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Jon Stewart: He’s not a Socialist… He’s a (gasp) Sophist!

November 1, 2010

What does Rhetoric dress up as on Halloween?  How about Sophistry?  It might be the only academic concept with a worse reputation.  Even here, here! in a department of devoted rhetoricians, mention sophistry and one inevitably hears:  “Ah yes, the sophists.  We will teach your children to make the worse case seem the better.”  Usually it’s followed with an evil laugh or hand gesture.  Think Mr. Burns.  Excellent.

Dictionaries are no better; where rhetoric gets away with a neutral description: “the art of speaking or writing effectively” sophistry is labeled “subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation.”

Subtly deceptive—see, it’s all sexy and dangerous and false.  Sophistry’s a Halloween costume, not a day job.  Certainly not a political stance.

And yet. We here at TST argue rhetoric deserves a better rep—why not reconsider sophistry too?  Or at least reconsider what the historical Sophists, bouncing about much-venerated ancient Greece, had to say.

Professor Susan Jarratt argues just that—we need to reconsider the Sophists = Decepticons equation.  She writes when we put on the sophistic worldview:

history becomes not the search for the true, but an opening up of questions:  an enterprise not so much of reaching conclusions but of uncovering possible contradictions.

The definition of “history” is in the eye of the beholder.  But 24-hour media coverage makes possible one definition of history as what happened last news cycle. Something Jon Stewart (see, it’s not only a post on rhetorical historiography) spelled out at his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear this past Saturday.  Or, as Stewart put it:

we all know it doesn’t matter what we say or do here today.  It matters what is reported about what we said or did here today.

In other words, historical construction begins with news coverage—and what that news coverage says is what ends up being remembered.  Stewart goes on to illustrate how media coverage handles rallies: “To show us how that works” he says, setting up correspondents Wyatt Cenac and Jason Jones.

And it’s a sophistic show Cenac and Jones put on.  Why?  Jarratt points out two techniques that underlie sophistic rhetoric: organizing information in descriptive stories rather than by causal relationships (parataxis) and crafting sentences around opposing terms (antithesis).  Antithesis is perennially popular—think Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or Stewart’s own “we live now in hard times, not end times” from the rally’s closing remarks.

Both Cenac and Jones describe the rally as a story, rather than as a series of logically progressing causal events.  And these narratives are detailed in antithetical terms.  For example:
In short, we can see patriotic Americans or disorganized activists; vast crowds or sparse ones, common optimism or individual grievance.  People are brought together—a sense of inspired collective action and community-forming, or they are singly present to each push a personal agenda.

What makes this scene funny is that Cenac and Jones are talking about exactly the same people, in exactly the same place.  All they change is the recording style.

What makes this sophistic is the demonstration of how two interpretations of the same event can emerge.  Granted, both interpretations are hyperbolic (from Cenac’s “perfect future” to Jones’s “brink of chaos”).  And both are parodies of previous rally coverage.  Nevertheless, put the two together and watch how the same event and people give rise to very different interpretations, and possibly prompt in the audience a “saner” third perspective, in  response to the correspondents’ overblown ones.

The possibility of recognizing the multiple interpretations is what gives sophistic readings of history their potential and power.  As Jarratt says “Antithesis allows for the laying out of options” and  parataxis, the open-ended story-telling, can mobilize people to act—to write their own interpretation of the rally, to question previous media coverage of rallies, and to start conversations about political participation and what it does and mean.

Writing about Greece in 431 BCE, Jarratt says

In that unstable time … the rhetor, … may have sought to call into question the simpler causal explanations of the past in favor of opening up alternative possibilities for the confusing turbulence of the present

Change “that unstable time” to “this” one, and see how sophistic practices might be better than the rumors imply.  Or at least, be worth a look behind the mask.

If you want to know more:

  • I’m quoting from Susan Jarratt’s “Rereading the Sophists:  Classical Rhetoric Refigured”.  Unless I’m quoting Jon Stewart or a “Daily Show” correspondent, because then  I am working off of the video recording here
  • Here’s a definition with contemporary examples for antithesis, from American Rhetoric’s “Rhetorical Figures in Sound” bank.
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