Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Evaluating Conspiracy: Narrative, Argument, and Ideology in Lincoln's "House Divided" Speech

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Evaluating Conspiracy: Narrative, Argument, and Ideology in Lincoln's "House Divided" Speech

Article excerpt

Each day in the United States and around the world, conspiracy theories of all stripes gain ground with audiences (Goldberg, 2001). This situation is serious because, although some conspiracy theories are ludicrous or even laughable, others can have detrimental consequences: undermining confidence in government, contributing to extreme cynicism about the business and corporate sectors, and fueling dangerous extremist movements. Still others, however, may contain a grain of truth and help unmask the machinations of the powerful. Whatever the merits of the specific case, it is evident that, now more than ever, we need a way to adjudicate the conspiratorial interpretations that increasingly populate our political discourse. Despite the ubiquity of conspiracy theories and the stakes involved, however, citizens lack means by which to separate true from false, probable from improbable, because scholars of rhetoric and argumentation are uncertain how to evaluate conspiracy theories.

Indeed, argumentation scholars have had great difficulty assimilating conspiracy arguments into the traditional evaluative apparatuses. Part of the problem has been the lingering presumption that these arguments are irrational and false. Within what might be called the "paranoid style" paradigm, the "argument" form of conspiracy discourse is dismissed as a form of "rationalistic" camouflage for a fundamentally irrational claim, belief in which indicates a "political pathology" characterized by, among other things, "distorted judgment" (Hofstadter, 1965, pp. 5-6, 36-38). Insofar as they were understood to "prove" propositions that were fundamentally false, conspiracy arguments posed an intriguing challenge, and several early studies emphasized the slippery and deceitful character of paranoid rhetoric (Sanders & Newman, 1971; Smith, 1977). Subsequent scholarship took a different tack, suggesting that conspiracy arguments function through a compelling narrative form rather than a simple assemblage of claims and proofs (Davis, 1969, pp. 4-5, 72; Zarefsky, 1990, p. 103). Consistent with this theoretical reorientation were new evaluative criteria such as narrative fidelity and narrative coherence (Fisher, 1987, pp. 47-49, 75-76). But critics of the narrative approach have argued that such evaluative criteria lack sufficient rigor (Warnick, 1987). Thus, some scholars have advocated a return to more traditional, formalistic evaluative criteria in order to determine whether conspiracy arguments are sufficient to prove the existence of the conspiracy (Young, Launer, & Austin, 1990).

In sum, despite a crucial need to evaluate conspiracy theories, our scholarship remains entangled among the often dissonant assumptions and methods of the paranoid style, argument theory, and narrative theory. The resulting impasse is especially troubling in light of growing recognition that some conspiracy arguments inhabiting the "mainstream" of political discourse deserve more careful attention than conspiracies in the paranoid style (Goodnight & Poulakos, 1981; Pfau, 2005; Zarefsky, 1990), and that conspiracy theories can represent a populist critique of power relations (Fenster, 1999, pp. 52-74). Currently, however, such potentially empowering arguments exist in a sort of limbo: problematic to dismiss offhandedly as paranoid fantasy, yet extremely difficult or impossible to validate. In response to this impasse, this essay proposes a strategy of evaluation that reflects the unique character of conspiracy arguments, that is, their unique burden to prove the existence of machinations that necessarily are difficult or impossible to perceive. Under such circumstances, that traditional criteria of argumentative rationality may be inappropriate should not deter us from developing evaluative strategies that are comparative, contextual, and ideological in nature. Such strategies may not offer simple or easily generalizable judgments but, insofar as they better reflect both the logical complexities and particular ideological sensitivities of conspiracy discourse, they may best distinguish theories that are possible or probable from those that strain credulity or distort judgment. …

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