Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Ethos of Anecdote

In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben relies heavily on anecdotal evidence in his argumentation. McKibben tries to apply lessons learned through sentimental stories of rapidly industrializing China and rural Vermont to the rest of the world in an attempt to convince his readership that “more” is not necessarily the same as “better.” I think I speak for most us when I say that I’ve had trouble understanding why he believes the methods and techniques used in relatively anomalistic portions of the world could provide insight into how the rest of the world should conduct business. Far more often than not, McKibben fails to provide a sufficient articulation of the reasons for why his personal experiences constitute a legitimate basis for argumentation. This leads many of his assertions to appear unfounded and forced. Perhaps more importantly, it insults the reader’s intelligence and discredits McKibben, himself. The repercussions of poor anecdotal usage go beyond damaging the content of the argument, itself. Anecdotal writing regularly calls attention to the author of the argument. When the argument is ill- conceived, it becomes a self-destructive literary exercise. Due to the fact that anecdotes require inserting oneself into one’s argumentation, McKibben’s poor anecdotal usage not only hurts his argument, but also strips him of any semblance of legitimacy as a writer. Deep Economy may be seen as revealing the rhetorical disadvantages of anecdote. When executed effectively, anecdotal usage generates a strong and rhetorically viable ethos appeal. When seemingly contrived, anecdotal usage detracts from both the logos and ethos of the argument.
For McKibben’s argument to even be plausible, he would have to spend a great deal of time legitimizing his experiences as grounds for leading up to the grander claims he makes. His belief in Vermont and parts of China as microcosmically applicable to the rest of the world, especially America, is the primary evidentiary force behind the book’s rhetoric. To grant him a little bit of credit, McKibben intermittently acknowledges the fact that his readership might find it hard to believe that the self-sustaining practices of farms in Vermont could benefit a greater urban population. He explains, “This sounds silly and soft-headed to some of us, but only because we’ve so internalized the economist’s ideal of the human being as a self-contained want-machine bent on maximizing utility” (111). However, he always immediately follows these refrains with their quick and easy disavowal, creating the impression that his exploration of potential objections to his theories is disingenuous. He follows the last passage with this empty sentimental appeal: “Think about your own life: which moments mattered most? Didn’t most of them entail being involved in something larger than yourself? Either out in the hugeness of the natural world, or working together with those around you toward some common end, often for no material gain?” (111). This appeal to the reader’s emotions fails in its generalizing effect. It relies on a shared experience, which is problematic to begin with. The assumption that everyone has experienced what he’s describing would unquestionably alienate those who don’t feel they have the experience. More importantly, it cues those that are skeptical of the experience’s universality to question his intentions. When McKibben so plainly attempts to exploit our emotional reactions to experiences, he shifts the focus away from his argument and onto himself, as an individual desperately striving to be convincing. McKibben’s objections too conspicuously function as straw-man arguments, raised to be torn down rather than complicate the argument he has set forth.

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