Sunday, December 21, 2014

Plato's "Phaedrus," Rhetoric, and a Dash of Russell Brand

            What comes to mind when you hear the word "rhetoric"?
            For me, it sounds dry.  It sounds like it should come prefaced by the word "empty" or "overblown".  I think, instantly, of politicians and talking heads.
            I am guessing the word calls up similarly dull images in the minds of others.  There are certainly good reasons for this; it is genuinely difficult for me to understand why much of what politicians and talking heads talk about has anything to do with my life.
            But here's the problem:  the term "rhetoric," somewhere along the line, took on negative tones, and so when we hear it, we always think it's the politicians arguing against our position that are using rhetoric.  Because of course, anything negative is most comfortably perceived as external.
            It's always the far-right blogger I'm reading who's using rhetoric (say it with a hiss to get it right).
            It's the white person arguing against the existence of white privilege that's using rhetoric.
            It's the bigoted Evangelical on Youtube who's arguing that homosexuals are going to hell that's using fear-mongering rhetoric.
            That nice, liberal Marxist, though?  Oh, no, that's just fucking true.  The pro-union workers?  Absolutely right on!  And Russell Brand?
            Certainly no rhetoric there.*
            You see my point?
            Two things might help when thinking about rhetoric, though.  One is, well, Youtube.  And as Simon Critchley mentions in his excellent summary and analysis of Phaedrus, Ted Talks.  If you have internet access (presumable, given the medium), chances are good that you are regularly inundated with rhetoric from celebrities, politicians, and talking heads you either strongly agree with, or are so far on the other side you get to enjoy the bliss of rage and self-righteousness.  Then, once every six months or so, you re-watch Steve Jobs' commencement speech or Brené Brown's Ted Talk on vulnerability to get you revved up a bit so you can stomach the nightmare of consumerism awhile longer.  Rhetoric is, whether we realize it or not, absolutely everywhere in the public sphere.
            A second thing that might help wrap one's head around rhetoric is to think of people with charisma.  Charisma tends to catch you off guard, because almost by definition, when a person has it, they sweep you up in their energy so thoroughly you get enmeshed in their ego.  It's a lovely experience — I'm a lady who likes the charmers — but, shockingly, doesn't often lead to lasting happiness and well-being.
            Rhetoric is one of the main foci in Plato's dialogue, Phaedrus.  And I say "one of the main foci" because the dialogue tends to sprawl a bit.  Enough so that several articles I've read now all say different things as far as what the dialogue is "about".  ("Aboutness" being a very, very important concept in a world full of so much information no one can rationally expect you to read much of anything first-hand.)  In the introduction to my translation, Robin Waterfield argues that Phaedrus is about education.  In the aforementioned NY Times article, Critchley argues that it is about both rhetoric and eros.  I know this might seem like an easy out, but I think all three are true, and that when you combine them you get philosophy itself, which is my nominee for the "about" category of Phaedrus.
            And that lovely experience I'm talking about — where you meet someone who talks good and talks fast and instantly convinces you that they are brilliant and that they will somehow grant you the privilege of being their best friend or lover? — that is exactly what Socrates is concerned about when he discusses rhetoric.  Not just in Phaedrus.  Plato/Socrates/somebody-or-other discusses rhetoric in Republic and Gorgias as well.  He worries about rhetoric a good deal because it can often be difficult to tell when someone is sliding from philosophy to rhetoric and back again.  In Gorgias and Republic, the contrast is unfortunately caricaturized.  Plato portrays the sophists/rhetoricians as men who believe in the value of being able to argue anyone into believing anything.  Men who actually come out and say it:  "my value is in convincing people of anything, whether true or not."
            But of course, you don't often meet someone who says that, do you?  And if you do, you probably run the other way.  Because it's fucking creepy.  But what about when you're talking to someone you really like because they just have this thing about them, and they say with just the right amount of agonized deliberation:  "You know, I used to think it sounded so crazy, too.  But then I realized I needed to be open-minded and hear out the arguments on both sides, and I realized that...and I mean, I hate to say this...but I realized that it really is possible that the Holocaust was just completely fabricated.  For example, there's the question of the gas chambers..."
            I have been in that exact conversation.  With a fabulously gorgeous and charming man who had read a lot of books and internet articles.  He'd probably never met even the extended family of anyone impacted by the Holocaust.  He lived far away from the locations of the concentration camps and ghettos (this was in Lisbon).  He had, quite literally, nothing to go on except the assurances of his state-financed education and the moral indignation of some of the people he met and floated his theories past.  Which, frankly, isn't a lot.  Hell, I really can't give you a great reason for my belief that humans walked on the moon.  He was questioning something he had just as little evidence to believe in.  I just so happened to have seen enough tattoos on wrinkled old arms, and talked to the ancient, quiet Jewish man who hung out at the coffee shop I worked at on Mercer Island, to never have had my doubts.
            My point here — and I want to make this very, very clear — is that to a certain extent this man I was talking to in Lisbon may have been doing philosophy in his initial questioning of the narrative of the Holocaust.  He began by asking questions.  He was saying, "Hey, wait.  Why am I supposed to believe this?  When I see absolutely no evidence for it around me?  And isn't there some evidence that state-financed information is often fallacious?"
            I chose the Holocaust because I want to make it almost grotesquely obvious how much the question of rhetoric matters.  It matters, and it can be hard to spot.  In this case, it only feels obvious if you, like me, believe that the Holocaust really happened.  It makes it easy for me to notice how starting with that opening — "You know, I used to think it sounded so crazy, too..." — is so disarming when used well.  The call to be open-minded.  The reluctance to accept the possibility (...and I mean, I hate to say this...), followed by evidence generated by invisible names of authority; so-and-so, who is a professor at such-and-such university, who did a something-or-other test on the concrete of the walls at Treblinka.  And so-and-so-number-two, who has probably been horribly persecuted in some way or other for exposing how the world is secretly run by a Jewish cabal.**
            The catch to all of this is that whether or not he was doing philosophy when he began asking these questions is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tell from an external view.  Because — and I truly believe this is Plato's primary concern in all of his various wonderings about rhetoric versus philosophy — the attitude of the questioner decides.  The attitude of the questioner decides because underneath the attitude are all the various human strengths and weaknesses — the racism virtually all white people struggle with; the bigotry all humans live with; the fear of displacement Westerners, and Europeans in particular, feel right now; the deep-seated mistrust we should probably all have of our state-funded educations — and the particular mix of those strengths and weaknesses will determine the course of the questioning.  Rhetoric is the thing the questioner will have to turn to almost immediately to shore up a position they were effectively brought to by their own prejudices.
            Philosophy is much, much harder to do, and much slower and more painful.  Philosophy, in this particular example, would be what happens when a person starts by questioning their state-funded education and what it says about something like the Holocaust, then realizes they have deeply personal reasons for wanting the Holocaust to have not happened.  It would be the beginning of consciousness of the fear under the questions.  And philosophy doesn't stop there.  It leads into what feels like an even more terrifying place where you realize there aren't easy answers; there may not even be answers at all.  There isn't a simple thing that any person of color can say to me that will make me feel safer about my position in the world.  There isn't a phrase or a concept that will make the chasm between me and them vanish, and there isn't a thing I can do to get rid of my paralyzing and useless white guilt.***
            This is a much more uncomfortable and much less workable position than to simply state emphatically, "The Holocaust did not happen."  It's even worse than simply stopping with "The Holocaust did happen."  Such a statement is an easy way-station for most of us.  And as easy as rhetoric is to get swept up in, philosophy is just as difficult to slog on with.
            Just for shits and giggles, my next post will actually just look at some comfortably glaring instances of rhetoric.  Propaganda for a cause that feels like an obvious ethical position at this point — for instance, women's suffrage — is a nice way to train the eye to spot these things.  Then maybe I could work up the courage to turn the same eye on some of my own weak spots.  Like...oh, I don't know...whether or not the obvious kyriarchy of the church really is compatible with all my smash--hierarchy ideals?

*  Of course, Marx, the unions, and Brand are all correct.
**  Sorry.  My ability to feign tolerance for discussions that skirt anti-Semitism only goes so far.
***  Just to be clear, it also isn't the job of any person of color to make me feel safer, or to make the chasm vanish.

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