Show and Tell: A Critique of Public Rhetoric

Before I say anything constructive, consider the following four quotes—three taken from America’s Twitterer-in-Chief, and the fourth from C.S. Lewis:

“The media coverage this morning of the very average Clinton speech and Convention is a joke. @CNN and the little watched @Morning_Joe = SAD!” (@realDonaldTrump on July 29)

“Wow, CNN had to retract big story on “Russia,” with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!” (@realDonaldTrump on June 27th)

“Crowd is booing the hell out of that phony decision – place is angry and going wild. Fight was not even close! DISGUSTING.” (@realDonaldTrump on May 4th)

“Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.” (C.S. Lewis to Joan Lancaster, 26 June 1956 [Letters to Children, 64])

Lewis and Trump

I put these four quotes here to highlight what is a growing pet-peeve I have with public rhetoric. Labels such as “Sad,” “Fake News,” and “Disgusting” are appearing with increasing frequency, and what I dislike about them so very much is that they pretend to draw your conclusions for you. Rather than engaging in the work of thinking, evaluating, and then drawing a proper conclusion from a piece of information, these conclusions are ready-packaged right from the start. You don’t have to think your way through right and wrong, I will simply tell you how to feel. #Convenient.

It’s worth unpacking this problem further. First of all, we should note that a declaration is not an argument. Simply because I declare something to be “disgusting” doesn’t make it disgusting. I might dislike it a lot. I might think you will dislike it a lot. But nothing replaces the task of actually arguing for why a given thing, person, or place is “disgusting,” and then for you to consider those arguments and make a judgment. In fact, it is the very business of public rhetoric to try to convince you—through argument—that one thing deserves one categorization and not another. It takes arguments to determine whether Republicans or Democrats are right about the management of American government. It takes arguments to determine whether or not the Affordable Care Act is a good or a bad program. And declarations are insufficient arguments. #Truth.

A further problem is how this trend reflects on our critical thinking more generally. Label-based rhetoric is certainly a much easier task to perform than argument-based rhetoric. It’s far simpler to call someone “Loser” than to actually demonstrate his or her failure. And while it is possible that this is simply a by-product of the medium—140 characters do not lend themselves to particularly deep and critical thoughts—the labelling of emotional responses to a given event smacks more of laziness than of constraints. When I write a one-word conclusive label to cap off a point then I’m asking you to do my work for me. #Lazy.

Related to this, I am reminded of another Lewis quote—this time from his book on education, The Abolition of Man. He writes,

“Can you be righteous,” asks Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought… The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeably, disgusting, and hateful. (The Abolition of Man, 28-29)

Looking at things this way, the activity of education is a kind of extended, grand, patient act of show-and-tell. The educator shows—for example in literature—an instance of the best, along with some instances of the worst, and permits the student to draw conclusions between the two. The best of education happens when the student is so sufficiently acquainted with the good that he or she can recognize it in other media. The conclusions will not have been drawn for you, you will be equipped to draw those conclusions for yourself. #Smart.

I think it unlikely that Trump will change his rhetorical habits. But that doesn’t mean everyone else is required to either ape his rhetoric, or cave to the lazy simplicity of labels. In fact, we have a civic (and indeed Christian) responsibility to act publicly with rhetorical dignity, honourability, and integrity. We must argue and not presume, and we must do these things with both respect for ourselves, and for our interlocutors. #Self-Respect.

3 comments on “Show and Tell: A Critique of Public Rhetoric

  1. Jamie Carter says:

    I’m not sure C.S. Lewis would tweet – it seems to really something well, you have to take a 128 or 144 character limit and surpass it greatly. But perhaps the limit is a good thing, without it – Trump’s words might become all the more obnoxious.

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