It’s been my experience that explaining your profession to friends and family (especially if you’re in the humanities) is often accompanied with a justification. You can usually expect to make some quip about loving to read, try to explain why business school doesn’t interest you, or get defensive about whether or not English is a “real major.” One such recent encounter illustrated to me how definitions can incite disagreements—particularly when the definition involves your field of work.
Having been an adjunct lecturer in a First Year Writing program this past year, I worked alongside other instructors with varying academic backgrounds in English other than Rhetoric. One friend, and colleague, Nick (who said I could use his real name), holds an MA in Creative Writing, and one day in our shared office space offered to read over a personal statement I was writing for grad school. I willingly accepted his offer, and within two minutes he nodded, leaned back in his chair, and crossed his arms. I asked what he thought, and he said, “I mean, it’s kind of bullshit, but it’s probably what they want, so yeah.” Feeling shell-shocked, I asked him what he meant and he coolly explained, “Well, Rhetoric is bullshit.”
For Nick, the term bullshit was not necessarily a word associated with any negative connotation. In his explanation he said, “Bullshitting is a chief rhetorical technique—it’s very much about audience, context, language choice, and purpose, but on a much less dutiful or socially responsible level. It’s selfish, or inherently personal. We do it to get what we want, as a means to an end.” While I agree Rhetoric is about audience, context, language, and purpose, I associate “bullshit” with negativity—with trickery, or trying to fool someone into believing something that may not be true. According to the Webster’s dictionary, “bullshit” is defined as:
: NONSENSE; especially: foolish insolent talk
1 usually vulgar: to talk nonsense to especially with the intention of deceiving or misleading
In Rhetoric, definitions are recognized as a place where disagreement often occurs, and in using this mode of inquiry, such questions are asked: Can we agree on the terms used to discuss “X”? Can we agree on the classification of “X”? In the case of Nick’s opinion I asked myself, “Do we agree on what the term bullshit means?” Obviously, we didn’t, or you would have read all this for nothing.
As someone trying to study this supposed bullshit Rhetoric, I felt compelled to further consider why anyone would 1) be so blunt about something I am passionate about and 2) think Rhetoric is bullshit. I was not interested in debating whether or not Rhetoric is bullshit, nor was I particularly interested in trying to convince him otherwise. On the contrary, I was, and still am, interested in investigating what he meant by the term “bullshit.” His comment reminded me a bit of some argument theory to which I had recently been introduced, and brought up an interesting idea: not that Rhetoric is bullshit, but that the core of many arguments are not just based on whether a person’s view is inherently right or wrong, but often on differences in definition of whatever is being discussed.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with this definition, these kinds of discussions matter not just day-to-day with friends and family, but also in our professional interactions to make ourselves more informed citizens. If we can begin to unravel where the root of a disagreement occurs, we might move closer to a resolution—or at least awareness of why the disagreement takes place. I especially see these kinds of discussions taking place in a First Year Writing classroom, where many first year students may encounter a conflicting opinion with which they’re not allowed to immediately dismiss or ridicule. Teaching them how to respond and engage in such discussions may lead them to develop more knowledgeable arguments—even if those arguments are about whether or not Macklemore is a “real rapper” or whether or not ice hockey is the most physically demanding sport (hint: it is).
So, the next time you begin engaging in a heated debate over the legitimacy of your profession, think about whether that person 1) is just trying to insult you, or 2) genuinely has a different definitional understanding of a term or concept.
If you want to know more:
- As said, this kind of discussion seems to be particularly important in the context of a First Year Writing classroom. For more information on how stases theory can be applied in a classroom, I recommend checking out Davida Charney and Christine Neuwirth’s textbook, Having Your Say: Reading and Writing Public Arguments, Chapter 3.
- Originating from the Greek Rhetoricians Hermagoras (harder to spell than pronounce) and Aristotle, when trying to investigate an issue, it is useful to consider five questions or points of stases, which are Existence, Definition, Value, Action/Polity, and Causality. Stases may be thought of as the sticking points between two issues, or the place where a disagreement occurs. In other words, stases are used to understand the context surrounding the situation and the particular issue (stasis) causing the disagreement.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ June 2014 Atlantic Monthly article has rekindled and old heated debate about reparations. The print issue with its black background and provocative title written in white and red letters, “250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining. Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors, America will never be whole. The Case for Reparations,” has set several copies-sold milestones for the publication. Despite Coates’ concern with an old conversation, this article has resonated with many writers and journalists through articles, blogs, and talk show conversations defending or decrying his argument. The essay is massive in terms of length compared to most articles. Coates’ essay takes up over 16 pages in the magazine and uses over 16,000 words.
In a recent discussion of the health of the earth on his show, Last Week Tonight, John Oliver attempts, within five minutes, to tackle the entirety of the “scientific controversy” on climate change. In doing so, he runs headlong into an issue which rhetoricians and scientists have been puzzling over for years: exigence.
Oliver opens by quoting a recent interview with President Obama, who states, “This isn’t something in the distant future. Climate change is already effecting us now.”
“Now,” says Oliver, “that is a pretty smart move Obama. Because we’ve all shown we can’t be trusted with the future tense.”
Oliver is a pretty savvy political commentator, and he uses the full leeway granted by HBO to push the show, both in terms of topical choices and the language used to discuss these topics. But, in this instance, Oliver has chosen to focus on the problem of “now,” or what rhetoricians might refer to as exigence.
There are moments in life where you can anticipate a question that will be asked of you: “How is your dissertation going?” and “Are you ready for the holidays?” among others. In these cases, it is best to have a sound bite prepared in advance.
Upon moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, one must be prepared to answer the question, “What do you think about it here?”
Perhaps at this moment the Californian expects to hear impressions of the abundance of sunshine, organic foods, and bicycles in the area. But this is not the answer they will receive, for a true rhetorician will instead comment on the abundance of pedantic signage in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The degree to which this will disappoint the person asking the question is the subject of another post; what is interesting to note here is (a) the conspicuous role that signage plays in regulating public life in the Bay Area and (b) how it appears at all levels of authority – from being legislatively encoded to originating locally. It is especially prevalent in public restrooms (but does not quite qualify as latrinalia as referenced in this post, since it comes from property owners rather than users). The signage takes on the mantle of an ark bearing the diverse rhetorical preferences of the owners, while the underlying message remains essentially the same: know and obey the rules.Read more…
This weekend at the Grammy Awards, Seattle hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won pretty big. They won four awards, including Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance (which is different than a “song,” apparently, but it’s the Grammys and you probably should’ve learned in like middle school that almost nothing about them makes any sense, so whatever), and Best New Artist. These trophies gave the duo an even bigger bully pulpit for their performance of their song “Same Love” later in the night, during which 33 couples, gay and straight, were married by Queen Latifah, by the power vested in her by the state of being Queen Latifah.
If that sounds kind of surreal and bizarre, it’s because it was. And it got even more bizarre when Madonna joined them on stage, dressed like Colonel Sanders, carrying a cane, and quite possibly wearing a grill (I can’t tell from the video, but she certainly was earlier in the evening). But bizarre or not, the performance made a statement, and though I’ve long been rolling my eyes at “Same Love,” I found myself pleased with the showboat-y-ness of it all.
Have you ever taken a “selfie”? It’s the new craze right now. The camera lens is flipped and instead of taking a picture of what’s in front of you, you snap a picture of you. When in November 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary welcomed “selfie” into the “you’re-an-official-international-word-club”, people had plenty to say.
Late last week, I got an e-mail from one of my senators that I think illustrates an important point about the way critics have been talking about the problems with the Healthcare.gov website. See, somehow I’ve found myself on PA Senator Pat Toomey’s e-mailing list, despite having never contacted him or voted for him, and being perfectly happy to admit that I probably never will (we, um, don’t see eye to eye on very many things). He sends out e-mails pretty frequently, and his latest one led with a story about the ongoing problems with the Affordable Care Act, problems summed up fairly nicely in this New York Times article. In a nutshell, though, the website for purchasing federal healthcare has been busted since it debuted in October, and lately it’s come to light that President Obama was knowingly fibbing back in the day when he said that all Americans could keep their existing coverage if they wanted to, no matter how crappy it was. Old hat for anyone that’s been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the news lately, but still, this e-mail from Mr. Toomey (handily archived here) made me glad I’ve been too lazy to unsubscribe from his mailing list.
As you can see, it’s not that the e-mail says anything particularly out of the ordinary or surprising, but something about how it condenses these problems with the Affordable Care Act into 200 words under the heading “The Whole Law is Unworkable” got me thinking about how the terms of this debate have been troubling me for awhile.