I recently had an impromptu conversation with a former classmate I ran into at a sports bar. What was only supposed to be a brief exchange of pleasantries turned into an hour long thought provoking discussion about social movements like #blacklivesmatter, the 2016 presidential election, and rhetoric – the latter being what struck a chord with me.
Rhetoric is an art, the art of discourse. The art of persuasion. Those who master it can effectively communicate anything to anyone, and convince them to believe it whether it’s true or not.
That last part, “whether it’s true or not,” is the problem with rhetoric – it doesn’t matter if the basis for which you persuade, inform, or motivate is false – only that you are good at persuading, informing, and motivating.
My classmate expressed that he doesn’t believe the BLM movement, in its current iteration, will achieve the outcome we desire because despite the fact that the basis for the argument that black lives matter is absolutely true, the way in which it’s communicated is ineffective to the audience in which we need to reach – in his opinion. We say “black lives matter” and they hear racism. We peacefully protest injustice and they see rowdy rioters disturbing the peace. We lament over the brutalization of black and brown bodies by police and they only see anti-police rhetoric.
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Those who master it can effectively communicate anything to anyone, and convince them to believe it whether it’s true or not.
In contrast, my classmate predicted the election of Trump long before it was a reality, despite the fact that Trump ran a campaign largely predicated on falsities. But it didn’t matter, because he’d mastered the art of rhetoric – and rhetoric doesn’t require the message to be true – only eloquent. Except linguists analyzed Trump’s speech and determined that he speaks at a 4th grade reading level; many wouldn’t classify that as “eloquent”, but rather basic. I’d agree, if I didn’t know that 40% of Americans read below literacy – the average American being at a 7th or 8th grade level, or that even the highly educated prefer to read at a level lower than what their schooling would suggest.
To give this more context, George W. Bush spoke at a 5th grade reading level according to the Flesch-Kincaid index – the lowest of presidents examined at the time. Both Presidents Clinton and Obama spoke closer to an 8th grade level during their presidencies. But Trump? 4th grade on average, meaning there were times his speech dipped as low as 3rd grade, and as high as 6th grade levels. Trump’s rhetoric was the closest a president has ever come to matching the literacy of the American people. He was the perfect messenger with the perfect message for Americans where it counted the most.
All of this is hinged upon knowing your audience, and if we’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s that the audience is anti-truth. Facts are out. Beliefs are in. The word of the year is “post-truth”.
Alister McGrath, both scientist and theologian, once said that, “Beneath all the rhetoric about relevance lies a profoundly disturbing possibility – that people may base their lives upon an illusion, upon a blatant lie. The attractiveness of a belief is all too often inversely proportional to its truth… To allow “relevance” to be given greater weight than truth is a mark of intellectual shallowness and moral irresponsibility.”
The rhetoric of relevance is now more weighty than truth. We have hit rock bottom on intellectualism.
Like McGrath, I too consider myself to be both scientist (formally) and theologian (informally), so facts are really important to me. They are the foundation of many of my arguments. But I also have deeply held beliefs relative to my lived experiences and my faith. I try and maintain a thoughtfulness that includes both – this sweet-spot between truth and belief. We call that knowledge.
But after this past year, and even after this impromptu conversation with a former classmate at a sports bar, I am having to reconsider what “knowledge” is exactly in an era where facts have lost its relevance, and the rhetoric of relevance is in tapping into and affirming what people believe and not necessarily what they think.
How do we change what people believe when thinking no longer has relevance?
By drawing on the connectivity that we all share in our common humanity, my classmate reminded me. It matters not what we think in our minds, only what we believe in our hearts – and the way we penetrate hearts is to tap into souls, a spiritual reclamation where you can believe that black lives matter because black lives are human lives just like yours; or share different social and political ideologies without dehumanizing one another, because we all want and deserve the human right to food, shelter, safety, education, and healthcare – we just might not agree on how to get there.
I speak to audiences for a living. My mastery of rhetoric is crucial not only to my social justice ministry, but to my livelihood. Until now, I’ve relied on facts and truth to persuade, inform, and motivate – but I’m now forced to reconsider what “knowledge” is exactly and how I use it to touch souls and soften hearts. My initial inkling is that, moving forward, knowledge must be where history, spirituality, storytelling, lived experience and audience intersect, and not just the sweet-spot between truth and belief – but I’m not sure. The only thing we can be sure about at this point, is that we can’t be sure about anything.
So then, how do we change what people believe when thinking no longer has relevance?
That my friends, is the rhetorical question.