The Art of Rhetoric: Its Virtues & Flaws

In a not-too-distant previous life, when I thought that standing in front of dozens of apathetic teenagers in hope of teaching them why learning proper grammar, writing, and argumentation skills was a worthwhile vocation to pursue, I came up with a nifty little speech to start off every semester.

I would say:

I know exactly what you are thinking right now.  It’s the same question every student, in every course, in every land thinks every time they enter a classroom.

Why do I need to learn this?

The simple answer is that it’s because the law requires you to; at least until you turn 18.  For most of you that’s a good enough answer to put up with my incessant talking for a few months, scrape together enough effort to satisfy the course requirement, and move on to your next classroom, until the law finally says that you’ve gone through the motions long enough to be let loose into the real world, full of non-classroom-type duties and responsibilities.  For most of you this answer is good enough.  But there’s a few of you for whom this sort of reasoning is not anywhere near good enough to make you put up with what the education system expects of you for an hour and fifteen minutes of your day.

If you fall within that group, I want you to listen very closely.  In life you will meet many people.  A great number of these people will make prejudgments about you from the first moment they see you–both good and bad.  The good prejudgments will work to your benefit, and the bad will be obstacles that can make your life very, very hard.

People will make prejudgments about you based on your height, your weight, your race, your gender, the way you dress, the way you stand, even the way you choose to cut your hair.  The negative opinions formed by these prejudgments, no matter how unfair or shallow, will for the most part be things you have little control over.  Except for one important component:  The way you communicate.  Yes, people will judge you by how you speak, too.  And while you can’t do much about someone who simply hates you for the way you look, you can sure as hell do everything to deny them the pleasure to dismiss you for the way you communicate.  Even if they still hate you at the end of the day for all the bigoted ways available to them, you should at the very least do everything in your power to make it impossible for them to dismiss you for the way you write, the way you argue–the way you speak!  That is entirely within your power, and it is a power that’s learned, not inherited.  This is your opportunity to learn it, if this is a power you wish to possess.  If you don’t, any prejudgments others make about your person as a results of your decision right now, will be entirely on you.

I’m biased, but I like to think it got the point across as well as anything else could.  And while the point was of course to get the students to feel somewhat enthused about the lesson plan, there was also a deeper purpose to my little pep-talk.  Namely, I was demonstrating the use of rhetoric to argue the case for learning about rhetoric (none of the students ever really picked up on this, though).

Rhetoric has a few technical (read boring) definitions floating around, but the basic gist of it is that rhetoric is a form of discourse meant at persuasion (typically of a person or audience).  This is the part about rhetoric that most philosophical commentators agree on anyway.  Opinions regarding the use or ethical standing of rhetoric have been more polarizing, however.  Plato looked down on rhetoric as mere flattery that could be used to manipulate the masses, as it’s primary purpose was to convince you to side with the argument, and not to impart knowledge or truth.  His student Aristotle took a more favorable view, and considered rhetoric to be an important discipline (and art form), and a necessary part of any well-rounded civics education.  Much of the writings and social revolutions that emerged from the Enlightenment relied heavily on rhetoric to persuade the public to a new way of thinking about life (and liberty, and even the pursuit of happiness).  The same goes for anti-Enlightenment reactionaries, who argued in favor of preserving the status quo in society.

In the modern world, rhetoric (in its purest form) is most readily seen in courtrooms and legislative bodies, and the political spheres that surround them.  It’s no surprise that so many politicians start out as lawyers, and go on to use the same rhetorical tricks they learned in law school on the campaign trail.  It’s for this reason that rhetoric takes on a negative connotation in many people’s minds.

Memorable (yet content-empty) slogans, propagated by conscience-devoid politicians, whose only concern is scoring a victory in their (and their donors’) favor.  Arguments put worth by their mouthpieces in the form of public commentators and pundits, serving the sole purpose of winning over the electorate’s hearts, often at the expense of their critical thought and personal long-term interests.  Honorable mentions also go to the rhetorical tactics of self-professed experts who peddle pseudoscience and conspiracy theories to the affect of fostering a perpetually misinformed populace for the sake of monetary gains.  These can all be counted as examples in support of Plato’s skepticism towards rhetoric as a virtuous mode of discourse.

Even my speech above is arguably laced with unwarranted rhetorical hyperbole.  (Honestly, most people you meet will probably not form good or bad opinions of you; they’ll probably look right past you with complete indifference, if you offer no value to them as a person).  However, one should refrain from getting distracted with unwarranted equivocations.  I sincerely believe there’s a big difference between educators using rhetoric to motivate their students to succeed in their coursework, and the sort of rhetoric that contributes to public policy meant to misinform the public (if you don’t, I hope you never get picked to serve on any jury).

I already mentioned the culpability of politicians making use of rhetoric to spread propaganda for ideological gains.  And while this is universally snubbed as somewhere on the edge of morally questionable behavior, the only reason its done is because it works so well.  In other words, people get manipulated by the bells and whistles of skilled rhetoricians because they don’t care to educate themselves about the hogwash they are being fed (usually because they agree and want to believe what’s being said to them, even if it’s factually baseless).

The public (at least its voting component) is the primary check on politicians in a democratic republic.  However, given the ease by which we will readily be swayed by faint words of praise and reckless fearmongering, its not absurd to thing that Plato may have been on to something when expressing doubts with the public’s ability to combat against rhetoricians whose only purpose is to persuade with complete disregard for the truth of their words.

A secondary check on the rhetoric of public officials is the part of the voting public that makes up the free press.  The reason why the founders of the United States explicitly mentioned protection for the free press from the government in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, relates back directly to the role the press (ideally) ought to have as the fact-checkers holding those in power accountable.  Unlike the public, a respectable free press has several internal mechanisms in play that work to sift through credible and credulous information.  It’s also why the first thing clever rhetoricians do is undermine the very credibility of the free press.  “Fake News” is a beautiful example of manipulative rhetoric at its finest, as it plays on the public’s distrust of media sources (i.e. its only reasonable to believe that some news outlets fail to overcome the biases of their presenters) and gives it a credulous dose of self-serving generalization (i.e. all news outlets that disagree with me are the biased ones, regardless of any evidence they present to support their position).

Any reasonable amount of critical thought on the subject clearly shows that the fact that news sources can be mistaken (or even outright deceptive), does not therefore warrant the conclusion that all media must be wrong and lying when they report something you don’t want to be true.  Once again, it’s up to the public to follow-up on the sources any reputable press will readily provide for them to check the merits of what’s being reported.  Shouting “Fake News,” however, makes it easier to muddy this relationship between the public and the press, by equating all sectors of the press as untrustworthy in general, and allows people to lazily self-select only the media they are already disposed to agree with, without having to be burdened with doing any intellectual legwork.

Journalists are also rhetoricians by trade.  Unlike politicians and lawyers, however, members of the free press ought to strive to belong to Aristotle’s more virtuous sect of the rhetoric spectrum, which aims to persuade the masses towards truth and knowledge.  As journalism moves more towards competing for public viewership to continue to operate–thereby having to appease to the whims and tastes of the public, rather than seeking to simply inform them–the concept of fact-based reporting threatens to descend completely into the realm of vacuous rhetoric meant to do little more than keep up viewer support (which, as mentioned, is prone to succumb to some flimsy and fickle interests).

The elevation of online personalities, whose sole journalistic experience is being able to cultivate an audience around themselves on video-sharing sites like YouTube, under the neologism of “alternative media,” is an example of a free press where rhetoric takes precedence over fact-based reporting.  Not to smear those personalities who make every effort to be a respectable source of information, the reality is that the environment of being an online news commentating source is inherently prone to undermine the fact-checking mechanism of traditional journalism, mostly by side-stepping it completely in favor of peddling rhetoric.

These online outlets have little in the way of field-based journalists doing the legwork to uncover newsworthy stories, let alone teams of fact-checkers tirelessly looking through sources and notes to determine the veracity of a story prior to its reporting.  In truth, they rely almost entirely on the work of traditional journalists, whose work they present and provide opinionated commentary over, while ever-so-often throwing in jabs at how ineffective traditional journalism is, despite most (if not all) their actual “news” content coming through the efforts of said traditional journalism.  The reason why this matters is that it is a clear example in which what could be a respectable profession, and a reliable venue for information for the public, is sacrificing its responsibility to dispel factual knowledge for the convenience of mindless rhetoric because it offers them popularity and financial gains in terms of viewer support and sponsorship.

Understanding the role of rhetoric–its values, its uses, and its prevalence–is vital in being able to identify the difference between an impassioned speaker fighting on behalf of a just cause, and a demagogue looking to manipulate the mob to his advantage.  Its vital in being able to distinguish between journalists who go through many painstaking, sleepless nights to report a truth to the people as a public service, and pundit blowhards using the cover of journalism to propagate misinformation for their own gains and egos.  In general, to understand the use of rhetoric, is to be able to identify it and (if need be) ward yourself against its more dire influences.

Rhetoric is not, and should not be, a dirty word.  Like most things, in the hands of benign and well-meaning hands, it is a powerful tool of communication that can inspire immense good in the world.  In the wrong hands, however, it can be the barrier that keeps us permanently free-falling in the abyss of credulity and self-destruction.



The Muse, She Calls at Night

Depending on whom you ask, the severity of what it means to have writer’s block ranges from a minor annoyance to an anxiety inducing migraine.  Everyone experiences a bit of writer’s block now and again.  Often it takes the form of not knowing how to verbalize going from Point A to Point P in a prose; or, at least, not knowing how to write it seamlessly enough that it would count as decent writing.  In these cases, it can be something as simple as the ideal word or phrase that turns it all around to unclog the ol’ writer’s pipelines.  Other times, just the act of persistent writing (followed by heavy editing)  is enough to help get the creative juices flowing back onto the page.

As is to be expected, the people who feel the most emotionally committed to what they are trying to write tend to feel the most distraught when their creativity is experiencing a slowdown, or has reached a complete halt altogether.  If you find yourself in a situation like this, then you are fortunate enough that there is plenty of advice out there for you.  Reading more (both related and unrelated works) to inspire your own writing, is one of them.  As is the aforementioned idea to persevere through the block through sheer willpower and keep typing away until something halfway decent starts manifesting itself.  Exercise, eating a well-balanced meal, and getting enough sleep are probably somewhere on the list, too.  Someone once told me that it’s also worthwhile to try stepping away from one’s writing entirely to cure writer’s block.  Although I’m sure this might work for some, I’ve also seen it have the opposite effect of causing writer’s to lose the motivation to go back to an unfinished work the more time they spend away from it.

In this sea of helpful remedies to cure writer’s block, I would like to take a moment to share what helps me personally ward off this dreaded ailment.  It’s more of a writing guideline–or routine–I have found to be the most conducive to getting me where I need to be when confronted with the heavy hurdle of staring at a blank page.   And it can be plainly stated as:

Write at night, and edit by day. 

For me, there’s just something about writing in those last few hours before bedtime that gets my creativity firing at its full capacity.  Maybe it’s the fatigue of the day, where my mind had already spent several hours going through a few rough drafts long before I ever started to write a word down.  Or perhaps it’s a combination of the still of the night, and the dreamlike state of slumber already taking a hold of my senses to steer my imagination where it needs to go.  I don’t really know what it is, but for me the writing muse comes at night.

Now, I also added the bit about editing by day, which shouldn’t be ignored.  While I might feel most inspired to write at night, I’m also more prone to make avoidable grammatical errors when I’m already drifting off to sleep.  This is why, after I hit save and turn in for the night, I’ll spend the next day (or two) going through what I had written to fix any spelling mistakes, cluttered diction, or to revise anything that might have looked decent when first written, but in the light of day reads like it’s been overworked, or is off in some other way.

Is this an obsessive compulsive routine that needs to be followed to the letter for me to be able to write anything?  Of course not!  Plenty of things get written and edited by day, too, within a few short hours, with no creative hindrance whatsoever.  Just like there are nights when the muse decides to turn in early and doesn’t bother to come at all for one project, and barely manages to phone it in for another.  However, outliers shouldn’t be used to negate a general trend.

I will freely admit, though, that I have always been somewhat of a night owl, laced with infrequent bouts of insomnia.  Hence, it’s possible that I just happen to be the personality type for whom a habit of nightly writing comes the easiest, and you might not be.  But, if you are struggling with writer’s block, and none of the other remedies have offered you much relief in the matter, do feel welcome to try my personal guideline out for yourself.  Take the last two hours or so before your normal bedtime (no need to force wakefulness past your usual comfort level), and see if it helps unclog that cerebral blockage.  Just be prepared to possibly have to edit and revise a few things the next day, like a motherfucker!

Treatise on Blasphemy

Recently the Republic of Ireland held a referendum to repeal longstanding blasphemy offenses in its country.  While blasphemy still stands as a finable offense in the Republic under the 2009 Defamation Act, the referendum is still a demonstration that, as far as the Irish people are concerned, charges of blasphemy ought not to be a part of punishable civil law in their nation.

Friends of my adopted homeland here in the United States usually have a conception of Western Europe as being made up of a set of predominantly secular and progressive cultures.  And speaking as someone who spent many years growing up in Western Europe, this conception isn’t wholly unfounded.  As a result, it might astound many Americans to hear that some of these secular, progressive, ultra-liberal, borderline lefty countries still have enforceable blasphemy laws in place.  Granted, the actual enforceability of such laws is largely theoretical in nature, given that they are usually undermined by far more salient laws allowing for the freedom of religious expression and the freedom to believe in accordance to one’s personal conscience.  Thus, blasphemy laws currently exist as a vestigial organ in European law books; without practical purpose or application, but still present nonetheless.

“If these laws are unworkable, than why even bother to fret about them with referendums at all?  Why not just continue to ignore them, and get on with your blaspheming ways?”

This could be a reasonable response, but it misses an important point concerning blasphemy laws.  Putting aside the fact that it makes perfect sense to oppose the criminality of blasphemy on principle alone as unbecoming of any modern democratic nation, there is also the issue of the frailty on which the laxity of these laws currently exist.  To put it more plainly, the reason blasphemy charges are unworkable in most of the European nations that have them is precisely because the current sociopolitical climate is too secular and progressive to enforce them.  However, as any student of history knows, sociopolitical climates are anything but static.  So what happens if the political pendulum swings too far to the right, towards a political faction that views the protection of religious sensibilities as far more important to a nation’s cultural well-being, than the free expression of its citizenry?  Suddenly, these outdated blasphemy laws that have had no real thrust in civil law for almost two centuries, become a very powerful weapon in the hands of reactionaries all too eager to use the existing rule of law to conform society to their line of quasi-pious thinking.  And this is a potential threat both believers and unbelievers alike ought to be concerned about.

Blasphemy isn’t simply the act of professing one’s disbelieve in religious claims, whole cloth.  Blasphemy is the very nature in which all religions profess the very doctrines that make up their faiths.

Whenever polytheistic faiths, like certain sects of Hinduism, profess the existence of multiple gods, they are blaspheming against monotheistic religions which insist that there is only one god, and none other (and vice versa).  Within the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, when Christians profess that Jesus Christ is the foretold messiah, they are blasphemy against the Jewish faiths that claim that the messiah is yet to come (and vice versa).  When Muslims claim that Jesus, though a prophet and a messiah, is not the son of God, they are blaspheming against a central claim of Christianity.  The Catholic Church’s stance on the supremacy of the Roman papacy is blasphemous to the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Protestant rejection of Catholic ecclesiastical authority is blasphemous to Catholics.  The Methodists are blasphemers to the Calvinists, and just about every Christian sect considers Mormonism a heresy.

The obvious point here is that to take away the right to blaspheme is to make it impossible for religious pluralism to exist within a society.  Perhaps this is fine as long as your religious opinion is the dominant one in the society you inhabit, but what happens if you find yourself just short of the majority opinion?  What if a population shift occurs, and the very laws that enforced the thin-skinned sensibilities of your religious persuasion becomes the means why which the new dominant line of thought undermines your right to religious expression?

I could stop writing now, and end on this appeal for mutual cordiality between people of all faiths, and how it is in everyone’s self-interest to oppose blasphemy laws, but I fear it would leave things very much against the spirit of healthy discomfort that blasphemy really should elicit in a person when coming across it.  On that note, allow me address the elephant in the room that needs to be brought up when concerns regarding religious offense of any sort, in law or public discourse, rears its head.

Undeniably, religions make bold claims for themselves.  Claims that offer definitive answers on matters concerning life, death, morality, with a wager on possessing a monopoly on Truth with a capital T.  And they are always keen to wrap this all-knowing, all-encompassing bit of absolutist wisdom in a garb of self-proclaimed humility, as if to say, “No, no, don’t mind me…I’m simply professing to know the answers to all of life’s mysteries, ready made with the consequences (read: threat) that will befall you if you don’t follow along with my modest creed.”

In short, religions by their inherit design simply claim to know things they couldn’t possibly know.  But I, in turn, admit that I don’t know.  I don’t know what the answers to life’s mysteries are; nor do I know which of today’s mysteries will remain mysterious forever, and which might become common knowledge for subsequent generations to come.  I don’t know which moral answers yield the most objective good for humanity; nor can I say for sure that such answers are even completely knowable.  The truths I do know come with a lowercase t, held provisionally in accordance to forthcoming evidence and reasoned arguments, and I don’t know if I can do anything other than to reject the grammar of bolder Truth claims when confronted with them.

It is precisely that I don’t know that I am left with little recourse than to examine, question, dismiss, disbelieve, and (when I see fit) deride those who do claim to know, but offer hardly a dearth of evidence for their claim.  It took centuries of debate and bloodshed of previous generations of thinkers for any of us to be able to enjoy this simple — yet powerful — privilege to skepticism.  A privilege I do hold up as my right, and which I will speak up for without hesitation or apology.  What you call blasphemy, I call critical thought.  And if anyone can appeal to traditions as a means to protect religious sensibilities by legal means, I am fully within my right to appeal to the tradition of cultural and intellectual pushback towards religious doctrines and religious authorities that has made it possible for any sort of interfaith (and non-faith) social cohesion to exist in the modern world.  A tradition that includes both the right to the profane and the blasphemous, which cannot be allowed to be abridged in a democratic republic, for as long as one wishes to be part of any nation worthy of the claim.