M C Morgan (mcmorg@VAX1.BEMIDJI.MSUS.EDU)
Tue, 6 Aug 1996 09:59:05 -0500

At 5:05 PM +0000 on 8/5/96, Steve Finley wrote regarding Re: Re[4]: THE
>Re Steve "Pinko" Krause's message about the undesirability of a final
>position that "all is relative":
Perhaps a way to crack this nut is to say that the stuff rhetoric deals
with is located, contingent, and probable. Faith, when taken as an
absolute, isn't a rhetorical matter. Behavior on faith is rhetorical
(that's what preachers are for). "Fact" (How many miles to the sun?)--when
taken as an absolute--isn't rhetorical. Yep (anticiptating responses of,
"Yes, but..."), a good rhetor may be able to crack these bases open, make
them rhetorical--contingent, probable--but the rhetor starts with knowing
what all involved are taking as assumptions or absolutes and works from
there. Is alcoholism a disease, a moral slip, or something else? Start
from the basis that it's a disease and you go in one direction; start with
a moral slip, you go another. In either case, the rhetor attempts to win
agreement with the starting point, aka "proceeds from assumptions," aka
seeks common ground) A good rhetor will acknowledge that those assumptions
comprise one of many starting points and give good reasons for using that
starting point; a bad rhetor will deny the multiplicity, suggesting the
starting point presented is the only Right one. (And to borrow a page from
Richard Lanham, the Good Rhetor is one who speaks as I do.) (And, to stir
it up a little, this seems to be one big difference between repub and
democrat public rhetoric [and UK convervative and lib/labour, too]: the
repubs tend to argue that they have possession of the One Correct Starting
Point; the dems argue that there are multiple starting points.)

Absolute Relativism? Naw. But relativism in another sense.
Assumptions--starting points--are probably relative. What keeps the
starting points, as well as the course of the argument and conclusions,
under control are the multiplicity of arguments that can be
constructed--and that the stuff of rhetoric is located, probable,
contingent. In some scientific circles, one control is the contingencies
of empiricism; the circle attempts to ground starting points in the data.
Any scientist worth her salt knows that the entire discipline works from
assumptions, models, and that all conclusions constructed from those models
are contingent, probable, and based on assumptions that could be argued.
(Here, I will avoid a spurious remark about some cognitive psychologists
who forget this principle.) But rhetoric makes no claims to the absolute.
That's the sphere of dialectic.

> And I
>absolutely, positively cannot stand the idea that "it's all just a
>matter of opinion"; I was having this exact discussion with someone
>just the other day, and I was protesting the Oprah-esque notion
>(espoused by her studio audience, and others) of "who's to say?", as
>in, "Who are you to say that being a transvestite Satanist
>skinhead who molests animals is bad? I mean, as long as they're not
>pets or anything?"

I'm behind you on this one. The way out of it, for me, is to ask, "Ok,
would you invite this transvestite Satanist skinhead who molests animals to
a party? Would you let him/her play with your stereo?" I could argue that
_Finnegans Wake_ is a message from space aliens, and you might write me off
with, "That's your opinion." But you probably wouldn't take me seriously.
If I argued that in a lit class, you damn well better not take me
seriously: the context demands arguments appropriate to the classroom--
even though they are probable and contingent.

The problem I see in the "all is opinion" move, the absolute relativism
move, (which I read as a kind of argument, meaning "Who gives a rip?" or,
more seriously, "You haven't made a case for the importance of your case.")
is that it tries to deny weighing arguments--tries to deny thinking about,
considering, discussing, or in any way entertaining alternatives. It
makes rhetoric unnecessary. Heck, it makes all communication--including
Oprah--unnecessary. When that position rears its head (jerks its knee, is
more like it) in the classroom, I draw it out to absurdity, suggesting I
won't have to comment on papers or give grades--since a grade is "just a
matter of opinion" anyway and so meaningless.

There are probably better approaches (counter arguments) to the "all is
opinion" position, but they all rely on demonstrating the importance of the
position one is arguing. "Just your opinion" is a signal that the rhetor
has failed to demonstrate a reason to value the position argued. Oprah is
a lousy rhetor if she lets her audience get away with writing off the
ethical/social stances they carry by saying "Who's to say? Who are we to
judge?" One starting point is, "You are, Jocko. So, what *do* you say?
Voice it. Put it on the table. Get it out in the open so we can discuss

Back to the original question and request for teaching rhetoric: A
suggestion - Listen to Ray Suarez on "Talk of the Nation," NPR, Monday -
Thursdays. (The broadcasts are available through RealAudio at the NPR site
( Suarez is a master rhetor/moderhetor. He doesn't
let anybody get away with "Who's to say?" It's a real lesson to listen to
the variety of arguments and how the guests and phoners-in construct
alternative arguments in response.

M C Morgan,
Ass't Prof English
Director of Writing Resource Center
Bemidji State University
Bemidji MN 56601