We’re all more or less familiar with the syllogism. The idea is that we can state premises – with certain rules – and draw conclusions that are logically valid. So we might say:
Major premise: All humans are mortal.
Minor premise: Travis is a human.
Conclusion: Therefore, Travis is mortal.
In this case, the syllogism is deemed valid because the conclusion flows logically from the premises. It’s also considered sound since both premises are demonstrably true. Since the syllogism is both valid and sound, the conclusion is irrefutable.
We often think in syllogisms though we typically don’t realize it. Here’s one that I go through each morning:
Major premise: People get up when the sun rises.
Minor premise: The sun is rising.
Minor premise: I’m a person.
Conclusion: Therefore, I need to get up.
I don’t usually think, “Oh good for me … another syllogism solved”. Rather, I just get out of bed.
We often associate syllogisms with logic but we can also use them for persuasion. Indeed, Aristotle identified a form of syllogism that he believed was more persuasive than any other form of logic.
Aristotle called it an enthymeme – it’s simply a syllogism with an unstated major premise. Since the major premise is assumed rather than stated, we don’t consider it consciously. We don’t ask ourselves, Is it valid? Is it sound? We just assume that everything is correct and get on with life.
Though they don’t use the terminology, advertisers long ago discovered that enthymemes are powerful persuaders. People who receive the message don’t consciously examine the premise. That’s exactly what advertisers want.
As an example, let’s dissect one of my favorite ads: the 2012 Volkswagen Passat ad featuring the kid in the Darth Vader costume. The kid wanders around the house trying to use “The Force” to turn on the TV, cook lunch, and so on. Of course, it never works. Then Dad comes home, parks his new Passat in the driveway, and turns it off. The kid uses the force to turn it back on. Dad recognizes what’s going on and uses his remote starter to start the car just as the kid hurls the force in the right direction. The car starts, the kid is amazed, and we all love the commercial.
So what’s the premise? Here’s how the ad works:
Major (hidden) premise: Car companies that produce loveable ads also
produce superior cars.
Minor premise: VW produced a loveable ad.
Conclusion: Therefore, VW produces superior cars.
When we think about the major premise, we realize that it’s illogical. The problem is that we don’t think about it. It enters our subconscious mind (System 1) rather than our conscious mind (System 2). We don’t examine it because we’re not aware of it.
Here’s another one. I’ve seen numerous ads in magazines that tout a product that’s also advertised on TV. The magazine ads often include the line: As Seen On TV. Here’s the enthymeme:
Major (hidden) premise: Products advertised on TV are superior to
those that aren’t advertised on TV.
Minor premise: This product is advertised on TV
Conclusion: Therefore, it’s a superior product.
When we consciously examine the premise, we realize that it’s ridiculous. The trick is to remind ourselves to examine the premise.
If you want to defend yourself against unscrupulous advertisers (or politicians), always be sure to ask yourself, What’s the hidden premise?
How are Fox News and Michael Moore alike?
They both use the same script.
Michael Moore comes at issues from the left. Fox News comes from the right. Though they come from different points on the political spectrum, they tell the same story.
In rhetoric, it’s called the Good versus Evil narrative. It’s very simple. On one side we have good people. On the other side, we have evil people. There’s nothing in between. The evil people are cheating or robbing or killing or screwing the good people. The world would be a better place if we could only eliminate or neuter or negate or kill the evil people.
We’ve been using the Good versus Evil narrative since we began telling stories. Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics follow the script. So do many of the stories in the Bible. So do Republicans. So do Democrats. So do I, for that matter. It’s the mother of all fallacies.
The narrative inflames the passions and dulls the senses. It makes us angry. It makes us feel that outrage is righteous and proper. The narrative clouds our thinking. Indeed, it aims to stop us from thinking altogether. How can we think when evil is abroad? We need to act. We can think later.
I became sensitized to the Good versus Evil narrative when I lived in Latin America. I met more than a few people who are convinced that America is the embodiment of evil. They see it as a country filled with greedy, immoral thieves and murderers who are sucking the blood of the innocent and good people of Latin America. I had a difficult time squaring this with my own experiences. Perhaps the narrative is wrong.
Rhetoric teaches us to be suspicious when we hear Good versus Evil stories. The word is a messy, chaotic, and random place. Actions are nuanced and ambiguous. People do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons. A simple narrative can’t possibly capture all the nuances and uncertainties of the real world. Indeed, the Good versus Evil doesn’t even try. It aims to tell us what to think and ensure that we never, ever think for ourselves.
When Jimmy Carter was elected president, John Wayne attended his inaugural even though he had supported Carter’s opponent. Wayne gave a gracious speech. “Mr. President”, he said, “you know that I’m a member of the loyal opposition. But let’s remember that the accent is on ‘loyal’”. How I would love to hear anyone say that today. It’s the antithesis of Good versus Evil.
Voltaire wrote that, “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” The Good versus Evil narrative is absurd. It doesn’t explain the world; it inflames the world. Ultimately, it can make injustices seem acceptable.
The next time you hear a Good versus Evil story, grab your thinking cap. You’re going to need it.
(By the way, Tyler Cowen has a terrific TED talk on this topic that helped crystallize my thinking. You can find it here.)