05 July, 2011

Crime Scenes and Carl's Junior

Next time, on Hoarders...
I hate moving. I'm a nester by nature, and the whole process of boxing things up and carrying them away to be unboxed elsewhere gives me the icks. This little whinge-fest is by way of excuse: it's not that I didn't want to blog, it's that my computer was in seven pieces in four different boxes. But I'm getting settled, and it's time to get back to our buddy Aristotle.

To recap: you've got ethos, where an argument (buy a Buick) succeeds or fails based on the character of the speaker (Tiger Woods), and you've got pathos, where emotion is used to persuade the audience to do such varied things as adopt puppies and commit genocide. Now let's meet the new kid, logos.

Some of you may have heard the 101 definition of logos, argument based on logic, and dismissed it as boring and ineffectual. Hang onto your hats. Aristotle defines logos as "persuasion achieved through proof or apparent proof." The italics are mine, because wow. That's important.

Proof is one thing. We've all seen CSI. We know from proof. Proof is the stuff that, well, proves things. This guy has no pulse, he must be dead. That guy's DNA is under his nails, there must have been a struggle. Blacklights are used, we all giggle. David Caruso takes off his glasses and says something witty, The Who plays, rinse, repeat. Proof. Easy-peasy.

The meeting place of 1/2 of my DNA
This whole idea of "apparent proof," though, this is where logos stops looking like your grandma darning socks in a rocking chair circa 1995, and starts looking like your grandma hanging out in Paris dance halls circa 1945. Yowza. Well, my grandma anyway. Your grandma is no doubt more respectable than mine.

Aristotle described two ways of deploying logos: the example and the enthymeme. The example is relatively straightforward: ever win an argument by pointing out that some undesirable event happens "every single time?" And then going on to outline every instance you can remember of said event? Yeah, me too. It sometimes ain't pretty, either. Anyway, that's examples in a nutshell. It may or may not be worth knowing that this is a form of inductive reasoning, in which a list of specific instances are used to draw a general conclusion.

On to the enthymeme. Aristotle says:
When it is shown that, certain propositions being true, a further and quite distinct proposition must also be true in consequence, whether invariable or usually, this is called syllogism in dialectic, enthymeme in rhetoric.
This bar doesn't suck.
Geez, Aristotle. Settle down. OK, here's what he means. You know how you sometimes say stuff like, "I don't want to go to that bar. All the bars in this town suck," and the other person says, "yeah, that bar probably sucks. We should go somewhere else." Well, you won that argument using an enthymeme.

Because we're talking about Aristotelian rhetoric here, everything breaks neatly down into component parts (I do love a man with an orderly mind). Here's how they work:

Major Premise: All the bars in this town suck.
Case (Also called Minor Premise): That bar is in this town.
Conclusion: That bar sucks.

Done and done. Except that in the real world, enthymemes often congregate together and gang up on their audience. Because there's an unstated major premise at work here: We should not go to a bar that sucks. And adding that major premise to the mix creates a new conclusion: We should not go to that bar. See how that works? Pretty simple, yeah?

Except when it's not.

Once you start looking at the world in terms of enthymemes, all kinds of interesting stuff shakes out. Think about commercials. I think about them a lot, looking for enthymemes, because I'm a geek like that. Here's just one example of what I have found:

OK. There is a whole towering series of enthymemes at work here, but most of the premises are unstated. I promise they're there, though. Let's start with the obvious parts and work our way backwards.

Clearly, the conclusion of any commercial is "buy our crap." Carl's Jr. is not breaking new ground there by any means. We can safely assume the conclusion of this commercial is "buy a gigantihuge breakfast burrito." Conclusion...check.

I'll crack your damn eggs.
The major and minor premises get trickier. Major premises tend to be statements about the world that are generally accepted by the audience. Sometimes, they are left unstated purposefully because, well, let's face it, a lot of the things we generally accept as truth are not very pleasant. Things like, "Men are incapable of feeding themselves," or "Women can cook but they sure are annoying to have around." Major premises...check.

The minor premise, often called the case, typically refers to a specific instance. In this case, this poor egg-challenged gentleman's inability to cope with the complexities of breakfast preparation, coupled with his fear of "furry covers" on his toilet seat. Minor premises are more commonly stated because they are specific.

That guy, with his implied fear of commitment, and his unseen girlfriend, with her alleged desire to control her man's bathroom decor and by extension his life in exchange for assuming the egg-cracking duties in the household, are specific people. No one, the ad agency could argue, is saying that all male/female relationships are like that. Except that by making a commercial designed for a general audience and using those themes...they kinda maybe are.

I could get into the details here, look at the color scheme, the tiny visual cues that further illustrate the point, but I think I'll save visual rhetoric for another post. Aristotle wasn't looking at rhetoric as a visual thing, anyway, and there's a limit to even my attention span. Also these boxes aren't gonna unpack themselves.

Suffice it to say that I don't like this commercial. I don't like the fact that it uses negative stereotypes about both genders to frame its argument, and I don't like that it does this sneakily using an unstated major premise. Unfortunately, the hard truth of the matter seems to be that if you shake a commercial hard enough, all kinds of unlovely truths about how we're socialized to view the world come tumbling out.


  1. Oh Carl's Jr., way to enforce gender-normative stereotypes. I wonder what Artistotle would think after viewing the above-linked commercial.

  2. Well, first he'd probably think, "What is this wizardry?" But then he'd think, "That's a clever enthymeme, the bastards." One can only hope that he would not then purchase an artery-clogging breakfast burrito. :)

  3. I hope that guy's girlfriend isn't the girl from the "As Seen on TV" egg cracker commercial!

  4. I love you, Lynn. Let's go to a bar that doesn't suck.

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