Given that we’re in the middle of a presidential election, and since the human race has not discovered drugs strong enough to numb the horror of our current politics, I felt moved to write this blog entry on rhetoric.
One point I wanted to make is that rhetoric, at least what we study in school, is not the same as overt lying. Really. No, really, although that is the general perception of the word. Yesterday, however, I had a text from a friend complaining about the appalling stupidity of one of her coworkers who was arguing a point by citing things she had heard but ignoring other relevant information.
I texted my friend back and wrote, “To some extent selective choosing of facts is a common rhetorical approach, but it is never a truly honest argument. In fact, it’s a sign of weakness, to be unwilling to deal with opposing facts.” In writing that, however, I thought Hey, I seem to be saying that rhetoric is dishonest.
OK, it’s complicated. The ancient Greeks began to recognize how people were using language, and it occurred to some of them, that by God (actually, they said “by Zeus”), if you think about what you’re doing, you could actually learn to be good at this. Rhetoric is about persuasion, thinking of what to say and how to say it to get people to agree with you and do things you want.
Of course you can get them to agree—temporarily—by merely lying, but if people realize you’re lying, unless they’re Donald Trump supporters, they stop listening to you. The idea of getting people to listen brings up the thing I really wanted to talk about. I’ll refer to ideas from Aristotle here, because even now, no one has surpassed him on this.
So here’s the deal: no matter how honest you are, no matter how much knowledge you have, no matter how much you might truly be a good person, if people don’t believe you’re honest, knowledgeable, and good, they won’t listen to you. Everything you say is useless, because no one listens to someone who they don’t trust.
This is credibility, or as we call it from Aristotle, ethos. If the audience doesn’t already trust you, then part of your rhetorical job, before you can make the points you want to make, is to establish a good ethos, so that they’ll listen. The things I mentioned above (honesty, knowledge, goodness) are from Aristotle’s discussion of what is needed to have a good ethos.
For most politicians, for most humans, in fact, this is how it works. You can’t just walk up to me and give me unusual medical advice and I’ll nod my head and say, “Uh, OK.” Are you wearing a white coat? Are we in a doctor’s office? Do you sound like you know what you’re talking about? What Aristotle was describing is normal human psychology.
But in our current political campaign, in which the hounds of hell have been released to run baying through the trailer parks, the normal psychological phenomena don’t seem to apply. The usual requirements of at least appearing honest, knowledgeable, and decent don’t apparently matter for some voters.
For anyone who cares, Donald Trump is such an obvious liar that it hardly seems necessary to cite the examples. If you can read, you should know (but to cite just one instance: years ago he called reporters and pretended to be a different person, talking about how great he is; now he says he never did that). Knowledge? Ask Trump for information on any actual policy. And decency? Does that even need discussing about a person who treats women like objects to decorate his house, who winks at support from the Ku Klux Klan, and who openly tells people to engage in violence, because he’ll pay for the lawyer?
Trump did not come out of nowhere. The Republican party has been dying for years, and Trump is the smell of that death. Nevertheless, it’s astounding that a person who violates all of the logical bases for earning trust has people practically willing to dress in brown shirts and salute him. How did he become the nominee of the Republican Party? Something is very badly broken in America, when lying, ignorance, and viciousness will get you elected.