had an African American friend.” While she was certainly in the early stages of processing all that her son had done, and the fact that he will quite possibly spend the rest of his life in prison, the way in which she attempted to counter his white supremacist actions by bringing his African American friend into the conversation shows the weakness of this argument. It does not matter that he was friends with someone who is not of European descent, what matters are his intentions and actions.
Rhetorical quantifying rests heavily upon two particular issues, firstly the use of non-consequential evidence within an argument, that is mentioning one’s connection to a certain group of people or things in an attempt to bolster one’s argument and secondly the inherent possessiveness of quantifying. In regards to the argument itself, both issues are inevitably overshadowed by the fundamental reality that quantifying distracts from the main argument. A listener who should be paying close attention to a politician’s weak denial of misogyny is instead distracted by the sudden appearance of all of the female members of that politicians’ nuclear family.
Rhetorical quantifying is just one of many tools a speaker can use to distract an audience away from a main point that might be rather unseemly. Though not as irritating as pivoting, an art form exhibited beautifully by Senator Al Franken on The Late Show on 1 August, rhetorical quantifying is a tried and true way to avoid answering the question and attempt to cover one’s tracks. Undoubtedly there will be those in Congress and in many state houses across the country that will use rhetorical quantifying to distance themselves from any of the white nationalist groups that partook in the rally this weekend in Charlottesville. Yet while they may gather together all of their connections to both religious and ethnic minority communities, these individuals will still be wolves in sheepskins.
Rhetorical quantifying is a deceptive tool used to distract. Yet it is a deception that has become so commonplace we hardly notice it. We should consider our arguments carefully and consider whether what we say contributes or distracts from what we are arguing. In my book, rhetorical quantifying is a quasi-boastful tactic to be avoided at all costs.