Left to our own devices as soon as we can sit still watching TV, we become jacks of all trades. Dabbling in the ones, twos and threes of “Sesame Street” to ABC after school specials about home improvement, we pay attention to the programs that speak to us, liking what we hear.
I study rhetoric for a living.
And by “for a living,” I mean the government (or should I refer to taxpayers?) makes it possible for me to read and write between the lines of lines, and somehow, someday, “survive” doing something that involves such lines. Whether I end up being a corporate lackey, an educational martyr or a starving journalist, only time will tell.
Rhetoric is the study of the Word. Reading so close until the letters get blurry, when the pages are smudged with sweat. At least in my world, which some could argue is flat, the Word is the truth of what is said. Classified under the humanities, rhetoric is as ambiguous and prevalent as philosophy and language. As a believer of the Word, however, I insist that the study of rhetoric makes everything clearer. At least to me.
I never understood the study of rhetoric until I understood economics. My knack for wordplay and penchant for doubt developed into analytical skills over my course of academic indoctrination at Berkeley. Studying political, social and economic theory for the first time made me realize that “logic” didn’t always have to make all-encompassing sense.
Once in love with Ayn Rand’s Howard Roarke, I was once in love with the truth of objectivity. Logos, pathos and ethos, among other things, are three traditional rhetorical appeals. Historically (and reductively) “the art of persuasion,” rhetoric is the foundation of all disciplines. Based on applied calculus and predictable human behavior, conundrums all on their own, the logical rhetoric of classical economics makes sense of the unpredictable marketplace and government.
Who knew predicting the future could be so rational? Calculated logic, concrete with percentages and variables, transcends the biased opinion of human emotion — interestingly enough, transcending the platform for social justice. Assuming that opinions are emotional and therefore irrational, the rattling of statistics and calculations are easier on most ears than the ranting of impassioned opinions.
Objectivity is an idea that gives hope when there is none, providing the framework for words that paint a background when there isn’t a picture. “Language betrays us,” someone prolific and imitable once wrote. Like slips of the tongue meant to catch only a moment, not every little thing uttered is a lie, nor is it the “truth.” Words reflect observations, expressing what could otherwise be forgotten or ignored.
Maybe I was just a lonely kid, bitter about having too many cavities. Words are cheap, and worth more than they are valued. Plainly written in the form of mathematical proofs or lavishly fluffed like Alice Waters recipes, we move according to words that distinguish ourselves from each other, composing our separate natures into the grand orchestra of the beginning and the end.
My favorite appeals, if you couldn’t already tell, are pathos and ethos. Pathos reminds me of pathological liars, desperate to master anything, even if that includes stabs of guilt. Ethos reminds me of ethical politicians, shining bright with million-dollar smiles and Harvard degrees, exuding charisma and poise only someone with character could omit. Seducing you with in-depth pseudo psychological analysis, or maybe even effortlessly riding the same wavelength of narcissism, rhetoric is the means to identify an end without a mirror, seeing someone else.
Staying positive, believing in the Holy Trinity, evaluating different personalities — it’s all just rhetoric. But does that mean it’s all just pointless? To me, such a conclusion would be too boring and, honestly, sad and empty. If psyching myself out keeps me going, then isn’t there some truth in that? If economic models and scientific sacrifices keep “us” from regressing, then … is there some truth in that too?
While I listened to TLC in my bedroom, my brothers blared Alice In Chains in theirs. While my father gave me A Purpose Driven Life to read, I snuggled up with Neil Gaiman instead. These bits of pop identities don’t define me, but their occupancy in my limited brain space rules my better half. Though capable of transcending my irrational self, I feel better on earth.
Left to my own devices as soon as I can sit still watching my thoughts appear outside my head, I feel like I don’t know anything else. Please take my rhetorical flourishes light like fluffy poetry, like harmless words you might want to hear.