So What’s Your Point?
The Uses and Abuses of Rhetoric
Knowing that you do not understand is a virtue; Not knowing that you do not understand is a defect.
Nobody likes to be wrong, and for that matter, most of us “like” to be right. Few of us walk around writing, saying or thinking, “Boy, my opinions and views are certainly shallow, uninformed, and alarmingly trivial—but here is what I think….” We like to be assured that what we know and feel is valid and real and informed, for there is a serenity in knowing that we know—or that we have thoughtfully reached a level of knowingness that is somewhere near to certainty. I admit that a certain jealousy sweeps over me when I hear or read someone say exactly what I already think and feel (and though I knew) but I just never found the words or the way to say it with that much eloquence and clarity. Or I am at a party and two prodigious minds are arguing a topic, and I find myself swinging dizzily from one side to the other: “He’s right. No, she’s right. But he made a good point. Now her’s is better.” Worse is when I decide to butt in to the conversation with my limited skills and sketchy half-ass information, and I am forced to slink away with my tail between my legs like a proud, yet sheepish, cur. In each instance I have been victimized by a majestic and compelling use of rhetorical language—which is simply effective and persuasive speaking or writing. But don’t fear. Becoming a more adept rhetorical speaker and writer is a skill that can be learned and practiced in every facet of our academic, social, and intellectual interactions.
The first skill is to stop. Think. Think some more. Then speak. Lao Tzu had it right almost three thousand years ago when he wrote the short poem posted above this essay. He was no doubt annoyed by people who were obsessed with being right, but who were not equally obsessed with knowing what they needed to know before opening their big mouths or wetting ink to papyrus! The wisest and most enduring advice then is to stay the heck out of conversations you have no right or aptitude to be in. Sadly, Lao Tzu’s wisdom is lost on most people, for our lives are full of moments where we are carried away by the ephemeral sound of our own voices and not by the content and wisdom of our arguments. We only need to read or hear the endless screed of Facebook postings, political rantings, and absurd comments that so fill our everyday lives to know that we live in opinion-full, yet shallow, times. I am just as guilty as any of you. Regrettably, it is often impossible to undo what we say or write or post. The only practical (and wise) thing we can do is to start fresh and choose our arguments more carefully, think more deeply, and know when, where, and how to say or write what we want to say or write. Only then will our rhetoric rise to the level of the sublime. Hopefully, this set of criteria for speech giving will not banish us collectively to a vow of silence, for there is much each of us do know, perhaps more than any other person on the planet!
The second skill is to know that a gaggle of thoughts and opinions cannot be simply dumped on the page or on the person like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. We need to complete the picture for our listeners and readers; moreover, we need to let our listeners and readers feel like a part of the building process for without a sympathetic audience our words are but emptiness in a vacuum, and our rhetoric will be a self-aggrandizing show-boating of our superior and subtle thoughts, and we will not convince anybody of anything. A good rhetorician understands his or her audience as fully as the subject matter, and they are willing and happy to meet that audience on a common field of play with a common set of rules for the game at hand. I worked for many years as a boatbuilding wood-shop teacher, and my mantra for building a simple boat has always been the old maxim that “form follows function.” It is much the same with rhetoric: the ways in which we build our arguments and state our cases need to be crafted with the same adherence to sound and effective principles of construction as a craftsman building his or her boat. No doubt there are new and radical boats launched every day, but every one of them must float, and they must move through the water in some semblance of the way the builder hopes they do, or else it is essentially a failure. Interesting, perhaps—but still a failure. Some people have mastered the art and craft of rhetoric through experience, reading, practice, common sense and an uncommon intuition; most of the rest of us are best served by listening, watching, reading, parsing, and perfecting the time-worn and time-tested formulas and spontaneous performances of whomever we feel is simply awesome at drawing sap from a telephone pole, a meal from a loaf of bread, or, simply, sense from sound.
The final skill (which I need to practice right now) is discerning the limits of what you know well enough to speak or write sensibly about, so this is where I leave you off because I am pretty sure that I have reached the limit of my erudition on rhetoric—though not my interest in the subject. I need to be content at this point to be, as Buddha once said, the finger pointing at the moon. If you really want to master the art of rhetoric—if truth is mightier than the sword of your opinions—you’ll figure it out. The obvious starting point is to read Aristotle’s seminal work, Rhetoric, or even just the history of the discussions surrounding rhetoric and its uses and abuses in ancient Greece to the present times. There are reams of discussions and treatises on rhetoric in print and widely available on the internet. Reading Aristotle, who is way more wordy than Lao Tzu, is a sensible place to begin; but, at the very least (and before your next argument) remember what Mark Twain said: “If you don’t lie, you’ll never have to remember anything.”