Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
On Martin Luther King Day, it seems appropriate to celebrate rhetoric. King was one of the great rhetoricians, able to move people through his words as well as actions. Rhetoric matters, as I've discussed in a previous post. But rhetoric offers some particular challenges today, not all of them worth celebrating.
Today we deal with the rhetoric of social media as well as the rhetoric of great speeches. We deal with the rhetoric of truthiness and post-truth as well as the rhetoric of logic/logos. We deal with the rhetoric of bullying as well as the rhetoric of credibility/ethos. And we deal with the rhetoric of prejudices as well as the rhetoric of emotions/ pathos.
These challenges are widespread, not limited to one political party or to one point of view. Instead they seem to be everywhere and, I’m afraid, may be too difficult to surmount right now.
These current realities of many rhetorical situations distort, in my mind, how good persuasion should work. But then I’m an idealist and naïve, I’ve been told.
Taking up a friend’s challenge, I’ll try in this post to talk about a few of the current challenges for rhetoric. But these realities are far too complex for one blog post to begin to address. So let me just sketch a few rhetorical truths.
Or the latest hashtag. The # is potentially a new means of persuasion as it makes a statement or a joke about a person or position. But are you trying to persuade anyone if you use a hashtag that clearly marks your position? I imagine the people who use and those who search for posts with #PEEOTUS or #LockherUp have already made up their minds about the president-elect or former Secretary of State and are seeking others like them, not new input to change their minds.
So far we seem to be using social media more to confirm what we already think than as a new means of persuasion. Maybe because too many of us have replaced facts and evidence with truthiness.
There’s a reason Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth as its word of the year
"Post-truth—adjective; relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."
Social media and traditional news outlets struggle today with fake news and fact checking. Statements contrary to fact, untruths, outright lies, all are asserted as evidence to support what people want to believe.
As far as I can figure out, it doesn’t matter to some people when the evidence is shown to be false because they still believe it’s true in spirit. “Okay so maybe John Lewis has been a lot more action than talk, contrary to that tweet, and maybe Russians did interfere with the election. But that doesn’t mean Lewis wasn't wrong to call Trump’s presidency illegitimate.” “Okay so maybe Trump is drawing huge, passionate crowds to his rallies, but that doesn't mean he could ever become president.” “Okay so maybe the Arctic ice sheets are melting at unprecedented rates, but that doesn’t mean the climate scientists aren’t all in cahoots.”
In a post-truth age persuasion comes from confirming existing beliefs, not from considering facts.
Along with logic, rhetoric uses ethos to persuade people–the believability of the speaker, the credentials or expertise behind the position, or even the charm or likability of the person trying to persuade us. We believe it is so because of who says it is so.
But have you ever agreed with someone just to get them to shut up? (Oops, I forgot that we don’t say “shut up” in our house, at least not when a grandchild is around.) Have you ever bitten your tongue for fear of what someone will say or do in response? We all have difficult family members or colleagues who make us walk on eggshells around them. But now the world seems full of people who want to shout us into submission or discredit us through lies and insults. Now we also have Internet trolls. If we’re not careful, anything we say or write can provoke personal attacks or even threats.
We are not actually persuaded. We’re frightened.
Charities are notorious for using emotions to get people to donate money. The picture of the starving child wearing rags; the puppy with the big eyes looking up at us; the story of the homeless family living in their car. “Won’t you help?” These emotional appeals usually go along with logical evidence about how many people are one medical emergency away from homelessness; how many animals are euthanized every year; or how few dollars it takes to feed a child in some underdeveloped country. If you want to persuade people to do something about it, it helps to appeal to people’s generosity, kindness, or compassion. Or even their guilt.
Or you can appeal to people’s fears. Mexicans will rape your daughters. Syrian immigrants will commit acts of terrorism. My opponent will ruin this country, one way or another, by destroying everything you hold dear. Once again social media exaggerates this means of persuasion. Fears spread like viruses. Fake news stories confirm the worst prejudices. The appeal to our lowest emotions isn’t new with the Internet. Presidential candidates used Willie Hortons to frighten us and welfare queens to enrage us in print and on television long before this past election year. Some people have always used rhetoric dishonestly for bad purposes.
It just seems that what was once a shocking rhetorical move has become the norm.
I’m overstating, of course. It’s never that simple. But it’s definitely challenging today to figure out how to use rhetoric effectively and ethically. It’s challenging today to make a case for what you believe in a way that might persuade people who can be persuaded without risking being bullied into silence.
Standing up for your beliefs has always been risky, though. The details have changed, but people not so much. Think about today. Martin Luther King Day. A day to celebrate one of the great rhetoricians, a preacher and civil rights activist who was brilliant at using logic, emotions, and his character to persuade many people, in public and in private, to do the right thing.
An effective rhetorician who was brutally silenced.
Maybe the difference today is how widespread and accepted are the less drastic means of silencing. Nasty hashtags and memes are everywhere, on both sides of just about any issue. The rhetoric that persuades through logic, goodness, and positive emotions has to struggle to be heard in the midst of post-truth bullying and fearful prejudices.
What has happened to our promised land?
According to Oxford Dictionaries, we are in an era of post-truth.
Are we also in an era of post-rhetoric?