Attributing motives to others is an easy trap to fall into
June 7, 2003 10:26 p.m.

"... there is usually a resurgence of rhetoric during periods of social and political upheaval."

-- Edward Corbett and Robert Connors, "Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student," Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, 1999.

By Casey Hurley

The war against Iraq was such a period of political upheaval, and the AC-T editorial pages saw a resurgence of rhetoric. On April 13, AC-T Executive Editor Robert Gabordi explained that, in a democratic society and especially in time of war, newspapers are the forum for letters, stories, pictures and analyses that both support and criticize the president.

He said, "Long after the words of the radio talk-show jock who is trying to build a quick name for himself evaporate into nothingness, those who examine the historic record of our time will reread newspaper accounts."

Many wartime articles, columns and letters-to-the-editor discussed the tone and substance of the war debate. Examining recent columns not only informs about the war, but it also uncovers the rhetorical techniques used in the debate.

One technique that heated up the war debate was the one used by columnists who attributed unsavory motives to those they disagreed with.

On April 16, conservative columnist Kathleen Parker attributed motives and feelings to anti-war activists. She wrote, "the anti-war gang, we suspect, is tittering hopefully that he (Saddam Hussein) will yet spring from near-death and make us wrong after all." Why did she claim anti-war activists hope Saddam will rule Iraq?

She cannot know the motives and feelings of these people.

In his opposing column, liberal William Raspberry questioned the Bush administration's motives for going to war: "Could it be that our leaders took us into war not believing what they swore to us was true?" Raspberry could not know the president's motives, but he insinuated that he did, by accusing the administration of lying about them.

On March 27, Thomas Sowell recognized the unfairness of attributing motives to others: "they (anti-war protesters) are also quick to attribute cheap motives to those who have responsibility to make the hard decisions ..." In this same column, however, Sowell described the protesters as "bargain-basement martyrs of the 'peace' movement who disrupt their fellow Americans' lives with their moral exhibitionism." If there was any doubt that he attributed self-righteous motives to those he disagreed with, later he said it, directly: "Do facts matter at all to those who are on a binge of self-righteousness?"

Do readers see a pattern? Do journalists see a pattern?

On March 27, Columnist Robert Novak complained about this rhetorical technique, when fellow conservative David Frum attributed motives to him. Frum included Novak when he wrote, "They are thinking about defeat, and wishing for it, and they will take pleasure if it should happen."

Novak was incensed. He explained that his writings were evidence of his patriotism. Of course he was not wishing for defeat, and he would take no pleasure if it happened. Novak's point was that it was unfair and misleading to attribute those motives and desires to him.

But this is a tempting thing to do. Sowell criticized this tactic, but he used it himself in the same column. Apparently, even as one condemns "attributing motives to others," it is an easy trap to fall into.

Another example of the ease with which motives are attributed to others is the Gabordi quotation used earlier. He attributed motives to a hypothetical radio talk show jock, when he characterized him as "trying to build a quick name for himself." Was that necessary? Did this derogatory comment strengthen Gabordi's point?

But thoughtful readers might say this is just a rhetorical device used to grab and hold reader attention. These words and phrases are not to be taken literally. What is the big deal? Three points need to be made.

The first is that attributing motives to others heated up the Iraq war debate. This technique was one reason the author of the letter, "Finding too much perspective to formulate opinion," (AC-T, April 10) characterized the debate as involving "smart-alecky, contrarian, blindly anti-authoritative liberals" and "bitter, indignant, blindly pro-government conservatives."

Attributing motives to others is an appeal to the emotions. Rhetoricians persuade, and the emotions play an important role. But this technique inflamed without enlightening. Only someone with his own newspaper column, like Robert Novak, could defend himself. Readers should recognize the unfairness of this approach, so columnists cannot get away with poisoning debate when it suits their purposes.

The second point is that attributing motives to others is also an appeal to the intellect -- to fundamental assumptions about human beings. When readers accept, as fact, the motives attributed to others, they are accepting the proposition that self-interest is the dominant human motivation. Ironically, readers accept this at the same time they are likely to reject self-interest motives attributed to them. Of course people are sometimes motivated by self-interest, but accepting it as the default motivation for everything becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Civilization depends on rejecting the belief that self-interest is the dominant human motivation. Norms of civilized societies are based on the opposite belief -- that humans often rise above self-interest. Although our society is not perfect, many people regularly act unselfishly, and many experience unselfishness in their lives. Should we accept self-interest as the dominant human motivation? When we do, our society suffers.

The third and final point is that attributing motives to others is hard to detect because it is pervasive -- not only in the writings of syndicated columnists, but also in our daily lives. For example, gossip and rumors often conjecture about motives. Even though many of us attribute motives to others, this is an unfair practice that reflects the weaknesses, not the strengths of those who use it.

Unfortunately, sometimes readers give too much credence to those in the national media. Too often, these critics attribute motives to the other side, aiming at personal condemnation of those they disagree with. (Do any readers notice what I just did?)

What we need is clarification. Identifying the techniques used by those who aim to persuade is a prerequisite to deep understanding. We need thoughtful readers to get beneath the rhetorical heat -- where enlightenment and understanding grow. When we do, our society benefits.

Casey Hurley is a professor of educational administration at Western Carolina University. He writes occasionally about leadership and regional issues for the Citizen-Times editorial page.