Ethical rhetoric respects people’s basic intelligence, powers of deduction and induction, imagination and ability to feel. It works with all these things. “Rhetrickery,” as Wayne Booth coined it, manipulates these things, banking on people’s vanity, pride and lack of critical thought. And, above all, it takes advantage of identification on the basis of absolutist beliefs – the shibboleth of the sophists. Evangelicals have risen as a political force over the past few decades for this very reason. They are easy to galvanize politically on the basis of specific, absolutist beliefs.
Identification, a speaker’s indication of a common ground with an audience, is important in all rhetoric. Identification contributes to ethos, a speaker’s trustworthiness. But rhetrickery goes further. It flatters its audiences for who they are and will even create a straw man doubter as a shared enemy against which the speaker and the audience may align. Flattery is made on the basis of audience characteristics and absolutist beliefs: “I look out here and I see people who believe in standing up for our country no matter what. [Patriotism = unwavering allegiance to one’s nation, its leaders and symbols] You aren’t fools. You know what’s going on. People who punch a time clock every day are hard workers who know the value of a dollar [Belief: Wage labor is VIRTUOUS]. But the liberal politicians out in Washington think you’re stupid [Inculcation of enemy]. They think they can trick you into giving up your hard-earned money. Will you be tricked?” Rhetrickery is especially pernicious as it blames others for doing what it’s doing, suggesting not only its own comparitive innocence but people’s need for a hero (ahem, the speaker) to fight the “bad” guys who are trying to trick them, hurt them, use them. Trump’s drumbeat allegation of “fake news” is a perfect example.
Why do I say we need sophistry now? In part because the sophist helps blow the screens off of simplistic rhetrickery. To simply take the ethical high ground in response to rhetrickery unfortunately doesn’t work. The people who have been flattered and taken in by the rhetricker just see this as further evidence of the other side’s elitism and lack of faith or interest in them. What’s needed is ethical rhetoric that engages and legitimately respects ALL people’s basic intelligence, powers of deduction and induction, imagination and ability to feel while challenging absolutist beliefs.
Americans are stuck in a rhetorically constructed false-binary world and we need sophistry to help break us out. The premise of the Dissoi Logoi, one of the earliest sophist texts, is that any rhetor should be able to offer arguments on a given issue from two sides. American voters’ rhetorical training has grown so weak that we no longer appreciate this ability and instead confuse “consistency” of message with strength instead of considering the ability to see and articulate multiple sides of an argument as a sign of strength. Sophists understood arguments as highly situational. Something can be true or right in a given context, but there are no absolute truths. As a nation, we have veered in the post 9/11 years toward demanding absolute truths, absolute right-ness which also makes us easier to manipulate. When you follow a set of “absolute truths,” you identify with those beliefs. You are thereby made vulnerable to flattery on the basis of those beliefs: people telling you YOUR beliefs are the RIGHT beliefs and you are a GOOD person, the RIGHT kind of person because you have them. Both political parties are guilty of this. And it’s a wonder Americans haven’t stopped to recognize how un-American this is.
A good way of assessing a given rhetor is to ask, “Is this person buying identification by flattering me or a target group? Is this person setting up a straw man enemy to deflect their own questionable ethics? Is this person showing the ability to understand and explain counterarguments? Is this person making an argument based on the relevant situation or are they basing their argument on absolute truths and flattering me/us in the process?” Sophists didn’t play the belief-flattery game and you’d think in the sophisticated, information-saturated, complexity-appreciating 21st century we wouldn’t either. You’d think that, but we’re currently held prisoner by someone who has played that game to great success. So, again, I call out for the sophists of the new millennium, the ones brave enough to shake off the hobgoblins of consistency, to be bold and to appeal to the intelligence inherent in the human mind, to be brave enough to live in 2018 as it is, not as we fantasize nor fear it to be. For inspiration, from the opening of Dissoi Logoi:
On the matter of what is good and what is bad, contrasting arguments are put forward in Greece by educated people: some say that what is good and what is bad are two different things, others that they are the same thing, and that the same thing is good for some but bad for others, or at one time good and at another time bad for the same person. For myself, I side with the latter group, and I shall examine the view by reference to human life, with its concern for food and drink and sex. For these things are bad for those who are sick, but good for the person who is healthy and needs them. Or again, lack of restraint in these matters is bad for those who lack restraint, but good for those who sell these commodities and make money out of them. And illness is bad for the sick but good for the doctors. And death is bad for those who die, but good for the undertakers and the grave-diggers.