Seeing Through Slogans: analysis, criticism and critical analysis (a teaching moment)

The promotion of Buddhist teachings and practices in popular culture—mindfulness, Secular Buddhism, Buddhist modernism, and so on—has led various authors to reflect on the way it is being represented. Some of those reflections, and yes, I’m thinking of my own in this regard, have met with defensiveness, resistance, or dismissive rejection. It seems to me that at least some of this is based on a failure to distinguish between “criticism” as negative judgements, and “critical analysis” as attempting to understand by going below the surface claims about something. This is a pervasive problem in society generally—as I learned teaching logic and critical thinking to undergraduates for a decade and a half, and as I was recently reminded in a graduate seminar.

Criticism/critique is looking below the surface, rather than accepting something at face value. When a vegetarian asks the waiter at a Mexican restaurant whether there is lard in the refried beans, that is an instance of critical inquiry—there’s more to the dish than just beans. Analysis is taking something apart so you can understand it, like the gourmet who asks the waiter whether there is not in fact just a hint of sage in the cream sauce. And, critical analysis is doing both simultaneously.

In the 70s and 80s there was a movement in higher education to promote what was then called “Critical Thinking,” and which represented a repackaging of rhetoric. The study of rhetoric is the study of how people are convinced of something—and therefore how they can be convinced. It has been around since classical Greece, having been one of the topics discussed by Aristotle. It is, for example, at the heart of advertising theory. An attitude of critical analysis encourages doubt, rather than unquestioning acceptance of a set of claims. The claim to be “new and improved” may only mean that a product has a different label, or that the size has been reduced, while the price remains the same. A critical analysis of the claim to be new and improved would be to simply ask, How? In what way/s? Is the change in any way significant? Does the change benefit me or the producer?

While these are trivial, everyday examples, hopefully they will communicate what is involved. These mundane instances will also hopefully avoid knee-jerk reactions—He’s just a scholar, or He’s criticizing the Holy Dharma, he will go to hell—were the same critical attitude and analytic process applied to the various rhetorics promoting particular forms of Buddhism. Rhetorical analysis looks below the surface of a piece of writing by taking it apart, piece by piece, and trying to understand what makes it convincing, whether that is an appeal to authority, appeal to the exotic, appeal to the emotions, or whatever.

One of the other things I learned in teaching is that most people’s thinking is conducted via slogans, truisms and anecdotes, in that order.

These are progressively more complex forms of thinking, slogans being the least complex—not even needing to be full sentences. Slogans are almost empty of meaning, allowing them to be convincing because meaning is attributed to them. The hearer is convinced by what they themselves have projected onto the slogan. Equally important in producing conviction is the emotional response that the slogan evokes. The recent political campaign is an obvious case in point.

Truisms are expressions of “what everybody knows,” similar to what are now commonly referred to as “memes.” A pervasive truism in contemporary representations of Buddhism—popular and academic alike—is that the central unifying goal of all forms of Buddhism is the relief of suffering (see previous post). This is not the place to discuss the problematic character of this claim, instead what needs to be emphasized so that it is possible for people to think about the character of their own commitments is that it is a truism—a claim that is accepted because it is so often repeated, including by supposed authorities. When a claim has reached the status of being a truism, it becomes counter-intuitive to question it. A common response would be to dismiss the questioner, saying “Well, of course…” and then to stop thinking, because it is too hard to actually consider any alternative to one’s own preconceptions.

Anecdotes are short stories about specific incidents that seem to confirm a general claim. Whether an anecdote is fact or fiction is irrelevant to its functioning to convince. This is, as just one example, the stuff of prejudice, whether racial, ethnic, sexual, age, whatever. When your mother (might have) told you “Watch out for people X, your grandmother once…” that was an instance of an anecdote about one instance, generalized to an entire group. It should be noted that this also applies to positive stereotypes as well.

Anecdotes are effective because it is easier for us human beings to remember stories than to think critically. We might in this way say that the canon is filled with anecdotes—”Thus have I heard, at one time, the Buddha while dwelling…” and then we hear a story. This does not mean that anecdotes are false, only to point out that they are rhetorically powerful because they are so memorable.

 

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