In classical logic, the standard model of deductive reasoning is the syllogism. Most people are probably familiar with this example: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
The enthymeme is an incomplete syllogism with one of the premises left implicit. In classical rhetoric, a speaker uses an enthymeme to appeal to the unstated shared assumptions of the audience. The unstated premise is an unexamined cultural assumption — frequently a prejudice — shared by the audience, which is left unstated because to state it might invite critical examination.
In a class society, the enthymeme takes on special importance. The ruling class ideology is conveyed by enthymemes embedded in all the messages with which the cultural reproduction apparatus — political speeches, the schools, the news media, entertainment — bombards us every day.
One of the most effective weapons we have, in our fight against the ruling class and its ideology, is to make explicit the unstated premises of the enthymemes in ruling class propaganda and expose them to critical examination.
The most powerful cultural conditioning results not from explicit statements of principles the ruling class wants us to internalize, but from things we all just assume to be natural and self-evident without ever remembering just when we were told these things. If these principles were stated, in so many words, as simple declarative sentences, people might stop to give them serious consideration before deciding whether they agreed or disagreed.
That’s not what the ruling class wants, of course. But it’s exactly what we want.
Take the common statement we hear, both from the police state’s official propaganda apparatus and from its apologists in the general population: If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. That’s an enthymeme with an unstated premise the size of Jupiter. The implicit premise can be unpacked as a complex of several closely related propositions: The state means well; the state’s definition of “wrongdoing” is the same as the average rational person’s; the state can be trusted not to abuse its power; etc.
And as any reader of Glenn Greenwald or Radley Balko knows, these premises — to put it mildly — don’t stand up very well in the face of empirical evidence.
Likewise, all those statements we hear from the national security state about “foreign threats,” “aggressors,” American “defense” spending, and the like, all include unstated premises about the nature and intent of American foreign policy that can be obliterated by the volume of documented evidence in the work of Gabriel Kolko, William Blum and Noam Chomsky.
Likewise all the pious platitudes we hear, in public policy debate, about “our free market/free enterprise” system.
Our popular political and social culture, our individual minds, under the influence the constant barrage of propaganda messages from our educational institutions and media, are as infected by unexamined assumptions as a trichinotic hog is by cysts. Our task is to open up these cysts, expose them to the air and clean out the corruption.
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