Rhetorical Rules of Engagement

Several papers and posts here describe each of these aspects, but even when dealing with would-be factual knowledge, the content may not be entirely objective or logical and anyway, the process is always rhetorical, involving communication between human individuals and the tribes with which we identify. In simplest form:

“Tread softly, for you tread upon my dreams.
(W B Yeats)

“Reflect on what you hold sacred
and be gentle with what other people hold sacred.”
(Elizabeth Oldfield)

The rules of engagement below, from earlier collaborative forums, seems to apply equally to any correspondence, face-to-face debate, on-line commenting and/or social media, formally moderated or otherwise. Social media will be all our downfall if we don’t respect the rules:

And there is only one rule: R.E.S.P.E.C.T
(Good Faith – honest intentions and mutual respect for the rules, the content and the participants.)

Rule #1 RESPECT – Understand & Question before Disagree & Criticize.
Critical debate is essential to our agendas and anyone voicing direct disagreement with or criticism of the arguments of another must be seen to have understood, or sincerely attempted to understand, the others’ argument and to have related their counter argument to it. Conversely, if someone disagrees with you directly, your first response, unless you see your own error, must be to establish that they do indeed understand your position. See also Rappaport’s Rule(s) also known as Steelmanning. Evolving mutual understanding always beats  attempting to prove yourself right and the other guy wrong, except in particular mutually-agreed, artificially-controlled “debate” and “critique” circumstances.

Rule #2 RESPECT – No “Ad Hominem” attacks on the Individual or Group.
Absolute no-no. Anyone having trouble with an individual should resolve directly with that individual, involving a confidential and mutually-respected mediator if necessary, with public sanction only as a last resort.

Rule #3 RESPECT – Duty of Care when using Rhetoric or Irony.
OK, but life (mine and yours) would be boring and sterile if we politely agreed with each other. So lively, critical, robust, intelligent debate in good faith is positively encouraged. Unless you are recognised as Court Jester what will not be tolerated is any perceived intent to circumvent Rules #1 & #2 under cover of  rhetorical tricks or rhetorical irony. Needless to say any actual intellectual dishonesty or deception is bad faith. You can never further objectify Rule #3 definitively, but example rules of thumb might help:

  • If you use rhetorical questions and/or (playful) straw-men and/or (attempted) humour to draw attention to your point, you must follow-through the dialogue to mutual understanding.
  • Without this follow-up, playing to the gallery, rhetorical zingers and mockery will be seen as ad-hominem of your target. Only mock someone who already knows you love and respect them. “Collapse of stout party” is merely a rhetorical move, not a conclusion.
  • If you share (or like or applaud) someone else’s rhetorical move, or you game the levels of irony and sarcasm on top of theirs, you inherit the responsibility for the follow-up.
  • Seriously though, only The Court Jester is exempted from these rules and, fun though it is, we can’t all be court jester at any given time. That’s entertainment.
  • When all is said and done, it’s a game, games have rules and creativity demands that the rules are there to be broken. Rules are for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools. There is after all, only one rule; see Respect.


All rules are for
guidance of the wise
and the enslavement of fools

[More on – Rappaport’s Rule(s) / Steelmanning.]

[More on the rules of humour – The Court Jester.]

[More on Intellectual Honesty.]