The Armchair Rhetorician

The case of IHOP:

When is breakfast a paradox? When it is breakfast and not-breakfast at the same time.

A few days after being thrown in the trashcan by someone I was certain--no doubts--I was in love with and who was also in love with me.. Enough. This matters only by way of explaining why the Armchair Rhetorician finds herself alone in a basement IHOP in downtown San Francisco early on a Sunday morning.

So, on this week during which I was feeling less than entirely happy, and was sleeping too much, but at odd hours, I awoke at 6am on a Sunday. Now, the Armchair Rhetorician rarely wakes up before 10am, ever. So I laid in bed until 7:30, wishing I was still sleeping. Then I got up, and couldn't face the kitchen. It being way too early to call friends without feeling pathetic, I decided that what I needed was anonymity and pancakes. So I set out for IHOP, that is, The International House of Pancakes, at Fourth and Mission, behind the Nordstrom Mall.

Upon my arrival I was greeted by this sign: "No one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast. Or dinner."

At first viewing of said sign, the Armchair Rhetorician was nonplussed. Taken aback. Yes, that's right, I was in a state of perplexity or bewilderment much more serious than that brought on in a reader who discerns in her or his reading material a constant shifting from the first to the third person, and back again.

Right away I need to tell you, with regard to this sign-"No one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast. Or dinner."-that this is a claim, but not an argument. Because an argument requires reasons that function as support for the claim. It would have to say something like "No one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast because IHOP is IHOP and no place else that isn't IHOP is IHOP, and IHOP gives you a vat of bad coffee with your breakfast." Armed with knowledge of the argument's claim and reason, we could then use them (the claim and reason) to figure out that the underlying assumption of the argument would be something like: If a restaurant offers something other restaurants do not offer, then no one "does it" quite like that restaurant. That would leave us with this syllogism:

Major premise: If a restaurant offers something other restaurants do not offer, then no one "does it" quite like that restaurant.

Minor premise: IHOP gives you a vat of bad coffee with your breakfast (and other restaurants don't).

Conclusion: Therefore, no one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast.

The syllogism starts with a generalized principle, adds specific evidence that builds on the principle, and then comes to a specific conclusion. Of course, the specific evidence could have been different. Perhaps IHOP would rather the argument be something like "No one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast because IHOP's pancakes are extra-yummy, and made of gold! Or, because IHOP has menu items like Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity!" or something like that. Either way, the underlying assumption and the conclusion remain about the same.

I mean, if the sign just said ""No one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast," the Armchair Rhetorician, skilled in discerning argumentative logics, could intuit that the rest of the argument was something like what we just rehearsed above and continue on with her breakfast experience. She might be temporarily haunted by the lack of universality of the argument, and wish that it had qualified its claims in some way to show it had knowledge of that lack of universality, etc.

Because, let's face it, lots of places do breakfast like IHOP does breakfast. Denny's. Perkins. Lyon's. Etc. There is not much difference. Except Denny's has menu items like "Moons over My Hammy." And Lyon's has "Trout Almondine." So IHOP, in the case above, should qualify its claim to show us what it means by "no one" and "breakfast" and "like IHOP." IHOP needs to define its terms for us. And then it has to explain to us why the sign says "no one" instead of "no place" "does it like IHOP"! Who is this "one"? Some singular chef who does all the "doing" needed to do it like IHOP? Surely not.

I mean, "no one" goes to IHOP or Denny's or Lyon's for innovative food, or even for excellent food. We go there for this'll-do food. And anonymity. The good pancakes are at the non-chain places. The only reason the Armchair Rhetorician is not at Boogaloo's on said Sunday morning is that she needs anonymity, and not only does the foxy Levon Kazarian manage the Sunday shift at Boogaloo's, but I always see someone I know there, some indicator that, yes, I have lived in San Francisco for a long time. Levon, knowing my habits, would wonder at me and ask just what I was doing awake so early and without my crew at breakfast. The "others" I might see there might try to join me, and engage me in personable conversation. And today I want no conversation, no "How are you doing?" or "How's M----?" Every question feels like an attack.

Anyway.

So if the claim is "No one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast" we accept it as an argument, reasons suppressed, in need of a qualifier, and move on. Give me the Harvest Grain 'n' Nut Combo and a HUGE pepsi, stat.

But if the claim is "No one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast. Or dinner.", we enter problem territory. I mean, is there a secondary argument claiming that no one does breakfast like IHOP does dinner? Good lord! What does it all mean?

I'm picturing a brainstorming session at an ad agency where they come up with the slogan "No one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast" The room is buzzing with excitement. Then excitement wanes, as the various slogan-makers become concerned that the consumer will not realize that IHOP also does dinner. After all, Lyon's has "Trout Almondine." (Believe me, it is best to leave it in quotation marks.) That's dinner.

Oh no, they continue to worry in the brainstorming session, what if no one knows that it's OK, nay, appropriate, infinitely possible even, to eat dinner at IHOP? (And dinner, or something near it, must always be italicized. Dinner needs our attention. I cannot emphasize that enough.) But what is dinner at IHOP? I can think of two possibilities right away.

1) You want breakfast food but it's 6pm. If you're a formalist with regard to meal-eating, pancakes and eggs at 6pm is OUTRAGEOUS. But IHOP wants pancakes and eggs to be enjoyable, indeed entirely proper to enjoy, for breakfast or dinner. Or even lunch. This is precisely the kind of freedom that reminds us what it is to be American.

Or, with a slightly different spin, we could think of this as an example of the classic "when pizza's on a bagel you can eat pizza anytime" argument. It assumes that you might not be able to justify eating pizza at some times, but that a bagel is always eatable. Pizza bagels, then, subvert the law that decrees that only certain times are pizza-eating times. Freed from oppressive eating conventions, we can now eat pizza anytime! (Yes, but is pizza on a bagel really pizza? Nothing is easy. Nothing, I tell you!) Still, what matters is that IHOP is subverting the very idea of dinner by allowing us to eat breakfast food 24 hours a day! Smash the state!

2) But here's the thing. IHOP really does serve dinner. Like Denny's, IHOP has burgers, chicken fried steak, grilled cheese, etc. "Or dinner" refers also to these items. I will not address the question that inevitably arises and sounds something like: why would you go to IHOP for dinner if what you wanted was a yummy burger or the like? We've already established the anonymity argument. And then there's the road-trip nothing-else-remotely-more-attractive thing. Sometimes IHOP is the best place to be.

So dinner at IHOP is breakfast, but it's also dinner. IHOP is making subtle tears in the very fabric that holds "dinner" together, but it is always careful to sew them back together again.

OK, so there are 3 points on this list, not two.

3) Maybe what we're supposed to be supplying when we read "No one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast. Or dinner." is another "Or dinner." No one does breakfast Or dinner like IHOP does breakfast Or dinner. Or: No one does breakfast like IHOP does breakfast. And no one does dinner like IHOP does dinner.

If that were the case, we could separate these into two different "arguments," intuiting the suppressed reasons by means of our individual powers of human reasoning, adding the qualifiers we may or may not think must be added, and venturing forth into the night, well-fortified with Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity or a club sandwich.

That, however, seems to me to skirt the problem territory, suppressing the hard questions this slogan provokes. It accepts the sustenance of a Rooty Tooty without giving thought to what transpires in that enigmatic "Or dinner." Sometimes choosing to stick with the argument that makes the most sense logically is the lazy route. As in when we realize that two things contradict each other, so we pose them as a dilemma out of which we need to choose just one of the two possibilities. But two contradictory possibilities can also be a paradox. Reducing the two possibilities to two sides of a dilemma misses the point of the paradox, the point of the paradox being that sometimes contradictory things do exist together at the same time, and both are true. For instance:

It is simultaneously true that

  1. breakfast is breakfast and
  2. breakfast is dinner.

The paradox: A is both A and not-A.

It is simultaneously true that

  1. it is silly (for you, and for me) to spend this much time on an ill-conceived sign at a mediocre diner chain and
  2. it is worthwhile (for us) to puzzle our way through the world's silliness.

The paradox: Silly is both a waste of time and worth our time.

And.

It is simultaneously true that

  1. I regret having fallen for a selfish, deceptive (even self-deceptive, perhaps) and, in the end, unkind person and
  2. I do not regret having had faith in someone who had not given me any reason to doubt him.

The paradox: it is possible to regret what happened while not regretting anything I did.

In each of these cases, if we limited ourselves to the logic of contradiction whereby we can only choose one "side" of the paradox," we'd miss out the true depth of what we face.

Back at IHOP, here's what my check said: "Thanks for coming in we'll see ya soon!!!" No period between "in" and "we'll." And then there's that "ya," and the three exclamation points. Somehow my check got into the hands of a sixteen-year-old girl who thinks she's passing me a note in fifth period chemistry. The selfish deceptive guy once said to me, "We are all still the person we were in high school, somewhere deep down." That pearl of wisdom actually helped me change something about how I, unconsciously, deal with even the best of my friends, now. So, yes, high school lingers, but it can linger in a modified way. "Who we were" in high school is still who we are. It's good to pay heed to what that might mean to how we all behave now. Because we are all much older than that now, too.

Next installment:

What the hell does "armchair rhetorician" mean anyway? Does it assume somehow that most rhetoricians are somehow very active as opposed to this rhetorician who can most often be found on a fluffy green couch? Ludicrous! Or dinner.