Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Homo Rhetoricus

I’m very confused.

Of course, some confusion is to be expected among those who live in the era of the Daily Me and the era of Truthiness, in which we choose increasingly to consume media and opinion that already match with what we think and believe. New opinions are brought in and subsumed by the Daily Me, but only if those opinions meet our expectations of truthiness – things that a person claims to know intuitively or "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts, as defined by comedian Stephen Colbert.

I’m not convinced this is entirely a new era. The Daily Me and the concept of Truthiness may have new, shiny names in our age, but they reflect the same basic selfishness and wanton adherence to the current sophistry and rhetoric that is as human as armpit hair. Sinclair Lewis, in documenting and satirizing 1920s America, for example, paints in his character of Babbitt the conformist – the 1920s version of the Truthiness-seeker – who would not exactly feel out of place with “postmodern” relativism today.

We need more characters like Lewis’ Doremus Jessup, the journalist in It Can’t Happen Here, who gets fed up with the rise of totalitarianism in Lewis’ fictional America and does what he can to question authority and be civilly disobedient. And that doesn't mean ridiculing those who seek after truthiness rather than trugh, because in the definition of truthiness there's enough relativism to make realists squirm.

All this is coming up because I spent most of a sick day yesterday reading Lynne Cheney’s Telling the Truth, one of more than three dozen books we got in boxes that came to us in a roundabout way from a Teton valley lawyer looking to downsize his collection. Cheney does an admirable job attacking the objective relativism of the day – the supposition that truth can’t be discovered because truth is what appears to be true to whomever seeks to define truth. Reading her book, of course, is ironical, because she’s wife to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who seems to have applied concepts of objective relativism over, say, the past eight years, emulating quite a bit the previous eight years of the Clinton Administration and, perhaps, providing a prelude to the Obama Administration now unspooling before us (if you’ve got doubts, just check out the number of people who are scraping the “Question Authority” bumper stickers off their vehicles since the regime change brought in Nov. 4.

As erudite as Cheney’s book is, it concludes with a contradiction I can’t quite get over. She writes:

As I look back over this book, I am struck by the high level of arrogance that often exists among those who maintain that there is no truth except the one they would have us believe. They redefine our words and our lives for us, and expect us to go along. They rewrite the past and are shocked when we object. And this arrogance is often combined with an amazing lack of thought to the consequences of what they are preaching.
So, which is it she objects to? That people “maintain that there is no truth except the one they would have us believe,” or is it the arrogance behind some of those who believe their truths are self-evident? She spends just over 200 pages attacking relativism – the absence of truth – in academia, politics, journalism, and in the lives of many who consume what is produced – and yet in her conclusion seems to apply a relativist approach to deciding what is true. I hold truths that I believe are the only truth out there. But I am not arrogant about those truths. Am I a relativist, or a realist? After reading Cheney, I’m not sure.

Cheney, by way of explanation, however, seems to rely on “searching for truth,” rather than arriving at that final destination, in her reasoning against objective relativism. But searching without arriving, while opening the mind to many possibilities, does little to resolve the final question. Objective relativism may seek to make the whole world grey, but the realism Cheney subscribes to only narrows that band of grey slightly.

The only way this makes sense to me (and here comes my bit of truthiness) is that it’s the arrogance she objects to, not to the fact that some claim to have the only path to enlightenment. To think otherwise destroys her reasoning, unless I am grossly misreading things.

This might be why I found the philosophy course I took in college to be so boring. Round and round we go, without actually landing at the airport.

But that’s okay. At the foundation of all things, I find great strength in my ignorance on many matters. That doesn’t mean I wallow in ignorance, but that I am aware of my ignorance and am doing what I can (reading, studying, writing and thinking) to get rid of what little bits of ignorance I can. I’m far from the homo rhetoricus that Prof. Richard Lanham of UCLA describes, as quoted in Cheney’s book:

Rhetorical man is an actor; his reality is public, dramatic. His sense of identity, his self, depends on the reassurance of daily histrionic reenactment . . . He thinks first of winning, of mastering the rules the current game enforces. He assumes a natural agility in changing orientation. He hits the street already street-wise. From birth, almost, he has dwelt not in a single value-structure, but in several. He is thus committed to no single construction of the world; much rather, to prevailing in the game at hand . . . Rhetorical man is trained not to discover reality but to manipulate it. Reality is what is accepted as reality, what is useful . . . Rhetorical man does not ask, “What is real?” He asks, “What is accepted as reality here and now?” He is thus typically present-centered. Past and future remain as possibility only, a paradigm he may some day have to learn.
I’m far. Yet sometimes so near.

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