Critical Thinking: Systems of Belief 2: Know Your Audience

Hey guys, in the last section we looked at systems of belief from the point of view of the arguer.  Doing so helps us to become better critical thinkers in two important ways

(a)  it helps us to identify what might be hidden assumptions in the argument that we might (i) attack or (ii) (if we agree with the position) try to strengthen.  

(b) When we turn a critical eye on our own beliefs and values, understanding systems of belief allows us to identify premises or beliefs that might not be accepted at face value by our opponent(s).  If we can identify these elements, we can anticipate where our opponent will attack our argument and launch a pre-emptive defensive strike by strengthening those premises/assumptions.

One final review note is to recall the elements that influence our system of belief (often unbeknownst to us). They include things like: race, sex, nationality, culture, language, family, economic class, social class, religion/non-religion, peer group, career, education, and whether you like cilantro or not. 

Systems of Belief and the Audience
Obviously facts about the person making the argument are important (especially when it’s me!) but as critical thinkers and arguers it’s also good to consider the system of belief of the audience to whom the argument is addressed.  

There are two general ways to “chop up” the concept of ‘audience’: (a) according to clusters of values and (b) according to anticipated receptivity to our argument.

When we consider an audience as a group that shares common beliefs and values we call this a specific audience.  Some examples would be Catholics, faculty, Democrats, hockey fans, the NRA, the ACLU, Hispanics, tourists, people that live in Summerlin, philosophers, and so on.  There are often specific audiences within larger specific audiences.  For example, Republicans are a sub-group of American, and ‘Ron-Paul Republican’ is a sub-group of Republicans.  Wherever there are ‘clumps’ of values, there are specific audiences.

universal audience is more of an abstract concept than an actual blood and flesh audience.  While it’s debatable that there is a set of (non-trivial) values that unite everyone, you should think of a universal audience as “the common person.” As an arguer addressing a universal audience, you’d want to begin with assumptions/values/beliefs that just about any rational person could agree to (such as pizza makes us happy).

Suppose you were a Ron-Paul-lovin’, Ayn-Rand-worshipping, pick-up-truck-drivin’ Libertarian and you wanted to logically explain to a Karl Marx-lovin’, Grateful dead-listenin’, group-hug hippy Liberal why there should be no restrictions on the right to bear arms.  It might do you some good to consider something about your audience’s values and basic assumptions.  Much of what you might say about gun rights would take for granted things that those damn hippies would object to! 

So, what should you do? Well, what you’d want to do is “construct an argument that makes an effort to respond to your audiences convictions and concerns” (p. 19).  If you begin with premises/assumptions/values that you share with the hippies, then you stand a chance of working an argument that they will at least consider.  

Conversely, if you begin your reasoning with premises that bear no relation to those of your audience, they won’t even try to follow your reasoning because you are beginning with premises to which they don’t agree.

Key point:  A good argument is sensitive to the values/beliefs/convictions of the intended audience.  A good arguer will modify their argument depending on the audience.

Three Types of Audiences based on Receptivity:
Generally we can distinguish between 3 types of audience based on (anticipated) degree of receptivity to the argument. 

A sympathetic audience probably already agrees with many of the values connected to the conclusion of the argument.  For example, if I’m arguing against abortion to a group of evangelical christians, I probably don’t have to spend much time arguing for the premise that a fetus is a person with rights.

An open audience does not share our position but is open to considering it.  Such audiences generally don’t have values so disparate from those of the arguer.  We don’t have to search too hard to find common ground in values and beliefs from which we may begin to reason toward our argument.

hostile audience does not share our position or many of our values and beliefs and is not open to considering it.  For obvious reasons this is the toughest type of audience to argue with.  When common beliefs and values are scarce, it is difficult to find a starting point from which to begin.  Some political debates can appear this way because some groups value individual autonomy over collective needs.  When differences are so fundamental, it’s hard to know where to begin.  

Also, with a hostile audience, because the differences in beliefs and values are so fundamental, they are central to that group’s identity.  Relinquishing those values might mean leaving the group, something to which most are adverse. The emotional component makes arguing with a hostile audience even more difficult because heightened emotions often shut us off to ‘reason’.

The Flip Side
While it is very helpful to take into account your audiences’ beliefs and values, we should be cautious not to exploit them.  We see this happen all the time with cults, psychics, medical quackery, and–of course–politics.  An unscrupulous cult leader or “psychic” can appeal to an audiences’ values for reasons of exploitation.  

Recall from previous lessons that most of our values and beliefs are acquired uncritically as a result of how we experience the world.  Because of their uncritical origins, we are often eager to assent with anyone who shares our beliefs/values.  Right?  Now look into my eyes and give me all your money!

However, while you might be able to pursued a particular audience with an argument that appeals to specific values, once you try to apply that same argument to a broader audience, you will surely encounter resistance!

The lesson here is that it is important to take into account the values and beliefs of your audience in how you present your argument.  The most effective arguments begin with the values and beliefs shared by the specific audience at which the argument is targeted.  And then, using reason, reasons, and evidence you lead them down the garden path into the waiting jaws of your conclusion.

A caveat is that, while your argument should be tailored to a specific audience, it should not rely so heavily on the beliefs and values of that audience such that a more general audience wouldn’t take the argument seriously. 

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