Differing Definitions: When Rhetoric is Bullshit
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.