Monday, June 15, 2009

Simple Analysis for Everyday Life

There is a fundamental, primary skill that I believe every human being should possess, if he or she is to avoid as much suffering and anguish as possible.

It is a skill based in intellect, and I observe that it has never been taught to most of my fellow humans.

The fancy term for this skill is rhetorical analysis. Though I've taught a rhetorical analysis unit at the University of Arizona, I'm hardly an expert. But I did see the effect that learning this skill had on my students, which I'll get to in a minute. For now, I'll summarize what this skill does.

Essentially, when you hear a speech, or an opinion, or see an advertisement or look at almost anything containing text, symbols or a "message," you do not accept it uncritically. What I mean by this is that before you metaphorically consume something, you evaluate it--a "sniff" test, if you will.

With this skill in practice, you should be able to determine what someone is *really* saying, what they are trying to convince you to do, whether they are telling the truth or using bad logic or an appeal to your emotions, and whether you want to accept the premise and argument as sound.

In school, you ask these questions, but they are good for life, too. My students, whom I mentioned earlier, entered my class largely willing to believe what they heard or saw. They accepted speeches as factual, arguments as persuasive, and advertisements as effective. While this makes life seem smooth and easy, it results in a person being deceived, and worse, acting according to the deception much of the time.

Poor rhetorical analysis in a targeted audience is the dream of every marketer, politician, scam artist and intellectual fraud.

The good news is that you don't have to be a victim of these hucksters. The good news is that you can ask them questions, and work to uncover facts and realities and motivations, all of which allow you to live a more conscious, intentional life. And this is what I saw in my students. Once they could penetrate the smoke and the veils, they were awakened to how often they were being lied to, defrauded, convinced to behave contrary to their true principles. Indeed, this kind of analysis often helps reveal to you what your true principles are.

Like my students, I used to be far more willing to uncritically accept what was hurled my way. And life was easier, in that I didn't feel as though I had to think as much about what people told me. I trusted.

But that trust was given to the undeserving, and while you might consider me naive and blameless, I might argue that my ignorance and participation in the charade had no good excuse and in fact caused harm.

So, what I recommend to you all is to ask the questions. Chances are your emotions have already been telling you things seem off, but can't tell you the full story. Adding this kind of analysis to the messages around you will bestow on you a clarity of thought that cannot be bought or even valued. This is priceless, and essential.

For me, there is a transparency to the world and its actors, and it is a burden lifted. Someone is lying to me or using bad logic? Why trouble myself over her efforts? Someone wants me to buy something, but now I can ask myself if I want it or if they want me to want it. I can protect myself from a lot of negative actions--both others' and my own--just by taking a few moments to penetrate the rhetoric.

So what are the basic questions? This is my list for getting started:
  1. Who is the messenger, and what is his credibility or authority?
  2. Who is the message intended to reach? In other words, who is the targeted audience?
  3. What does the message hope to achieve? To inform, persuade, motivate, enrage, etc.?
  4. How is the message constructed? In other words, does it use facts, emotional appeals, logic, comparison, etc.?
  5. What is the message? In other words, what is the argument or thesis?
There can be more to it, of course, and one can go deeper into a message, but if you feel like you need clarity in your thinking, these five questions are a fine place to begin.

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