Rhetoric – Association

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Language

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s surprise best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow describes the human mind as separated into a lazy but powerful slow half that processes information deliberately, and a much-more-frequently-used fast half that spends much of its time associating one thing with another.

You can read more about his arguments here, but for purposes of this discussion our fast, associative processor is why hearing any song we’ve not listened to in a while will immediately trigger memories of the last time we heard it, the first time we heard it, the embrace of someone we danced to it with, and these memories will trigger further associations without any conscious choice on our part to think about these subjects.  Similarly, if I simply say the seemingly arbitrary words “banana” and “vomit,” a host of images will flood your brain, triggering actual physical sensation (such as queasiness and a bad taste in your mouth).

The power of association is one of the reasons why it plays such a huge role in human discourse, especially the kind of persuasive discourse you find in politics.  For example, we are endlessly trying to associate our causes with words and people who possess positive connotations while simultaneously implying negative associations to our adversaries.

This is why we live under a government, while they live under a regime.  It is also why during a BDS battle, the fight is often over who gets to be the “grassroots movement working together with a network of partner organizations worldwide” vs. “a group of single-minded partisans taking orders from people with no connection to the community.”

This phenomenon also explains the desire to attach one’s own cause with unassailable individuals (the fight between pro- and anti-Israel activists over the legacy of Martin Luther King being the best example readers of this blog will recognize).  For whoever can convince an audience that they (and not the other guy) represents the traditions of King or Nelson Mandela or Gandhi, the more likely they can associate that aura of virtue to their own agenda.

Another associative rhetorical device is the Association Fallacy, more commonly known as “guilt by association.”  This is where the (usually negative) qualities of one thing are implied to be inherent in another associated thing.  For example: “My opponent is in favor of tight monetary policy.  The Nazis were also in favor of right monetary policy.  Therefore, my opponent is just like Hitler.”

Usually, guilt by association is a bit more subtle than this (although association with Nazism became so commonplace in the age of Internet debate that it ended up popularizing a less-known fallacy called Reductio ad Hiterism).  But it is one of the most commonplace rhetorical techniques you see applied by (among others) BDS activists to avoid confronting topics they’d rather not discuss.  This is why attempts to counter this or that BDS point so frequently end in an accusation of “sounding just like a right winger” or “Likudnik,” especially in front of an audience that perceives itself on the left end of US or Israeli public opinion.   The hope is that if they can associate their opponents with someone the audience doesn’t like, this frees them from having to answer any genuine questions or challenges.

There is a final example of associative rhetoric that, while not unique to the BDS movement, is so integral to that effort that it needs to be highlighted. For, if you think about it, the entire BDS project is built around trying to associate the boycott and divestment cause with the positive brand of a respected institution (such as a major university or centuries-old church).  In fact, without such associations the BDSers can claim to represent nothing more than themselves (which is why they fight so feverishly to bring one or more of these groups over to their cause – by any means necessary).

This desire to speak in the name of others is also why groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (to take my favorite general example of practitioners of rhetorical excess) spend so much time putting their own opinions between quote marks (usually associated with rabbis or third parties not necessarily directly connected to their organization).   The (accurate) assumption behind such a move is that such words would have less power if delivered in the name of a partisan group.  But if they can come out of the mouth of someone outside of their group (or someone with a title – such as rabbi – which implies authority and connectivity to ancient legacies and traditions), they will sound more neutral and, thus, objective.

As with so many rhetorical techniques, devices that leverage our uncontrollable tendency to associate are most effective when harnessed to logical arguments based on accurate facts.  But problems arise when they are used in place of logic and fact (which they so often are when coming out of the mouth of BDS champions).  While such verbal tricks can work for a while (and may be effective with certain audiences), they tend to come off as manipulative and dishonest when an underlying lack of logic or honesty is exposed.

Our desire to think the best of people can easily turn to outrage when it becomes clear that someone is trying to play us for suckers.  Which may explain why, after more than a decade of effort, BDS (like “banana” coupled with “vomit”) has done little more than leave a bad taste in the mouth of everyone who has encountered it.

Next… Avoidance

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