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.

When Winning is Losing

In one scene of the 1985 classic Real Genius Lazlo Hollyfeld, reclusive genius, encounters Chris Knight in the dormitory and asks him about his final exam. He says, “Well, how’d you do?” Knight, energetic, answers, “How’d I do? I passed! But I failed! Yeah!” And Hollyfeld responds, “Well, then I’m happy and sad for you.”

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It was difficult not to remember these words following the astonishing results of the US election this past week. Certainly (and regardless of outcome) it was going to be a pass that was a fail, a failure that somehow passed. My own summary comment, which I offered on Facebook, was this: “There are victories that are losses, and losses that are victories. The cross is the latter. Very often, politics are the former.” This is a truism that any married person will be able to confirm from experience. There are occasions when winning an argument might well mean losing part of the relationship. Winning, in other words, isn’t everything. Tuesday’s win may well be a real loss for Christians in America.

Underlying this is a conviction, perhaps strange to hear, that a Clinton presidency would have been fundamentally better for our public Christian witness. Why should this be? Because while such a presidency would likely have been grievous to our Christian comfort—creating the potential for loss of liberty and opposition to our cherished beliefs at the highest office of the American nation—in the light of such an opposing power structure our Christian convictions would require clear, solid, and enunciated articulation. The discomfort would force us to stand clearly for our beliefs and to strive to re-articulate them to a culture which views us largely as an antiquated mystery.

This upcoming Trump presidency will likely be more comfortable for Christians, but it will also be summarily more damaging. It is foundationally difficult to maintain a countercultural stance when you represent the dominant power structure. In the cloud of our political comfort our true convictions are likely to be sullied and masked by controversy, distortion, and association. The many people we are called by Christ to reach on the left are in this moment becoming unreachable because of our new ascendance to power and association with Trump. This situation also makes it difficult for us to reach those American Christians on the right who confuse nationalism with faith. It is hard to envision a scenario where this victory is not a defeat for Christian witness in America.

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A further reason why this is so damaging is because we have not sufficiently reflected on the relationship between power and witness. The apostles, of course, married their witness to power—spiritual power. Signs and wonders accompanied their proclamation of the gospel both as a testimony to the living power of God and as tokens of the validity of their message. Those signs proved that their witness was sanctioned by supernatural power structures—i.e., that the Kingdom of God had arrived and Jesus was its Risen King. But we should observe that, while the signs are present for all to see, individuals who witness them remain free to choose their response. This is a hallmark of the divine use of power: God does not force people. Forcing people violates freedom, and violating freedom both invalidates faith and nullifies relationship. God wants us to make a choice to follow Him. Apparently, He wants friends and not slaves.

American Christians are appealing to political structures as a method of social change, when God’s model for social change is proclamation, supernatural power, and personal relationships. We are fixated on the top, when we ought to be aiming at the bottom. Rome fell not because the emperor became a Christian, but because Christianity infiltrated every valence of its political, social, and moral world. The stone in Daniel, if you remember, the one not cut by human hands, strikes at the feet and not the head of the great empire statue. The world does not, and cannot, become more Christian by means of earthly power. What I fear is that Christians, by our use of and association with earthly political power, are in danger of attempting to do something for God in a way fundamentally opposed to how God Himself does things. Our use of power does not look very much like His. In the process, it is poisoning our spoken witness as well. The impression generated by this election is that American Christians, at their core, simply want to tell other people how to live. Rightly or wrongly, that vision of “how to live” is now perceptually linked to racism, sexism, and nationalism. The witness to Christ is thus marred by our aping of political structures.

Trump’s presidency may achieve certain desirable ends and may preserve certain freedoms, but it will make our task as Christians in America much more difficult. May God have mercy upon us, and upon our nation.

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Terry Fontaine, “Against the Flow”