Quite a bit of the discussion on this blog and its predecessors has focused on controversial issues, the kind of thing that causes rhetoric to fly fast and thick. Given the themes I like to discuss in these essays, that could hardly have been avoided. Ours is an age riven by disputes, in which debate has taken over much of the space occupied by physical violence in less restrained eras. (How many people died in the struggle that put Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton in the White House? During most of human history, that wouldn’t have been an ironic question.)
Yet this contentious age has an odd feature, and it’s one I’ve referenced more than once in recent posts on this blog: the fact that the vast majority of the rhetoric deployed in the disputes of our day is so stunningly incompetent.
Consider the way that any widely discussed issue these days is debated: say, the squabble over legislation now before Congress that would make web hosting firms and content providers liable for illegal content posted by third parties. The supporters of the bills in question insist that it’s all about stopping online sex trafficking, and anyone who opposes the bills as written must be in favor of sex crimes. The opponents of the bills, for their part, insist that they’re just an excuse for censorship, and anyone who supports them must be trying to destroy the internet.
Set aside for the moment the substantive issues involved—they’re real and important, but not relevant to the theme of this week’s post—and look at the rhetoric. Both sides have chosen the strategy of flinging over-the-top accusations at those who disagree with them. That strategy’s familiar enough these days that nobody seems to have thought to ask the obvious question: does it work? If you yell at people at the top of your lungs, insisting that their disagreement with you amounts to support for something awful, and they know perfectly well that they don’t support the thing you’re accusing them of supporting, are they likely to change their minds and agree with you?
Of course not. If you try to persuade people using that tactic, they’ll dig in their heels. What’s more, they’re right to do so. When supporters of the bills insist that everyone who disagrees with them is in favor of sex trafficking, opponents of the bill know perfectly well that this is a lie, and a hateful lie at that. When opponents of the bill insist that everyone who disagrees with them wants to impose censorship on the whole internet—well, you can do the math just as well as I can.
Of course it’s not just this one issue that gets the dysfunctional rhetoric just mentioned. These days, it’s frankly hard to find any issue that doesn’t. What’s more, when well-intentioned people try to point out the problems with this failed rhetorical strategy to one side or the other, what normally happens is that the side thus challenged responds with a tirade about how we shouldn’t even be expected to talk to those awful people who disagree with us, because those awful people are just so awful. Why? Because we say they are, that’s why.
Out on the far end of this particular scale are a flurry of relatively recent scientific studies that purport to prove that it’s impossible to convince anybody of anything. One that I find particularly enticing took a group of people who’d voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and showed them a video in which an earnest talking head explained to them at length why they should have voted for Hillary Clinton instead. By and large, the Trump voters thus catechized responded by doubling down on their support for Trump. The media that reported this study, and the Clinton supporters who discussed it in earnest tones while it cycled through its fifteen minutes of fame, insisted that this proved that “those people” were immune to reason.
Au contraire, it proved that “those people”—and a great many other people as well—are immune to incompetent rhetoric when it’s rehashed for the umpteenth time. By the time the election was over, after all, everyone in the United States who didn’t spend 2016 hiding under a rock knew all the arguments in favor of and against each of the candidates, and the vast majority of them had made up their minds well before the election. Running through a set of talking points yet again, when the election was over and voters for the winning side still had to pinch themselves from time to time to be sure they weren’t dreaming and their candidate really had won, was never going to get a favorable reaction. If Clinton had won, and somebody sat down a bunch of jubilant Clinton voters and showed them a video where an Oklahoma farmer wearing overalls and a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat had tried to convince them that they should have voted for Trump instead, how much of an impression would that have made?
Of course there’s another side to the same issue. The earnest talking head telling the Trump voters that they should have voted for Clinton was far from the first earnest talking head these same voters had heard from. Do you recall, dear reader, the earnest talking heads who insisted that economic globalization would mean lots of well-paying jobs for working class Americans? How about the ones who insisted that if working class Americans ran up huge debts to get university training, there would be plenty of jobs waiting for them when they graduated? How about the one in the White House who insisted that Obamacare would mean lower premiums for everyone, and everyone would be able to keep their existing plans and physicians? If you don’t remember these, be assured that millions of Americans do.
It shouldn’t have taken a scientific study to point out that if you lie to people often enough, they’re going to stop believing anything you say. Yet this straightforward point somehow eluded a vast number of people in the wake of the election. What’s more, it still eludes an equally vast number of people on both side of the political fence—the manufacture of self-serving nonsense is a bipartisan industry these days, after all.
We can sum up the issues here in a very simple way: nobody involved in these debates has even the rudiments of a rhetorical education. That phrase—a rhetorical education—covers more ground than a cursory glance might suggest, and a look back at certain phases of history will help make sense of what that involves. It will also help explain how we backed ourselves into the corner we’re in just now, and how we might get out of it.
The intellectual activities of any culture, ours very much included, tend to swing back and forth on a timescale of centuries between two competing ways of understanding the world. We can call these abstraction and reflection. Abstraction is the belief that the world around us obeys a set of laws that can be known by the human mind. Intellectual activity in an age of abstraction therefore focuses on abstracting (literally, “drawing out”) those laws from the buzzing, blooming confusion of the world we experience.
Abstraction is confident and expansive, and it thrives in eras of expansion—economic, political, imperial. It seems obvious in such eras that the kind of intellectual activity that matters is the kind that focuses outward, on the world that human beings experience, and aims at reducing that world to order, number, system. It’s a very successful approach, up to a point. Because people on the intellectual cutting edge in ages of abstraction direct their attention outward to the world, they tend at first to pay close attention to the fit between human ideas and the world those ideas are intended to explain, and the resulting explanations work—again, up to a point.
Over time, though, the successes of abstraction result in vast systems of thought, perfectly rational and interconnected in every detail. Bit by bit, without ever quite noticing that this is what they’re doing, the practitioners of abstraction end up studying their own systems of thought under the illusion that they’re studying the world. Grand overarching theories that explain everything take center stage, until thinkers at the cutting edge dream of a day not far off when everything that matters is known for certain. Greek philosophy inspired such dreams; so did medieval scholastic theology, and so does modern materialist science.
But the day when everything makes sense never arrives, because the more comprehensive the theories become, the less they have to do with the world human beings actually experience. Outside the narrowing circles of the intellectual elite, it becomes impossible to miss the fact that the supposed universality of the world-theories of abstraction has been obtained by excluding countless things that don’t fit. Some of those excluded things are bits of data that contradict the grand theories, but some are much vaster: whole realms of human experience are dismissed as irrelevant because they don’t fit the theoretical model or the methods of inquiry that a given age of abstraction happens to prefer.
This also has unwelcome practical consequences. In ages when abstraction predominates, politics and economics become subject to the same notions of abstract reason that guide intellectual inquiry, and policies are proposed and enacted on the basis of abstract rules, without any attention being paid to the way those policies actually work out when applied. The result is pretty consistently catastrophic. Sooner or later you end up with a situation in which most people, and especially most people in positions of political, economic, and intellectual authority, are faced with disastrous and widening gulfs between the world as defined by their preferred set of abstract rules, on the one hand, and the world we actually inhabit on the other, and the only way out—well, we’ll get to that in a moment.
You know your society has landed in that particular fix when every controversy of importance is treated as though it’s a contest between competing ideas, not a struggle between contending human beings. Politics—real politics, in every society that has ever existed and will ever exist—is always about who gets what benefits and who has to pay which costs, but you’d never guess that from the language used in politics in an era when abstraction has run as far as it can go. No, what you hear in such eras is a contention of abstract concepts in which the mere grubby realities of who benefits and who pays never get mentioned. Of course they’re still central to the political process; it’s just that they’re shrouded in layers of taboo that rival anything the Victorians wrapped around sex. Sound familiar? It should.
The only way out, as I was saying, is to realize that all those fancy abstractions are ideas in the minds of human beings, not realities out there in the world of our experience. That’s when an age of abstraction gives way to an age of reflection. Where abstraction faces confidently outward into the world, convinced that the human mind can grab truth by the short hairs and drag it into plain view, reflection faces ruefully inward, realizing that the human mind has no business making grand pronouncements about the universe when it hasn’t yet come to grips with itself.
Reflection is rooted in the recognition that ideas are human constructs rather than objective truths about nature, and that the only thing we can be sure of is the blooming, buzzing confusion of everyday life. “What actually happens?” becomes more important than “what is eternally true?” Personal, tacit knowledge rooted in example and experience comes to be valued above abstract universal theories—and just as abstraction earns respect in its early days because of its successes in understanding the world, reflection earns respect in the corresponding situation because of its successes in managing the world. (Reflection also runs into problems in the long run, of course, but we’re a couple of centuries away from that eventuality, so can leave it for now.)
The change from abstraction to reflection thus involves a significant shift in intellectual priorities. As the golden age of Greek culture gave way to the silver age of Roman culture, the core studies of the earlier era—logic, mathematics, physics, and speculative philosophy—gave way to a different set of core studies—literature, history, jurisprudence, and ethical philosophy. Trace the shift from one of these to the other and you’ve got a good measure of the different themes that guide the two approaches. In the same way, as the intellectual culture of the high Middle Ages guttered out in a fog of intricate scholastic reasonings that offered no guidance to a world ravaged by the Black Death and cataclysmic political strife, the first stirrings of the Renaissance took shape among those who embraced what they called humaniores litterae—the “more human studies” of history, literature, the arts, and the first stirrings of what we now call anthropology and sociology. Alexander Pope spoke for that vision when he wrote:
Know then thyself! Presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
The humaniores litterae of the Renaissance offer a particularly useful model here, and it’s one that bears directly on the theme of the first half of this post, because those “more human studies” took rhetoric as their central theme. Say that in today’s intellectual context, and everyone tends to assume that this means that what they studied was how to convince people of falsehoods, or something not too far from this. Right there you see the gap between the abstraction that dominates contemporary intellectual culture and the reflection that might just offer a constructive way out of abstraction’s blind alleys. People in an age of abstraction reliably tend to think that the truth of a true statement sticks out all over it like knobs, and only falsehoods need to be passed on by means of rhetorical devices.
Not so. In the world we actually live in, as distinct from the world portrayed by the latest fashions in abstraction, truth is a very rare commodity. What we have instead are claims about truth, which are made by individual human beings, and the reasons why those human beings make those claims sprawl across the notional landscape from reason to emotion to the crassest forms of self-interest. Every one of us is influenced by reasons of all these kinds—those who don’t admit that self-interest plays a role in their beliefs about what is true, in particular, are either lying to themselves or just plain lying—and when we encounter a claim about truth, the processes by which we accept it or reject it are complex, nuanced, and personal.
This is where rhetoric comes into the picture. We can define rhetoric for the time being as the art of persuasive communication. Each of the substantive words in that definition is there for a reason. Rhetoric’s an art rather than a science; this means, among other things, that the personal dimension is paramount, and that what matters about it is specific performance rather than universal applicability. It’s an art of communication; this means, among other things, that its personal dimension embraces the subjective needs, wants, and experiences of the audience as well as those of the performer. It’s an art of persuasive communication; this means, among other things, that a successful performance of rhetoric changes the way its audience thinks, feels, and therefore acts about something.
What this means, in turn, is that rhetoric as practiced in the style of an age of reflection becomes a way of knowledge.
If you are going to persuade anyone of anything, after all, you have to understand the reasons why someone might be moved to believe that thing—and this means you have to understand why you believe that thing, so you have to understand just how much of your own belief depends on the varying pulls of reason, emotion, and self-interest. If you are going to persuade anyone of anything, what’s more, you have to understand the reasons why they believe something other than what you want them to believe—and this quite often means that you have to come to terms with the fact that their beliefs may be as well-founded as yours, or (to sharpen the same point a bit further) that your beliefs may be as poorly founded as theirs.
That doesn’t mean, as partisans of abstraction like to insist that it must mean, that you have to treat every belief as though it’s equal to every other belief. What it means is that you have to come to terms with the richly human context in which claims about truth are believed and disbelieved, and recognize the same factors at work in your own beliefs and disbeliefs. It means that you have to grapple with the fact that nobody has privileged access to truth, no matter how frantically the privileged like to claim this for themselves.
One consequence of this more human approach to questions of truth and falsehood is that it opens up a space for compromise and toleration. Of course the partisans of the two contending forces in contemporary cultural life—and have you noticed that it’s always two and only two such forces, both claiming that there are no options other than the ones they offer?—treat compromise and toleration as blasphemies against their hallowed notions of abstract truth. As noted toward the beginning of this post, though, that hasn’t worked particularly well in practice. No matter how devoutly the various warring sides wish that the other side would simply go away, that’s not going to happen; we can go trudging blindly ahead toward the kinds of cataclysm that similar wishes made all too real during the twentieth century, or we can learn from our history, and recognize that those who won’t live together will probably end up dying together.
A rhetorical education offers a way toward that recognition. It involves a great deal more than may be apparent at first glance—nearly everything, in fact, that is embraced by education in general. In the posts ahead, we’ll talk about what that implies and how it can be pursued here and now, by individuals, families, and small groups, outside the context of abstraction-ridden educational institutions. Fasten your seatbelts and grab the oh my god bar; it’s going to be a wild ride.