Sunday, January 16, 2005

Cementing Sophistry

Among hot issues confronting mid-Hudson NY denizens is the proposal of St. Lawrence Cement Company to build a new plant in Greenport, on the east bank of the Hudson River. St. Lawrence wants to put a big complex of buildings and smokestacks on an 1800-acre site where, operating virtually around the clock, burning 250,000 tons of coal, the factory would produce some 2.2 million metric tons per year of cement. The project has evoked fierce local opposition (friends of;, with protestors dwelling on prospective heavy air, noise and viewscape pollution. St. Lawrence has responded to critics, and to State regulators, by revising some terms of its proposal. And by way of touting the revised design, SLC took out a full-page advertisement in local newspapers. Some features of the ad (11/14/04) illuminate rhetorical devices that recur in advocacy prose. WOULD AS WILL. Conspicuous in the ad is a rhetorical device whereby a prospect (proposed event, contingency) is made to appear to be a sure thing. The device consists of using the future tense (will) instead of the subjunctive mood (would; could; might). The speaker then seems to be describing a certain future event rather than a mere possibility (what would eventuate if formative contingent events or decisions come about). Thus: new guidelines and design for (proposed!) cement plant, says St. L., “will reduce critical compounds [emissions]…by an additional 28% over the old design….” “New cement milling technology that reduces certain emissions will now be used….” “New design means that over 90% of the surrounding area won’t be able to see the plant at all.” Replacement Plant “will retain vital cement jobs….” No proper basis for this prognostication has been laid. Use of the future tense marks a variation of the so-called Bandwagon device. DANGLING COMPARISON. Terms of comparison—“smaller,” “cleaner,” “better,” “stronger”—also play a big part in SLC’s advertisement. In this respect the ad recalls many a consumer product ad. Those pieces of advocacy, expressed in words ending in suffix er or est, often depend for effectiveness on vagueness about objects compared. Consumers are assured that new Tide is “cleaner” or “the cleanest.” The actual claim is that the touted product is better in some respect than itself: its same-brand predecessor. But that claim, from the consumer’s standpoint, is question-begging. What we really want to know is whether the touted product out-performs competing products (at same or lower cost). But the sponsor, while insinuating that the answer is affirmative, avoids that crucial claim. (We know he avoids it because we can assume safely that if he could make it veraciously, he would do so). Now in the present case, St. Lawrence really is only saying that revised plan would make its proposed new plant less visible and less noxious emission-wise than its other, earlier proposed new plant.


AND AVOIDED COMPARISON. Also noteworthy, to students of rhetoric and to prospective neighbors of a new St. Lawrence Cement plant, is another kind of comparison that the company makes—and avoids. Here the comparison is not between two plant designs but rather between a design and an existing factory. And the focus is on emissions of toxic particles. SLC has said on various occasions that its proposed new cement factory would be “cleaner” than what it would replace, namely, its west bank plant in southern GreeneLand. That claim, however, pertains to the volume of toxic particles per ton of emissions. Not addressed is the question of what would be the volume of pollutants emitted per day or per year—by this vastly bigger cement plant, whose output would be quadruple that of the old plant. St. Lawrence’s evasion on that point, accordingly, qualifies as a contribution to the annals of Half Truth-telling. Meanwhile, St. Lawrence says “New SLC Plan Cuts Emissions By Another 28%.” On top of what? AUTHORIAL SOPHISTRY. Now for a confession (unless it’s only an acknowledgement). In the foregoing remarks I used another bit of sophistry. I pretended to recall certain sentiments and deeds of a putative personage named St. Lawrence Cement. Rhetorically, I invested a non-human object with human qualities. In doing so I used a device that is remarkably common not only in advertising (words about what companies and even products believe/say/do) but also in mainstream journalism, and especially in elite journalism. Thus, in just one putative news story in The New York Times (1/12/04, Douglas Jehl & David Johnston gave ostensible accounts of deeds by “the White House” (“urging,” “expressed opposition”), the Senate (“approved”), the Pentagon (they “would have” been “required” to “report to Congress about…”), the Defense Department (“sent a letter to Congress” saying it “strongly urges” abstention from a pending move), a commission (“recommended”), the Bush administration (“disavowed”; is “keen to maintain some legal latitude”; “has said almost nothing about” a certain CIA operation; “expressed disgust”), the CIA (it’s under fire for “treatment of detainees”), and the Justice Department (issued a certain opinion; approved certain techniques). Most suitable of labels for this rhetorical anthropomorphism, I suggest, is personation. The costs and benefits of its use deserve careful consideration. Not today.

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