Friday, September 28, 2007

Analysis of Stem Cell Research Campaign Ad

We've all seen the Claire McCaskill's campaign ad from last year with Michael J. Fox, right? In case you haven't, it's on YouTube.

The obvious enthymeme here is Vote for Claire McCaskill because she'll support stem cell research.

But certainly there's a lot more going on. Why, for instance do we need a famous actor like Michael J. Fox in order to tell us that McCaskill is pro-stem cell research? We need only look at Jim Talent's voting record to see that he (as Fox says) not only opposes funding, but also tried to make the research illegal in Missouri.

So Fox is here to be a sign of what stem cell research can do. McCaskill appeals to our pathos. Seeing the star of Teen Wolf unable to control his movements, we're moved to pity and we want to believe that stem cell research can help real people that we feel a connection with.

So the ad contains the premise that supporting stem cell research can help treat people like Michael J. Fox. And the premise that supporting Claire McCaskill is supporting stem cell research. One unstated assumption is that we ought to support stem cell research if it helps people like Michael J. Fox. Another is that supporting stem cell research should be done through electing advocates to the US government.

The ad actually ignores the main claim of those who oppose (human embryonic) stem cell research: that it destroys human life (or potential human life, or the sanctity of human life). The question is, does the ad address those who accept that claim? If so, then it has to also contain the assumption that the destruction of embryos is justifiable, either because they are not life or because they are less important than people like Michael J. Fox. That, or McCaskill hopes by not mentioning the issue, people will forget about that objection because the painful-to-watch image of a familiar face and voice behind erratic movements caused by over-medication is much stronger than that of petri dishes in a lab.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Why is Plato's Gorgias so agreeable?

Would Plato lie? Sure, he's only human. Lots of people find it hard to follow their own ethical principles. But is the Gorgias so deceptive that Plato couldn't have fooled himself into thinking it was okay? Because clearly Bruce McComiskey is right about the real Gorgias being less likely to assent to everything Socrates would have said. Gorgias was an accomplished rhetorician, so even if Socrates caught him in a few contradictions, it seems he would at least have had a better response than "Apparently" any time that Socrates asked him a question that would make Gorgias look stupid. Like a modern politician, Gorgias would likely have refused to be backed into a corner with a yes or no question, preferring instead to simply state his beliefs in his own words, perhaps even putting Socrates on the defense rather than letting Socrates control the debate.

I find McComiskey's argument unconvincing when it portrays Plato as willing to do anything to stop the democrats. I can accept that Plato strongly opposed democracy. But how involved did Plato really want to get in politics? Did he see the Gorgias as a rhetorical piece, designed to persuade people, or did he see it as a philosophical piece, designed to demonstrate truth? I simply don't see enough evidence to believe that Plato wanted the Gorgias to be rhetorical to see him as misrepresenting sophistic arguments in order to see the end of democracy.

What seems most likely to me is that because Plato saw truth as being singular and universal, he believed that sophists really would have to assent to Socrates's arguments (if they listened to him and let him set the terms of debate). If they answered yes or no questions reasonably, even sophists would have to agree with Plato.

Work Cited
McComiskey, Bruce. "Disassembling Plato's Critique of Rhetoric in the Gorgias (447a-466a)." Rhetoric Review 10.2 (1997): 205-216.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Spelling news

Just thought you English-y types might be interested in the decline of the hyphen reported by Reuters:
Thousands of hyphens perish as English marches on | Reuters

Personally I find hyphens confusing when they're part of the established spelling of a word (as opposed to clarify what word is modifying what). I'll be back to talk about kairos in a few hours.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

How Important Is Aspasia's Personal Life?

I had one more question in my pocket for the discussion Tuesday which no one picked: What to you make of the attention given to the biographies of rhetorically important women (Sappho (22), Aspasia (36), Diotima (44))? How important is it to understand the historical reality of the lives they led as opposed to their rhetorical practices and theories? Perhaps I should take the hint that the question wasn't that interesting, but I can't really help it. I wanted to talk about our obsession with women's personal lives.

It makes sense that we talk about Aspasia's personal life, since we don't really have anything of hers to read. She was notable for affecting notable men, so her relationship with Pericles is certainly important. And since Aspasia has gotten some flack for not adhering to the role of an Athenian wife, I can understand that we want to free her from charges that she was a prostitute. Still, how important is it, really, whether she was a prostitute or not? When I read about rhetoric, do I really expect to learn whether Cicero was sexually pure? Bizzell and Herzberg seem intent on confirming that Aspasia was no whore--that even if she were a prostitute, it was due to the social roles of the time (57). They seem to suggest that she really would have married Pericles (making her a proper woman), but since the law didn't allow foreigners to marry Athenian citizens, she was his official concubine (57). I was really worried there for a second that I might have been reading about a woman who didn't live up to my moral standards.

Now let me be fair: I understand that we don't want to let ancient Greek jokes obscure what we might otherwise be able to learn from Aspasia. But I'm just not sure that focusing on the sex lives of influential women is always called for, even when we're trying to help.

Works Cited
Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg, eds. "Aspasia." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Ties to the Present. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 56-60.

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1997.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Dissoi Logoi actually analyzes arguments

I'm not entirely sure whether we were supposed to read Dissoi Logoi, but certainly it fits in with the our other readings for the week. I find Dissoi Logoi interesting because the arguments are simple, yet it's hard to tell if the writer actually backs his own conclusions or whether he's offering them up as something to think about. The section about good and bad seems somewhat weak, with supporting examples about how it is "illness is bad for the sick but good for the doctors" (48), because most doctors would be hard-pressed to argue that they'd prefer more illness in the world. Without illness, a doctor would simply find another profession (and enjoy life without illness). The section about seemly and shameful acts is much more convincing.

Seemly and shameful don't seem quite as tied up in our sense of absolute ethics. It's easier to admit that something is only shameful based on your perspective than it is that something is only bad based on your perspective. Not only perspective, but also context figures into the arguments about seemly and shameful behavior. It seems reasonable to conclude that having sex in one's bedroom is entirely appropriate, but that's not the case if you move outside (49). I'm not so sure I agree that a wife ought to decorate herself "with white lead and wear gold ornaments" (50), but luckily the writer goes on to explain how different cultures have differing ideas of what is seemly.

Strangely, however, the writer goes on to conclude that "all things are seemly when done at the right moment, but shameful when done at the wrong moment" (50). I wonder about the translation of the word "moment," because "moment" implies an issue of time, yet most of the examples so far were of place or social situation. This conclusion is absurd--simply because context plays a role in determining whether an act is shameful doesn't imply that every act can go either way, which becomes clear when you become more specific: "In Sparta it is seemly for girls to exercise naked, in Sparta it is shameful for girls to exercise naked" (51). Honestly, I'm impressed at this writer's ability to actually analyze arguments instead of beat people over the head with them.

Works Cited

Dissoi Logoi
. Trans. T. M. Robinson. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Ties to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 48-55.