Rhetoric, Dialectic, Culture, Education

Words and Rhetoric

When using rhetoric or dialectic, your currency is words, they’re backed by definitions which reflect concepts or terms, and they’re used to buy emotions and thoughts.

When you’re using dialectic, you want to be sure that you and your conversation partners agree about definitions. For instance, I was a part of a classroom management discussion recently, and the author of the material we were using eschewed the use of threats, manipulation, and shame. But those words all have conceptual overlap with these terms, “explaining consequences,” “persuading,” and “social proof.” The author of the materials was even against explaining consequences to students because he believes that changing student behavior only happens through the poorly defined concept of “relationality.” Here’s the point. Teachers were very confused about whether or not they had any discipline tools at all. The author of the material was also a Christian who talked a lot about showing grace to students, but he defined grace in a confusing way. So the main way available to teachers who need to manage their classrooms is basically forgiving them for things.

A discussion about the science and art of classroom management needs clear definitions, stipulated for that dialogue so that nobody is confused about what is occurring. But instead, the author tried very hard to make teachers feel guilty about using “threats,” but he defined threats as something like this, “If you talk, you’ll get your name on the board.” Here’s what he did: he chose a loaded term, defined it in a non-standard way (using an example rather than a technical definition). But the term “threaten” pulls negative emotional energy out of people, so that they feel guilty about doing it even though they are utilizing appropriate classroom management. Now, why would somebody sell a product that guilty tripped teachers into not using guilt? I do not know. I cannot fathom, but this technique of persuasion is very popular and there are many such cases.

You could think of this process as the inflation of terms, whereby you get more use out of a word by adding more concepts to the word while still trying to get the same emotional response from people.

Another example is the inflation of the term racism. Most people think of racism as “hating somebody for their race/skin color/culture.” People feel nasty feelings toward racists of this sort. If you simply hear the word, you feel negatively toward racists. Here’s the inflation: Over and over again, the term racist is broadened to include (and I’m not exaggerating) teaching your kids to read, caring about their education if they’re white, believing in the concept of western civilization, moving into a homogenous neighborhood (white flight), moving into a heterogeneous/diverse neighborhood (gentrification), identifying with your own culture (insularity), enjoying other cultures (cultural appropriation), and so-on. On the other hand, writing thousands of articles with explicit anti-white bias is not considered racist, which is funny because lumping all Asians into one group is racist, but lumping all Europeans and Americans into one group called “white” makes perfect sense…it doesn’t. It’s a trick.

Of course, in argument appraisal, this is the fallacy of equivocation. It’s a fallacy because it means being vague to make your case less subject to criticism. But it’s also a powerful tool to the rhetorically uninitiated. You use a term in a highly stipulated way, that you do not make clear, in order to take advantage of the emotional associations with the standard use of the word. Other words for which this happens frequently include privilege (it’s a technical term for social advantages, but it is used to make people feel guilty for advantages), nationalism (Hitler was an imperialist who used nationalism as the name for his effort to take over other nations, the association stuck), Nazi (Americans, the descendants of the men who killed the Nazis are accused of Nazism almost as though the movement was their fault in the first place), women’s health care (which literally now means abortion and birth control), the Tea Party (they defined themselves as a small-government political group was branded as fascist), and on and on and on.

When this inflation of concepts happens on a mass media level, it is propaganda. Why? It changes your attitudes toward things by using emotional associations tied to a word’s standard use and associating them with a different concept. When you’re reading or listening, try asking, “what does the author actually mean by this term” rather than letting your feelings guide you.

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