Monday, July 22, 2013

Funny you should say that

Something funny happened the other day. Someone read my post on statistics, and exclaimed an unequivocal "you're wrong!". Which then prompted someone else to enter into the conversation and proclaim "no, you're wrong!".

It is one of these situations where I nod politely and then continue to be friendly to both parties. Separately.

The issue was - is - whether Steam counts achievement unlockage among owners or players. Is it enough to own a game, or do you have to actually play it to be counted? It is a rather obscure point, but significant in context.

The funny thing about me being wrong or not is that it doesn't matter to the post. The general message being that you got to keep an eye open regarding context still applies, regardless of the inner workings of achievement mechanics. And, because it's funny, we now have at least two things to say about rhetoric.

Funny how that works.

The first thing is that this is a very common outcome of any communicative attempt. In general, you try to convey some general point about the world at large. More often than not, you do this by using particular words and examples. As Kant hinted at, the world in general does not say anything in particular unless you point at it, and wherever you are, there you point.

What happens is that after you've said something in general, someone comes along and says something very particular about something very particular. And then the exchange suddenly becomes about this particular thing, rather than the more general thing you're really interested in. And once you're stuck in the particulars, the devil.


Knowing that this can and will happen will make you better prepared. When discussing things in general, you'll know that you have to be ready to refocus whenever things start to derail (unless, of course, the new topic of discussion is more interesting than the old one). You'll have to be rather quick about it, though - it doesn't take long for topic changes to stick, and then you're stuck.

(If you discuss issues of gender in any capacity, ever, you will see this happen very quickly. Keep an eye out - you'll be amazed.)

It also makes you better at proving people wrong. Not in the philosophical meaning of the word, but in the rhetorical. As you've seen, it didn't take long for the two particular people to proclaim the immortal words "you're wrong!", and to get into their respective fighting stances. It also works on a more general level, in that as soon you are able to point to any specific thing and make a reasonable claim that it's wrong, the rest of the argument follows into the category of wrong. No matter how solid the argument may be in every other part, it will be perceived as wrong - and that is all that matters when perception is everything.

It is very possible to overuse this method. Do not overuse it.

The second thing to be rhetorically said about this is that it's a very useful teaching tool. Whenever I want to point out the importance of adapting your general communication to the specific context you're in, I always use the same example: you're never quite the same at a funeral as you are when hoisting a pint of beer on a night out. When at a funeral, you're likely to be somber and low key. When on a night out - perhaps not as much.

The teaching tool is to use particular examples that you know in advance what people will object to. Funerals, for instance, are not always the somber situations that the popular imagination might suggest. They can be all manner of things, in all manner of moods - they can even be quite happy events, in that the community is reminded of all the good times they've had with the person in question.

Knowing in advance that someone probably might raise this objection, it is easy to then refocus to the core message: that it is important to adapt to the context you're in, whatever it might be. And that it's a virtue to keep an eye on the context - it might not always be what you expect.

You know, rhetoric can be quite fun. In general.

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