A Rhetorical Analysis of Toxic Discourses with Dr. Erec Smith

For the first time on Choralosophy, I have written a blog to accompany the podcast episode! This post is not specific to music or musicians. But, as with many topics, we are all trying to navigate a rapidly changing social landscape. I think, write and speak quite a bit about how the quality of conversation has been negatively effected by the influence of social media. In the Podcast, I ask Dr. Erec Smith of York College for his expert perspective on some of my observations. Namely, that many “fights” I observe, or that people attempt to pick with me, seem to follow some recurring rhetorical patterns that may be exacerbated by social media, and its manipulation of some of our mental bad habits.

Find Dr. Smith’s Book here in which he outlines his Empowerment Theory of Anti-Racism.

Dr. Erec Smith
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Just a few of many Human Psychological processes that social media apps actively manipulate:

1. Availability heuristic- if you see the bad thing constantly on your phone, the brain places it in a category that is the same as “existential danger etc.” The thing may be very real and very bad, but it isn’t as prevalent as the phone makes it seem. This is where stepping back to look at data is very important. The 10,000 foot view. 

2. Anchoring bias- the first context you see something in, or the first fact you see is disproportionately hard to shake when new info arrives. (This is exploited when you rely on a small group of sources for info)

3. Audience effect- every interaction is perverted by an audience. Because the conversations are not between two people. They are between two people with an audience watching. Which means both participants in the conversation feel a very strong pull to perform. It becomes disproportionately important to us to appear to be a good member of our team. And often, the easiest way to do that is to be seen attacking the “other team.”

4. The paradox of morality:-Those who are sincerely want to do the right thing may lie to cover their moral lapses (thus, less moral)-Those who care less about appearing moral may be more honest about their moral failings (thus, more moral) https://journals.sagepub.com/…/10.1177/1088868318811759

Now just my guess: I think most people don’t want to imagine themselves as “susceptible” to such petty manipulation. This is a problem for those “other” people…

Something in the Ether

Probably the most interesting thing about hosting a podcast that “leans in” to sensitive conversations is the type of feedback I get. One “genre” of message I receive quite frequently is listeners, friends and colleagues who PRIVATELY express some type of gratitude or admiration for how I handle arguments online. (I know that sounds like a flex, but it is important for the story.) Namely, that I don’t get rattled, and I don’t get sucked in to the name calling, anger, and accusations. This will also be accompanied by an expression of fear about the common Zeitgeist of how conversations online tend of devolve into suspicion and accusation very quickly. I also hear fear to express one’s true opinions, for fear of losing status in their professional community or friend group.

“What if I don’t get accepted to a post grad program because I am perceived as having the wrong opinions?” “It’s just easier to keep my mouth shut.” etc. I also have found it fascinating that this type of concern and fear has come to me from people with a wide diversity of backgrounds. Conversely, almost every single criticism I get is posted publicly rather than via private attempt to communicate.

Below, I will lay out some of the common rhetorical devices I have seen frequently in the many online conversations I have participated in. Keep in mind, when analyzing something “rhetorically,” we try and focus on the WAY things are being said, and less about the opinions or positions themselves. The sad thing is that this toxic trend is occurring in conversations that are substantially very important. It is for this reason that I feel that we MUST get better at having the conversation.

First, let’s establish what HEALTHY and PRODUCTIVE conversations look like. I believe they must all contain the following:

  • Mutual respect.
  • An attempt at equal footing for all participants
  • A desire to learn from everyone involved, based on the principal that EVERYONE knows something you don’t.
  • Willingness from ALL participants to engage in some type of Cognitive Restructuring. Or, simply put, “intellectual flexibility and humility.” This is the willingness to be wrong.

When these things are not present, it opens the door for a toxic discussion.

A recent Patreon only Episode Discusses this as well! Join that important community for as little as $3 a month!

Narrowing the Window

As the Overton Window for what types views can be productively discussed online continues to narrow, I have outlined some common problems that contribute to negative outcomes in contentious comment threads. An extremely common example of this is the following reductionist statement template:

“I am fine with disagreement when it comes to (fill in the blank super benign thing like pizza toppings), but I will not honor the opinion of someone who advocates for (fill in the blank with some extreme, often violent or explicitly discriminatory position that almost no one holds.)”

This is a common rhetorical device that seeks to draw a simple binary over a complex conversation. This way, the person can avoid contending with the THOUSANDS of points of reasonable disagreement between pizza toppings and violence. This narrows the Overton Window by attaching magnetic poles to the extremes of an argument. “You’re either with us or against us.” When you think about it for more than a few seconds, it becomes baffling that a person would frame disagreement in that way. What a charmed life one must have led, to have NO disagreements with anyone other than paint colors or pizza toppings. The most important thing here is learning to recognize this rhetorical device, to avoid getting sucked in by it.

This meme is a popular way to communicate this fallacy. The problem with this statement is that it only works if everyone in the conversation uses the same definitions for all of those words. In the Socratic method, we start be agreeing on definitions FIRST.

In reality, any complex issue has thousands of variables that could be discussed or explored when a group of people is having a discussion. By framing disagreement in this way, we lose the opportunity to explore the variables. What I am seeing, is that many people seem to THINK they are presenting their own thoughts, but in reality are simply filling in pre-made conversation templates like the ones above.

The Anatomy of an Explosive Comment Thread

It is my belief that there are some folks out there that WANT threads to blow up. Some who actually set out to paint people into a corner, so that an argument is inevitable. You know a thread is going to blow up, and that it’s time to get out of dodge when you see the following sequence. It’s like clockwork, I’ve seen it happen 1000 times at this point. This will usually mean that someone who considers themselves to be an activist on whatever topic is being discussed has arrived on the scene. It is often very important for that person to be seen as a white knight or savior. I will call this person “The Hero.” In addition, there are usually a flock of people reading the thread and liking the activist’s/hero’s posts so that they can signal their support, but they rarely contribute to the conversation. This is what I will call the “audience.” This dynamic creates the performative nature of many conversations online.

Step 1. The Hero ENTERS the conversation telling others what they MUST do. This will usually be established in one of the first, if not THE first volley of the conversation. It will be a statement from authority in which a claim of what the result of this conversation will be from the outset.

Step 2. The Hero jump’s right in to mind reading and the assigning of motives. They will start to translate what people are actually saying (explicitly) into what they “are really saying” despite any protests, as well as what you “are really hoping to achieve.” The picture will not be flattering. (Meanwhile, the audience will be liking and loving the Hero’s attempts to paint their interlocutor as the bad guy. In doing so, they are also using the social media algorithms to draw more sympathetic audience members to the thread. Thus, creating the impression that they are in the majority.)

Step 3. Next, the Hero will “Catastrophize” and claim that the results of this conversation (even if it is in a private FB page) could have real and tragic consequences in the real world and provide no evidence for it. (this is usually the justification for step 4.  (I have tried turning the conversation at this point to the evidence for the catastrophe that could stem from our continued disagreement on the given topic. I do not recommend this. It won’t go well.)

Step 4. Outline the rules for the conversation early on, including who is allowed to speak and who is not, and most importantly make it clear how unwelcome it would be if the “wrong people” give their opinions.  (Sometimes this happens as part of Step 1, but some tend to drag this out a bit and let some people give their opinions before telling them their opinion is not welcome.) This is a part of a ritual almost, during which “teams” become clearly established. You either cheer on all of these rules, or you are on the opposing team.

Step 5. Accusations of bigotry or worse to anyone who bristles at the above steps. This is often accompanied by throwing around the word “tone-policing” or “fragility” when one person expresses discomfort with being called a bigot etc. See below for more thoughts on tone-policing. 


This is a term used often in activist discourses. It is often used in online arguments when one person does not like being told that they are being “mean or rude” by their interlocutor. In other words, there is usually a claim that saying another person is mean or rude is, in itself, mean or rude.

This seems incongruous with the recent rise in “consent culture” which I see as a good thing. Loosely defined, consent culture is the long overdue idea that I should be sensitive to your personal and physical boundaries. If I have crossed one, I am honor bound to step back. The current trend, at least in these types of arguments, is a move AWAY from consent culture. A person’s boundaries don’t disappear when they log on to the internet. This should concern all of us.

The term “tone-policing,” as I see it, is incongruous with consent culture. In other words, you and no one else, should have the moral authority to draw the boundaries that you are comfortable with online. If you establish them in a conversation, they should be respected. It’s that simple.

But, in order for consent culture to extend to certain online spaces, this concept MUST be reciprocal. “I find your accusations and rhetoric insulting, please stop” should never be met with “you don’t get to decide how I talk to you, stop tone policing me!

We would never accept this with in person conversation, because it is slimy and cowardly. Finding out you have hurt someone, stepping back and apologizing takes strength. If all participants in a conversation, regardless of age, race, gender expression, nationality, religion or any other identity category cannot accept this as a bare minimum for productive conversation to occur, then we are lost. So, my boundary, or line in the sand, is just that. I will talk to you about ANYTHING. As long as I feel like we are starting the conversation as equals. Some will say that this is impossible. “All conversations have power imbalances.” I disagree, but if that is your position, can’t we at least TRY?

Basically, what I am describing is bullying. In online spaces, we should encourage each other to be sensitive to boundaries of treatment the way we instinctually would in real life. (because this is real life.)

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