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Differing Definitions: When Rhetoric is Bullshit

August 21, 2014

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:

                  Usually vulgar

                        : 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.
8 Comments leave one →
  1. Ryan permalink
    September 11, 2014 12:00 pm

    I had my class read a short, philosophical book, “On Bullshit,” specifically to get to the heart of some of your questions. It was a rousing discussion–though occasionally quite vulgar. If you haven’t read, you should. It’s a great way, actually, to get people to realize the importance of unraveling “truth” via rhetoric.

    • November 7, 2014 9:11 am

      Thanks for the suggestion, Ryan! I will definitely look into that. I’m always looking for ways to introduce my students to rhetoric in a way that they might find interesting 🙂 Out of curiosity, what was the class about?

  2. September 22, 2014 10:49 am

    Along with almost everything which appears to be developing within this specific area, all your opinions are generally somewhat exciting. On the other hand, I am sorry, because I do not subscribe to your entire strategy, all be it refreshing none the less. It seems to everybody that your remarks are actually not completely justified and in reality you are your self not even thoroughly certain of the argument. In any case I did enjoy reading through it.

    • November 7, 2014 9:44 am

      Thanks for your response! I am glad you enjoyed reading it. If I might ask, which parts of this “strategy” you do not subscribe to? And I agree with you comment about certainty–my intention in this post was merely to suggest a rhetorical lens through which to view a particular situation.

  3. Chris Brown permalink
    November 2, 2014 9:58 am

    Maggie! Love this post. I encounter a similar tension when trying to reveal the transformational power of writing and representation to my students. But I think there’s some nuance missing from the last duality you set up- insult vs. definition differences.

    The thing about definitions is, we can’t know or grasp them until the terms at stake are used in a novel context. For example, in the classroom, definitions are revealed when I ask a question about the meaning of a phrase or symbol. When students don’t do the reading or don’t care about the work, I consider it an insult. Now, does a lazy student know they’re insulting the professor, or do they have a different definition of respect/hard work than I do? To me, this conversation can be expanded by centering on Derrida’s idea of “differance”.

    Derrida said that, to know the differences between things, we apply force (“spacing”). In this instance, the force of my insult (that a student who doesn’t realize rhetoric is worthwhile is lazy) helps me symbolize the world by isolating a few features or behaviors of that student for evaluation and comparison. But, like Nietzche said of the leaf, that a student could be truly ‘insulting’ is a self-told lie.

    But “differance” holds another meaning, referring to the way we must defer to other symbols infinitely. No definition is ever complete, because to define is to add more words and symbols to the context. When we define those words, we are left with more and more symbols until we finally say ‘enough’ and simply agree that we all understand.

    My question for your example: How can we ever know if someone is an insulting ass versus someone who is indeed rhetorically aware enough to represent the situation and have a differing definition?

    My answer: The difference between insulting and rhetorically aware students has to do with the relationship I’ve formed with them- that’s it.
    My definition of them rests on these questions:
    Do I trust in the differences they make and the force they apply? and
    Can I respect the way they defer and who they choose to rely on?

    • November 7, 2014 9:53 am

      Thanks for checking out the post, Chris! It’s good to hear from you, and I appreciate your feedback. I agree with you that it’s difficult to grasp definitions until we put them into context. The point I’m trying to make is that disagreements (and insults) often arise out of misunderstanding, and that this misunderstanding at times develops out of a difference in definition. That’s not to say that being insulted by something/someone means you always have a difference in definition—like you said, there are certainly other factors influencing how we perceive a person’s response. I simply think stasis theory can be a useful lens through which to explore this issue. That being said, I completely agree that no definition is ever complete—that seems to be where some of this trouble stems from, right?

      I hadn’t considered Derrida in this context, which is definitely interesting! His claims about words and signs not always calling forth what they mean certainly complicate this discussion. I wonder what he would say about the forces of insults in writing versus speech?

      As to your last question, in addition to the relationship we (hopefully) form with our students, I think our determination of them (and people in general) is also inherently subjective and opinion-based. So how you come to represent your student is probably weighted on a number of things (i.e. how they behave in the classroom, the quality of work they produce, your one-on-one interactions with them, etc). Referring back to the example I provided of my friend Nick, yes, I initially though “wow, he’s being an ass”—but once I took a step back I realized that was not his intention. Or at least that’s how I interpreted the situation.


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