"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


The New Dis’

February 24th, 2016 by

A friend and fellow teacher of rhetoric I work with often stops me outside of our offices to remind me of a fairly famous pronouncement from Aristotle.

“The enthymeme,” my friend says, “was seen by Aristotle as the soul of rhetoric, Tom, and for good reason. You know what that was?”

“I think I do,” I say, “but please, remind me.”

My friend notes that Aristotle thought that the enthymeme, which is a shortened form of syllogistic reasoning, works by beginning with where people are in agreement.

“It starts by seeking a place of agreement in matters where people disagree,” my friend notes. “You don’t see that happening so much anymore, though, do you? People don’t want to agree. They start with nastiness, and they move to a fortress mentality.” My friend shakes his head. “I tell you, Tom,” he says, “I don’t like where we are going as a culture right now.”

The Hidden Premise
My friend, whose name is Ray, is right, of course, both about the enthymeme and about the current state of public discourse. The old rhetoric began with agreement. That agreed upon premise could be anything from how we think people are most happy to what our greatest fears might be. It sought to find areas where people could work out their differences.

In contrast, the new “discourse” (perhaps we should simply call it “the new dis’”) begins with the premise that anyone who disagrees with me is wrong, evil, or deluded, and should be defeated or silenced. And since it doesn’t rely on reasoning or an agreed upon premise, the new dis is especially heavy in the use of dissing, which Richard Weaver once called devil terms. “Liberal,” “Tea Party,” “Socialist,” “Nazi,” all of these terms get slapped onto people for the slightest disagreement.

With Trump’s rise in the polls, we can see that we have moved from devil terms to stupid dissing with accusations like “liar” and, well, I guess I can’t add the other word.

The New Dis’
The problem is that the “new dis’” has some ghostly features of the old discourse. The great perpetrator of it is actually using some of it to get results. Trump has indeed found areas of agreement with millions of white voters who are fearful and fed up with liberal policies. They are so fed up with politicians that they are willing to accept the word of someone who may turn out to be the consummate politician, a man who has changed his views within the last year to pander to conservatives and who written a book called The Art of the Deal. At least one friend has suggested that millions of voters are being taken in by a huckster.

I’ve already noted this in two previous blogs, one on the enthymeme and one on how a high school education in rhetoric might help, so I won’t belabor the point. But we’ve now seen evidence that many Evangelicals are convinced that Trump is on their side. He’s one of them, and he’s going to return America to “greatness.”

I have been saying that I don’t even know what that means, but this isn’t helpful when millions of voters think that they know. Trump wears a hat that says this, and they all get a picture of it. They don’t think we are great now, and they are apparently comparing the now to something in the past. But in every past I try to return to, I am reminded of the folly of nostalgia. Every one of the last ten or twenty decades has been fraught with peril.

Make us great again? Like what? Like when? Like the 1950s, when racism dictated policy?

How about the ‘40s, when we were at war and then when we were facing the beginnings of a world faced with nuclear war?

Okay, then, the ‘30s, when the world was gripped in a prolonged, devastating depression.

To what exactly is that hat Trump wears referring?

My uncle, before he died, noted that to be five years old is to live in a golden era. He said that it was his favorite time.

When I did the calculations, I realized that my uncle was talking about 1934. While he was in a golden era, his older brother, my father, was doing hard labor for a penny or two a day.

Like beauty, there is something elusive and in the eye of the beholder about this greatness. I wonder if there is anything we can agree on before we start setting some new policy about more walls or evacuations.

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Comment by Carla McGill on March 2, 2016 at 8:45 pm

Nice post, Tom. I certainly don’t find much enthusiasm for contemporary political discourse in society at large, and the us-them paradigm seems all too prominent. However, I do enjoy a persuasive argument among people who also have the habit of respectfully listening. Wondering why that is so difficult and rare? Perhaps no one really wants to be persuaded about an issue? Perhaps religious and political propaganda has closed the door on inquiry for some people?

Comment by Tom on March 3, 2016 at 5:14 pm

Thanks, Carla. I share your sense of political discourse, and I’m glad you call it “discourse” and not “rhetoric.” There is good and bad rhetoric, but most political discourse seems fabricated to mislead or create false impressions.

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