instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It's never just the facts

In a post arguing that many of the reasons people hated President Bush are also reasons to hate President Obama, the Anchoress offers the following example:
You hate Bush because "he tortured people!"
All indications are that the torture was very limited in scope and that -- whether we are comfortable with it or not -- information gleaned through waterboarding saved lives. But the thing is, after making a big noise about "ending" torture, Obama has still left the door open even if it's just the tiniest bit, to its use, if needed. Why don't you "hate" Obama?
Now, I don't find the political question particularly interesting. I'm not even directly concerned at the moment with her apology for Bush's torture policy; it's of a piece with her past writing, and the fact that someone hasn't changed her mind in the past five months on a topic that's been in the news for years isn't noteworthy.

What I do find interesting is the lesson in how to argue counter-illustrated by her subsequent defense in the comments against someone who points out that the Church teaches torture is gravely immoral:
I wasn't talking about Gauium et Spes or anything Catholic, and I wasn't "excusing" anything; I was simply putting out the facts as we know them, as part of a much larger discussion.
Whatever she may have intended in writing that sentence, what the Anchoress did was not "simply putting out the facts as we know them."

What she did was put out two facts as we know them -- a) "the torture was very limited in scope"; and b) "information gleaned through waterboarding saved lives." (Not everyone accepts these as facts, but that's a separate discussion.) Both facts are circumstantial; that is, they deal with the circumstances in which our government tortured prisoners, not with the act of torture itself.

There may be people who opposed Bush's torture policy just because it wasn't limited enough or just because information gleaned through waterboarding wouldn't save lives. From my reading, though, I'd say the majority of the opposition was based on the nature of the act of torture itself.

The nature of the act of torture is one of the facts as we know them that the Anchoress did not put out here. The legal and social histories of torture offer many more facts as we know them which also went un-put out.

Of course, even if it were possible, there's no binding requirement that every single fact about torture as we know it be put out whenever the Bush torture policy is mentioned.

Let us not, though, think that to select the handful of facts used in an argument, or in communication in general, is an unbiased act. All communicators, and particularly the professionals, should be able to answer the question, "Why have I selected these facts and not those facts?"

If there's no reason, omit them.

It's also worth noting that rhetoric functions the way it functions, not the way the author says it does. In this case, for example, the selection of circumstantial facts that reduce moral culpability functions as a partial apology or excuse for an action, whether or not the writer says that was her intent.