What is “Truth” and Why Rhetoricians are Very, Very Dangerous.

In my grad class last week, we talked about two theories of “truth”. One theory suggests that “truth” is static, and it is the role of the researcher to probe around until he/she uncovers that “truth”. This is often what we do when studying sciences: we want to know at what temperature water boils, so we try lots of different things until we figure out that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. That is an indisputable “truth”; 98 degrees Celsius is not it, and 115 degrees Celsius is not it. It is only 100 degrees Celsius. That is “truth”.

But, in the humanities, we deal with “truth” in a much different way, because there often are no right or wrong answers to questions, such as what is justice? what is morality? what happens when we don’t have books in our society? In humanities, “truth” is often unfixed, it moves and adjusts based on our perceptions of the world, and it is the role of the researcher to dust off a little bit of our emotions, a little bit of our prejudices, a little bit of our attachments to uncover what we currently know as “truth”.

Our sense of “truth” is constructed through our experiences and interactions with the world. I date this guy who always seems to be “broke” and spends my money, so I think relationships are about me supporting someone else’s “dreams”. A few times, I get cut off by a Subaru, and I think the “truth” of all Subaru drivers is they are hippies who can’t drive. One time, this girl starts a rumor about me and spreads it all over social media, so I think all girls are blabber mouths.

And, since we all have different experiences and interactions with the world, we all have different concepts of “truth”. You may think that separate bank accounts is a bad idea, because it gives you the potential to hide something from someone else, while I may think separate bank accounts is a good idea, in the event something happens. You may think that Subaru drivers are great drivers, because your parents own one, while I may swerve to the side of the road anytime I see one. You may see starting rumors as actually not rumors at all, but “truth” of “what I said” that “needs to be exposed” to “solve an injustice of society”, while I don’t see an injustice being caused at all.

Because our experiences and interactions with the world are constantly changing, so is our perception of what is “truth”. This is why I think it is important to remember that people are fluid creatures: experiences change us, and each day, we come out a slightly different version than we entered, and we can never quite hold people responsible for “truths” they believed in the past if their future presents new enlightenments. After I break up with that guy, I may vow to always have separate bank accounts, until I date someone who is fiscally responsible, and my perception of “truth” changes, and perhaps joint bank accounts wouldn’t be a terrible idea. I may think all Subaru’s are accompanied by bad drivers, but then I am forced to drive one myself, and I realize it’s probably just the fact they are low riders and so long that no one can park them. I may not trust all girls, until I meet a very special one of whom I could trust my life, and I understand that not everyone is out to “sabotage” me (only a select few; but, of course, in their version of “truth”, they don’t quite see it like that).

“Truth” is determined by our experiences and interactions with the world, and our experiences and interactions with the world are influenced by our relationship to language, which is why I think rhetoricians are perhaps the most dangerous people in the world (especially if those rhetoricians have a background in psychology, and know a thing or two about how to manipulate and control people). As a rhetorician, we study how language evokes specific reactions out of people. I know that the most effective way to persuade someone is through pathos, or their emotions, so if I can just make them feel sad, or longing, or guilty (think the 1st Bank puppy commercial during the Superbowl), then I can get them to do what I want. I know that, if I want my audience to revolt against current systems, I have to make them think I am “one of them”, so I use “we”, “us”, “ours” (think Obama: Yes We Can). If I want followers, I first have to establish myself as a reliable and credible source, so I use lots of big words, throw in a few stats and numbers, and reference all the awards I have ever gotten (think Al Gore and ‘An Inconvenient Truth’).

As a rhetorician, because I know how language can be used to build schemas and perceptions of the world, I can also figure out how to build these schemas, using language, to construct specific realities of truth. You think that all men are deceitful? You should watch this episode of Dr. Phil and read this book about psychopaths. You think all people who drive Subaru’s are bad drivers? Let’s look at the statistics of Subaru accidents versus Kia accidents. You think that all girls are gossip queens? Let’s troll Twitter and see what kind of nasty things are said there. As a rhetorician, I know exactly how to situate my audiences’ experiences to develop their sense of “truth”.

Yes, crossing paths with a rhetorician could be a very, very dangerous endeavor…

(But, I also believe that, equipped with this knowledge, rhetoricians have a moral responsibility to use this knowledge for the betterment of society).

7 Responses

  1. rod

    Good points here, but I would be reluctant to class myself as a rhetorician. Many would consider such a person more interested in expression than content. Rhetoric is seen as a manipulative art.

      1. rod

        I agree with you, but react like Plato might have to your use of the verb ‘manipulate.’

        Plato’s view is summarised in Wikipedia: ‘Looking to another key rhetorical theorist, Plato defined the scope of rhetoric according to his negative opinions of the art. He criticized the Sophists for using rhetoric as a means of deceit instead of discovering truth. In “Gorgias,” one of his Socratic Dialogues, Plato defines rhetoric as the persuasion of ignorant masses within the courts and assemblies.[11] Rhetoric, in Plato’s opinion, is merely a form of flattery and functions similarly to cookery, which masks the undesirability of unhealthy food by making it taste good. Thus, Plato considered any speech of lengthy prose aimed at flattery as within the scope of rhetoric.’

        I believe I have also been influenced by demagogues such as Hitler, who made obvious use of rhetoric to devastating effect. It is for the same reason I am worried by those who complain of a politician that he/she lacks charisma. What an excellent quality to lack.

  2. ” … my perception of “truth” changes … ” Needs saying more often!

    Great post if only to confront a few “truths” we all carry unknowingly!! 🙂

  3. […] But, perhaps its not really my place to judge whether or not someone got a divorce, because since I don’t really know people, I don’t really know their situation. While we know people, we do not necessarily always know people, and we don’t always know their situations. People are really good at covering up their uglies when its only a short period of time (which I also think is our obligation to others to be as real as possible). It could have been that someone did a really great job of covering up their gambling addiction, and as soon as they are married and the finances are shared, that addiction surfaces. It could be that someone was not faithful, and was able to keep it a secret until a mysterious letter shows up at the door step. It could be that someone held some really aggressive tendencies, and those tendencies were not revealed until they were forced to “solve a problem”. Or, it could be that two decently people just grew apart, and being together makes everyone miserable. Of course, when our friends are telling us their stories, we usually only hear one side, and that side is often skewed (because there really is no such thing as truth). […]

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