on rhetoric

My head is spinning. Mary Oliver died. I finally watched the Gillette ad and its bizarre controversy.  I read more about the kidnapping of orphaned Jayme Closs.

I felt exhausted after my day spent catching up.  The stories and briefings were shocking, and sad, and strange, and I realized it wasn’t just the content that had me so upset.  It was the writing, too.  Among the many articles I read I was nonplussed by the ease with which authors made clumsy assumptions–about facts, audience, background, even truth.  It seems that there is a burgeoning, perhaps ongoing, mal au regard that many authors have for rhetoric.

Aristotle believed Rhetoric was among the highest virtues.  Through intense study and practice, Aristotle argued, one could come closer to attaining enlightenment or knowing God.  Though my beliefs don’t directly align with Aristotle’s, I do believe that one purpose of this life thing is to seek Truth.

I teach my students that rhetoric is the art of persuasion.  We often think about legal documents or position papers as more classically persuasive, but truly everything with which we engage (as an audience) is rhetorical.  Aristotle defined Rhetoric according to three parts:  logos (wisdom), ethos (credibility), and pathos (emotions or psychology of audience).  In Aristotle’s time, if a persuasive document or speech lacked the critical components of Rhetoric it was relegated to sophistry or manipulation.  One might imagine an article written in the New York Post as lacking logos and ethos, but nailing pathos (hey, who doesn’t love a good horoscope?).  And, what is our general opinion of the NY Post?  It’s great, in a splashy and untrustworthy sort of way. Catch my drift? Likewise, a published writer who makes grammatical errors loses the ethos piece.  A scholarly article that does not have peer-reviewed sources lacks logos.  Most of the time these missteps are unintentional, but nevertheless they cause the audience to question the writer’s credibility.  We are therefore not persuaded.  The writer must dig deeper, investigate further, and edit more carefully to persuade successfully; wherein, we reach truth.

The problem I find today is that so much of our information comes from sophists.  I watched a clip from Facebook that briefly discussed the responses to the Gillette ad.  It struck me as a particularly powerful example of how we, the audience, are perpetually exposed to lazy rhetoric.  One of the hosts said that women nowadays lack an effective leader to move them away from “constantly identifying as victims.” I could draw with a marker on my whiteboard all the enormous holes, assumptions, and generalizations in this argument–not to mention the fact that an issue this big is always exponentially more nuanced.

Another key part of Rhetoric involves defining one’s terms.  This is critical if your audience is not only going to listen, but also get on board.  In the clip there were so many hugely loaded terms like “feminism.”  There has to be a spoken or unspoken agreement between speaker and audience that we’re all talking about the same thing.  I know this example is a little touchy, but imagine how Donald Trump and Gloria Steinem might define feminism differently.

A female host remarked how the media perpetuates concepts like “micro-aggressions” or “male privilege,” which she believes further victimize women and ultimately immobilize them.  She continued, “These words show women as weak when they’re trying to be on an even playing field.  Men are constantly worried they’re going to offend someone, or worse, be accused of unintentional, sexual harassment.”  Sigh.

While I love the sentiment behind the Gillette ad, the men in it did ALL of the talking.  Women are still silent, except for the one, female anchor who reports on the #metoo movement.  The ad really was meant to support women, but the micro-aggressive part is that the men in it are still not listening.

The thing is it’s difficult to discern truth.  It takes uprooting a lot of personal, cultural, and sub- or unconscious baggage.  You not only have to do the unpacking, but also the rebuilding once all the pieces are disassembled.  I truly believe this is where Rhetoric can help us.  We can reclaim the importance of investigation, peer-review, etc., but most importantly, listening.

We hear or watch ONE advertisement on social media, and suddenly it becomes the axis on which our rhetoric spins.  Fast information is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that I hope someday leads to a reexamination of what we mean by truth.  For now, we need to slow down, as best we can.

Tomorrow I will venture far from the internet.  I will head to the library.


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