Of Supererogatory Rhetoric

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about the duty owed rhetoric. All right, here is how I feel about the duty owed rhetoric:

Before I serve you another delicious, savory helping of lightly-modified copypasta, please let me remind those of you who might have forgotten what “supererogatory” means. Merely erogatory is what is morally or ethically (or perhaps even aesthetically) required by circumstance and context. Saving a child from drowning when there is no danger to yourself apart from perhaps moistening your trousers is a classic example of an erogatory act. Supererogatory acts exceed expectations. Saving a kid by putting yourself at risk of harm is supererogatory.

It is, I offer you, erogatory for the academic to make honest arguments, to take seriously critiques made in good faith, to treat reasonable objections reasonably, and to put some effort into considering alternate analyses with gravity and concern. Part of the peer review process is to ensure that practitioners have been diligent in these regards. Indeed, if you’re anything like me, you have received more than one referee request containing elementary violations of this simple, straightforward erogatory rhetorical duties.

But what of anticipating bad faith rejoinders? What to do about motivated omissions, inimical distortions, malevolent counter-analysis? Is there a rhetorical duty to anticipate and curtail hostile interlocutors? If so, is it erogatory or supererogatory? If I read Adam correctly, the erogatory scholar will survey the cultural space (being no doubt alert to the perils of availability bias) and adjust inquiry in toto accordingly: if scholarship is indeed a one-step process as he claims, this includes deciding what to study and how to study it alongside presentation details (which, I beg you to consider that a great many scholars consider to be something of an afterthought considering the abysmal state of academic prose).

I confess I have little interest in defending Charles Murray per se, as I accept Gurri’s claim that Murray may have fallen short of his erogatory duties, particularly outside of his peer-reviewed work, but I cannot help but conclude that much of what seems at a glance to be a failure of academic due diligence is in fact a supererogatory shortcoming: motivated critics with a shed full of axes to grind selectively quote, ruthlessly edit, and just plain take shit out of context to smear politically disfavored academics like clostridium difficile diarrhea across the walls of a skid row emergency room.

Call it the Naomi Klein effect.

Now, it would be grand if everyone in the academy were rigorously trained and well-practiced in the arts of rhetoric (and aesthetics), so as to quell scurrilous attacks. I lament that with contentious subjects, this is nigh impossible. I suggest that at least some burden be borne by ordinary readers. The ability to spot bullshit, bad faith, political motivation, and dishonesty is as useful a skill for citizens as the ability to employ journeyman rhetoric is for academics.

So if by the duty owed rhetoric, you mean selecting from among a well-defined, orderly intellectual space the reasonable objections to your work and addressing them accordingly, I am for it. But if by the duty owed rhetoric you mean preemptively defending against the Erinyes of well-heeled, patient, clever sophist opponents, why, I am against it sir.

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