Truth is the beginning of every good thing, both in heaven and on earth and he who would be blessed and happy should be from the first a partaker of truth, for then he can be trusted. -Plato
True outcomes cannot be achieved if speech is policed. Understanding cannot be reached if people are not allowed to reach their own conclusions or allowed to misstep in the effort to finding civility and knowledge of one another. People cannot learn to deal with opposing viewpoints if those viewpoints, no matter how absurd, are not allowed to be freely expressed and reasoned. After all, it is in the expression and exchange where the rhetorical process thrives. Individuals may approach topics of discussion from varying, “realities” or perspectives, but this is the entire point of persuasion, understanding, knowledge, and negotiation. Being able to persuade an audience of the same mindset and ideological tilt as oneself is no great feat. On the contrary, it belies a fecklessness in the rhetorician who seeks such a route. The skillful rhetorician persuades through understanding those to whom they speak, understands by being open to their own mind being changed, and becomes open by desiring to seek such outcomes, in truth. Rhetoric, in and of itself cannot be adequate in negotiating true and worthwhile outcomes, because as Plato stated, rhetoric for its own sake— as is the human inclination— seeks self-advancement, rather than knowledge. Therefore, seeing or hearing information, and being allowed to critically sift through it, allows the individual to decide for themselves what are acceptable ends. From this standing, the individual can then, in concert with other individuals of both like and different minds, decide as a freely reasoning community, what are acceptable outcomes for the society as a whole.
This is precisely why the imperative of news organizations, for instance, should never be on who can be first to gain information or on interjecting pure opinion and speculation into news. In my estimation, the focus should always be on putting forth what is empirically demonstrated and tested from multiple sources, rather than allowing the common practice of speculation, of probabilities, to guide conversation away from truth. This again is also why the imperative of social media organizations should be on allowing all discourse, within the public forum, to continue unimpeded. This is how truth is sought. The power in seeking truth in this way, comes from each individual person giving themselves the agency to plot their own course, rather than being told what is acceptable to be thought, and what is not. The fallacy that comes with attempting to control, police, or influence certain types of speech or “social behaviors” comes from the idea that forced morality, or the imposition of means that seem to lead toward just ends for some, is an inherent good. This view still discounts the fact that there will still be some who are displeased, and displaced, by the outcome. The dynamic has merely arbitrarily been shifted. The thinking behind this viewpoint seems dubious, as goodness that leads to truth cannot be imposed. It must be reasoned, realized, and experienced as one determines to traverse the world wisely and honorably.
Because this entire topic hinges around a level of rhetorical theory, it is important to consider that, in relation to this topic, Plato had important insight. Many of the rhetoricians of his day, not unlike our own, did not believe goodness to be attainable within oneself, yet his entire rhetorical philosophy centered around goodness and truth and how one navigated this carnal natural world, in search of it. Goodness that leads to true outcomes, to Plato was found in the virtue that served others and that guided others toward the transcendent. He believed that every human possessed transcendent truth, within themselves from birth, and that finding truth is only difficult because it requires us to first remember what has been shrouded by our carnality. To Plato, the critically-thinking individual’s entire purpose, was to assist others in remembering that seed of the transcendent that was placed in them at birth, by helping them to clear away the worldly debris of their lives; a feat accomplished through verbal exchange and the quest for truth. This action, of helping others, is altogether different from one using their rhetorical ability to impose upon people that which one selfishly deems as more important for the well being of society; discounting and undermining the republic itself, in the process. In this era of rapid informational advancement, it is now, more than ever, imperative that truth be sought. Humans, as has been seen throughout history, lend themselves toward self-preservation, which does not allow room for truth to prevail in the public spheres, if not freely challenged with self-imposed goodness and with differing points of view. Media has a role in purveying knowledge and rather than seeking to police it, should seek to allow discourse to be had, in every form it may take. In addition, media of course ,rather than seeking to sway minds to particular points of view, should seek to allow only what is known to be true—through empiricism— to be spread; not what is probable. This age, more than any other, is a rhetorical one. And rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake will not alone allow us to reach acceptable outcomes. Rather truth, empowered by good and self-imposed moral rhetorical strategies, will better equip Western society to reach good and true outcomes that allow all citizens to gain knowledge.
I think a man’s duty is to find out where the truth is, or if he cannot, at least
to take the best possible human doctrine and the hardest to disprove,
and to ride on this like a raft over the waters of life.
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
An aspect of life that humans have known since they could reason, seems to be that unfairness in life is to be expected. It is in unfairness being allowed to exist, without forced impedance, that our own sensibilities are refined and our own ideas are sharpened— and if we are receptive to listening to harsh criticisms, allows us to understand and peer a bit more deeply into truth, because truth is sometimes found in our own opposition, or perhaps somewhere in between the opposition and the alternate view. What Dorsey seems to genuinely want to combat, though fallaciously, are the prevalence of factions within the public global forum, in an effort to make the Twitter environment less offending to some; perhaps even less violent. The problem with this, however, lies in factions being a side-effect of freedom. Fee exchange, with the risk of offence, is another. James Madison, not entirely unlike Plato, spoke of this phenomenon in Federalist Papers No. 10. Firstly, he recognized that the tendency toward factions exists as a result of the nature of man— as in the species of man— toward seeking one’s own self-interest and the moments those interests are set up in opposition to another individual, or another group, factions are created. Now, in relation to factions Madison said,
There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency (Federalist 10).
Madison is speaking to something I believe is relevant in the conversation of media’s tendencies toward manipulative rhetoric and controlling behavior. Liberty, is the cornerstone of successful societies that survive the test of time. And as also noted by Madison in the same essay, the curbing of liberty and of free exchange, are the reason for the fall of many democracies— as well as a portent of our own republic’s failure, should it travel down such a road. Twitter, and by extension other forms of media that have come into the public eye under scrutiny for curtailing liberty, is a perfect example of what Madison expressed as fallible man and his liberty to exercise that fallibility. The problem of course comes when that fallible human nature, is allowed to preside as a governing body over the free exercise of individual liberty, on a public platform built out of the freedom of such free expression. The auxiliary concern obviously being: whether or not it is moral for social media sites such as Twitter, to effectively censor individuals; whether it may be for a greater good, or not.
Though it goes against the democratic nature Twitter purports to operate under, it is indeed their right as a privately-owned company, not associated with government in any official capacity, to limit or promote speech that follows their own factional associations— as admitted, by Dorsey, to exist. But when the power of a right is expressed upon individuals through forceful means, or rather when Twitter uses its right to free speech to set rules that limit free speech, it brings about a moral consideration. In his essay Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin states, “for a cause, however effective, becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, only when it bears on moral issues” (Benjamin 2007). Of course, much of Western society is in a time when critics of free rhetorical exercise have deemed and determined it as offensive to some and is seen as hate speech, or even as violence in certain cases, to others. It is not, however, entirely convincing that words themselves can be violence at all, because it does not seem clear that they can indeed bear on moral issues, in and of themselves. What I mean by this is there has to be a known— and empirically demonstrated— foundational belief behind the words, in part, because without corresponding action that reflects the fervency and belief of the words, their meaning cannot truly and objectively be gleaned, as words themselves do not speak to intent; only to perceived intent, which of course is not an effective representation of objective truth. Words, especially intentionally rhetorical ones, can be perceived as being right, yet not be righteous in intent and on the converse, can be perceived as having malicious motives yet have a virtuous intent underneath. Intent itself, is a reflection of what is in the heart of man— that which no other man can truly know without seeking to understand; without seeking truth. Plato addressed this phenomenon specifically when discussing the tendency of people to follow what seems to be true, as set up by belief and the probable versus what is true knowledge, grounded in the transcendent. He suggested that, as a result of this, rhetoric, if moral at all, is morally neutral at best and morally pernicious at worst (TRT 84). But such a task cannot be sought when every thought is relegated to being shielded by the partiality of one’s own factional identities. Instead of arguing that words themselves can be violence which—as mentioned, does not seem to be the case— I argue instead that the limiting of free and open discourse, in all its forms, and the willful proliferation of false or unprovable speculations, is violence. Again, taking Benjamin’s framework: action itself seems to be what gives intent a truer demonstration of some tangibility for violence to have expression. For violence to occur, there must be a cost to one’s physical status as an individual person with the natural right to have rhetorical expression in the way the individual sees fit; pernicious or otherwise. Again, there must be a cost. One that confers an inability to give oneself full expression from within the framework of the transcendent umbrella of natural law (Garcia 2008).
Benjamin questions whether violence can be a means to a just or unjust end. The question then arises, just and unjust for whom? Because when there exists a powerful entity that is in control of the knowledge and expressions of millions of individuals, and when this entity embarks on efforts to change the rhetorical climate that has resulted from the free exercise of human will, through force— shadow bans, censorship, unchecked bias etc.— on platforms that, for some, provides their primary opportunity to gain knowledge or express true and honest views, there exists violence in action. All that is needed to further demonstrate this is to superimpose the entity of Twitter from the 300 million users over which it presides, to an entire government, and imagine the effects of it imposing such rules under that sort of paradigm. Historically, we would not have to look so incredibly far, as to regimes such as Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, or more recently Putin’s Russia, in order to demonstrate this. To be fair, Twitter is far from the likes of regimes that have killed millions of people and had almost completely sought to do away with human rights of free expression altogether. This illustration is used merely to illustrate the slippery slope of such actions, as seeking to limit certain speech in public spaces, because any justification for a conglomerate such as Twitter, can also be used, in relation to news media or to a government, as they can operate in similar ways. There is an imperative here, to be cautious in the willingness to create laws or rules for individuals to follow. With that power comes the need for action that aims to protect expression and the free exchange of ideas, at all costs. As Benjamin states in his essay, “law-making violence, is power making, and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence” (Benjamin 295). So the imperative comes with the realization that laws themselves can be violent, because with them comes the implied use of force and punishment for not following them, as well as the reality that not following them can mean a real world cost. This caution also of course relates to media organizations, as a whole. In relation to news, the caution should be in the quality of information that is relayed to the people, as a lack of caution can spread like wildfire, leading people to develop mindsets or start movements, from the information they see and such information could later prove to be lacking truth.
And of course, the intention is not to place “freedom” in a monolithic ambiguity, but rather as a representation of what is already recognized by our governing bodies— and thus has already been negotiated by the collective people in this republic, and continues to be so negotiated in the legal realm rather than the digital, though that argument too can be made— as acceptable ways of expressing our natural rights as citizens. It stands to reason that, if we are to have free and uninhibited rhetorical expression— not counting the unprotected nature of calls to action— that all speech that is allowed under our Constitution, would also be allowed in our public spaces. Freedom, for the most part unrestrained, is the tried and true test of a functioning society. Now, in saying unrestrained, there is no underlying call to some sort of anarchistic move here, as rules are indeed needed for a functioning society. There is a difference however, in rules that protect against calls to violence against one’s person and rules that are arbitrarily determined so certain individuals do not encounter offence. Surely, any discourse worth having, any rhetorical leap taken, risks itself being offensive to another. That is the essence of rhetorical speech and of action. This risk of offensiveness truly is representative of a republic, or rather representative of true and honest rhetorical interaction that seeks to find its truest representation.
I thought to myself: I am wiser than this man; neither of us probably knows anything that is really good, but he thinks he has knowledge, when he has not, while I, having no knowledge, do not think I have.
As has been laid out, speech has for centuries been the tool by which individuals could, as Frederick Douglass once said, give tongue to interesting thoughts within one’s own soul that would otherwise die from lack of utterance (TRT 1073). Rhetorical speech, more importantly free rhetorical speech, has been the cornerstone of what the founding fathers termed: the great experiment called the United States of America; a country where free speech is built directly into the founding documents so as to avoid curtailment by Governmental entities that are built around power and are run by men afflicted by the human condition, as we all are. In any republic, where the people are foundationally involved in promoting its longevity, the many open forums within give opportunities for the people to engage in open exchange of interesting thought and expression, employing the persuasive nature of rhetorical discourse. The very point of rhetorical discourse is to use speech, syntax, and even sentence structure and presentation to influence the beliefs of someone else, to bring them to one’s own side or to negotiate mutually beneficial outcomes for society as a whole (TRT 5-7). That is an acceptable operation of rhetoric; to employ influence. Though Plato would be critical of that fact, it bears pointing out that in a modern society, one must be versed in using the rhetorical power at their disposal, for good negotiation societally. And it is perfectly correct to say that we of the citizenry are in a continual rhetorical negotiation with one another on a daily basis.
Both in the time of Plato and in the time of America’s founding, rhetorical negotiation was lauded and allowed to flourish (TRT 80). There was a recognition that only through discourse could outcomes be determined or could ideas be shared adequately; but only if speech was left unimpeded. It is ideas of this kind that have led to the proliferation of social media conglomerates of the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and others as compliments to the more traditional news media formats. These platforms, that have flourished as a result of the freedoms offered almost exclusively in America, appear to all allow the misuse of rhetorical practice to go unchecked, on their own. News media using rhetorical freedoms to misdirect, while social media companies seem to all go the route of limiting that free exercise of rhetorical speech, rather than allowing it to flourish freely.
In a way, they operate as sort of quasi-democratic governments, with leaders at the helm who impose rules and force desired behaviors upon the online communities of users— a sentiment Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, himself has acknowledged (United 2018). Now, to truly put this statement into the proper framework, we will look to Dorsey’s statements in front of a United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce, on September 5, 2018. In his statement to the committee, Dorsey touched on a few rhetorical points that deserve some analysis, in relation to the topic of speech expression within the platform: promoting health, openness, and civility of public conversation; not using political ideology to rank or prioritize posts; and Twitter’s four principles for a healthy public sphere. Dorsey expresses an intent to provide, through machine learning and custom-tailored algorithms, an online environment or “public square” where individuals can have safe engagements that encourage healthy debate and critical thinking. At one point he says,
We acknowledge that abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers occur… Historically, Twitter focused most of our efforts on removing content against our rules. Today, we have a more comprehensive framework that will help encourage more healthy debate, conversations, and critical thinking” (United 2018).
This statement sounds acceptable at first glance, and perhaps even Plato might agree. Where he would not agree, however, would be in the powerful imposing upon the people. He would encourage discourse, at all costs. In the age of information leading to knowledge, and knowledge being power, it stands to reason that whoever controls the flow of that information, can wield that power in any way they see fitting, as represented by Dorsey. He repeats this sentiment on more than one occasion and it is interesting that he does, in one major respect: echo chambers. From Dorsey’s own words, he aims to eliminate these echo chambers— or small spaces where similar beliefs are amplified and reaffirmed— and yet he undercuts that very goal by creating such chambers through use of his own algorithms and through what he calls his principles of a healthy public sphere, which he states only a few lines after this previous statement. The solution, is everyone on the platform having “shared attention, shared reality, variety, and receptivity” (United 2018). The verbiage Dorsey chooses to use here raises some questions for anyone who aims to think critically.
Firstly, if everyone has a shared attention and a shared reality, there can never be any true variety in the thought being discussed. Secondly, no one can possibly learn to be receptive of differing points of view, if they are never exposed to points of view that come from those whose “reality” does not match their own. This means the civility and honest discussion Twitter wishes to promote, suddenly becomes an impossibility. It seems that this is exactly how echo chambers are created, but this is not the only proof of this within Dorsey’s testimony. Dorsey tells the House committee that Twitter algorithms, “show individuals using the platform the most relevant information for that individual first… Twitter has also employed technology to be more aggressive in detecting and minimizing the visibility of certain types of abusive behaviors on our platform… Twitter strives to show content to people that we think they will be most interested in and that contributes meaningfully to the conversation” (United 2018). Another aspect to this is his reference to “abusive behaviors”. When looking into such behaviors on the Twitter terms of service page, as a rhetorical document, these behaviors are summed up by “behavior that is targeted at an individual or group of people, report has been filed by the target of the abuse or a bystander, the behavior is newsworthy and in the legitimate public interest” (Twitter 2018). What is concerning about this is, the word choices are somewhat ambiguous here. It is unclear what precisely Twitter deems as abusive behavior, leading one to believe that any action either reported or flagged by Twitter algorithms, would be subject to their subjective discretion of what they deem to be “abusive”. Twitter, according to Dorsey, heavily depends on behavioral signals to track how certain accounts behave in relation to others. Further, tweets that do not contribute to “healthy” discourse on the platform are thrown to the bottom of the “relevant content” list or removed from the site altogether (United 2018). The problem here is, and I believe Plato would agree, it should be left to the people to rhetorically negotiate what is acceptable to them, which is essentially done on other sites, through mechanisms of down-voting or disliking posts. Posts can also be scrolled past or ignored.
What is most interesting however, is Dorsey told Congress that the behavioral models that Twitter employs do not take political views or ideology under consideration when ranking posts on the site (United 2018).
In an interview with CNN he had this to say:
The problem with this is three-fold. Firstly, the CEO himself admitted to his own company’s political leaning in the interview, which is not in and of itself a problem unless there is a pattern of that bias being used against certain people. Secondly, in his testimony he says,
“We recognize that even a model created without deliberate bias may nevertheless result in biased outcomes. Bias can happen inadvertently due to many factors, such as the quality of the data used to train our models. In addition to ensuring that we are not deliberately biasing the algorithms, it is our responsibility to understand, measure, and reduce these accidental biases” (United 2018).
What is interesting here, is the phrase “quality of the data.” The quality of the data in any given algorithm is only as accurate and impactful as the human beings inputting such data, which leads into the third and final point which is this hearing came on the heels of public incensement from many individuals that Twitter, as a company, was intentionally silencing their voices, or shadow banning— that is, purposefully limiting the visibility of certain posts—because they may have held a political ideology or viewpoint on certain social topics that did not align with Twitter, as a company. In fact, prominent public voices have purportedly fallen victim to this, which was one major cause of the House Committee hearing (CNN 2018 ). What is striking here is Twitter, as a company that offers a service, believes it is its job, or rather its imperative, to take upon itself, the lofty goal of policing fairness. Twitter believes they are uniquely positioned, and perhaps they are, to influence the nature of civil discourse. Jack Dorsey himself commented on Twitter’s entire goal being to, “preserve their democracy”. The problem arises, however, with the idea that fairness can be achieved at all, in any meaningful way, that does not elevate the rights of some, but limit the rights of others. It seems impossible to ensure that everyone is content with the rhetorical discourse around them. In reality, this approach seems to encourage the proliferation of echo-chambers, mass blocking lists, and shadow banning— which Dorsey admits to existing on his platform, though fervently denying its perceived bias.
Honesty is, for the most part, less profitable than dishonesty.
This idea of manipulative information wielded against the better interest of the masses speaks directly to the problems that have arisen within Western media landscapes. Both in news media, and in social media. This has led to an overwhelming distrust of media, particularly news media. It is important to note that distrust of media is not a 21st century phenomenon. On the contrary, it has been around as long as we have had media. To this point, the famous statement—usually attributed to Mark Twain, who lived from the mid to late 1800s—says, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed” and is a sentiment that speaks directly to the heart of this new movement. In a world where man seeks knowledge, and relies on the entities that are presented as having knowledge only to find those entities deal in misinformation and manipulation. This fuels distrust and this renewed distrust has created a new sort of social movement: one against false information; if all that is needed for a social movement to exist is a collective of people coming together for a shared cause, with long-term goals of some change in society occurring. The fans of this new movement have been flamed with phases such as “fake news” or “alternative facts” and has led individuals and governmental entities alike, to bring suits and lead social media campaigns against both mainstream media outlets and Social media conglomerates. Though these sorts of terms can be reductive, and can alienate some from engaging in civil discourse that might otherwise lead both sides to truth or knowledge, they are not altogether incorrectly laid at society’s feet. Especially, when we see cases like that of the Covington Catholic School kids.
In the past, news media had predominately been plagued by a must-be-first-to-report mentality, but that inclination has evolved somewhat.
Not only is there still a need to be first to report—which can lead to the proliferation of inaccurate information and the need for corrections—there is also a profit-driven motive behind journalistic reporting, with the steady decline in news ratings over the last few years, due to alternate forms of media and increased competition.
As a result of this market-driven style of journalism, news has become somewhat sensationalized and fear-focused, in order to increase viewership (Thussu 2010). People seem to be rejecting this sort of news delivery method, however, as public distrust in media is at all-time highs. According to a recent Gallup poll, trust in news media rests at about 46% overall: 42% among those who identify politically as Independent; 76% among Democrats; and 21% among Republicans. Interestingly, the level of trust is lowest in those aged under 30, which sits at 33%. To be fair, these numbers are slowly rising, though they still sit at historic lows.
The video below, from an award-winning former journalist for CBS News, touches a bit on this:
The problem with the rhetorical nature of news organizations having a focus on sensationalism, means that truth cannot fully be sought. Predominantly because, “fear-based news relies on dramatic anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, promoting isolated events as trends, depicting categories of people as dangerous, and replacing optimism with fatalistic thinking” (Glassner 1999).
In a recent panel of journalists, well-known journalist Ted Koppel speaks on the state of journalism, in relation to politics and ratings, which bears somewhat on the topic at hand.
Seven years of silent inquiry are needful for a man to learn the truth, but fourteen in order to learn how to make it known to his fellow-men.
To know something, of course, is not so easily defined within the realms of carnality and baseness that plague the human experience. If it were, it would not have been a topic so often discussed over generations of documented discourse, and to such varying degrees among rhetorical theorists. How can one know something without truth being the implicit purveyor of such knowledge? Plato speaks to this, in his work Republic, when he says,
In the world of knowledge, the essential Form of Good is the limit of our inquiries, and can barely be perceived but, when perceived, we cannot help concluding that it is in every case the source of all that is bright and beautiful –in the visible world giving birth to light and its master, and in the intellectual world dispensing, immediately and with full authority, truth and reason –and that whosoever would act wisely, either in private or in public, must set this Form of Good before his eyes (Plato & Watt 1997 228).
Plato is not only placing knowledge as highly essential to experiencing goodness in life, but he also alludes to the attaining of it, through truth and reason, only being done by those who would act wisely. Interestingly enough, he also leaves room for man’s inability to ever truly know anything. Of course, the word know can encompass both one’s own perception of what is true— through the vehicles of information purveyance that are readily available to them— as well as what would be universally true and supported by empirical data. Truth is what is, but is also that which leads the searcher to what can be known and not simply what is probable. Probabilities, as Plato would say, are not knowledge but are mere appearances of such knowability. He goes a bit further in his work Phaedo where he says, “arguments derived from probabilities are idle, and unless one is on one’s guard against them, they are very deceptive” (Plato & Lindsay 170). I would even go so far as to say that such arguments are not arguments at all but, as Chaucer would have said, are nothing more than wind from the port side; mere acts of deception.
Probabilities seem to be the result of rhetoric, in its modern sense, and were one of Plato’s dissensions of rhetorical practice. More important to Plato, was the search for truth in all situations. He identified it as preeminent above rhetoric. Often, he referred to rhetoric in the pejorative sense, as he related it to those he viewed as manipulative, deceitful, and corruptive in discursive utilization. Much of his commentary on this subject, is in direct reference to Sophists such as Gorgias, who utilized rhetorical speech specifically for the purpose of manipulation. Much of Gorgias’ views on rhetoric stemmed from a belief that, in effect, nothing exists, or if it does in fact exist that we cannot know it, and if we can know it, we cannot effectively communicate what we know, without having shared experiences relying on shared deceptions, that are affected by language. He believed that language not only creates, but also changes, our opinions that become our only source of available knowledge (TRT 45; 83). Therein lies Plato’s dissent. Plato’s concerns of this sort of approach to rhetoric are not relegated to pre-modernity, however. This concern should be just as much a modern one here as it was in Plato’s Athens (TRT 80). This sort of nihilistic approach to information-gathering is what seems to lead to the must-be-first mentality of the news media, as well as the social media phenomenon of shutting down speech that breaks from popular convention. This phenomenon, of course, could not be as effective as it has become, without this value placed on shared experiences that create groups of activists toward varying social causes. The next logical conclusion of these approaches will always lead malleable people to misuse their rhetorical power for their own purposes and to use the technological mediums, which now allow for information to be pushed to the masses within seconds, toward ends that only serve those who wield that power most effectively; or most manipulatively.
Though the digital age has done much to bring Western society out of poverty and servitude, the human yearning for power over the populous— through controlling the readily accessible levels of information— and over each individual’s consciousness, becomes more pervasive. And with the search for power comes the inclination toward untruth, I believe, because lack of truth merely becomes a means toward the desired end of power and control. For the purposes of my analysis, truth will be defined as: that which is knowable, if it can in fact be known; that which is provable, if it can in fact be proven or demonstrated empirically; and that which leads individuals within our society to good and true outcomes, as reasoned and agreed upon through free-flowing rhetorical discourse.
It is important to note that truth, to Plato— in all its transcendent qualities— is, by definition, above one’s own whims and therefore, no one who seeks to use speech for their own gain, will gain true knowledge or purvey it (TRT 80). This type of speech— rhetorical speech— is meaningless to him because it is a result of an orator’s own whims, rather than a genuine service for the people. The main goal of this paper is in using Plato’s view of truth, coupled with Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, as a lens through which to analyze the difficulty of Western society to adequately negotiate true and acceptable outcomes within media-oriented forums. Through the utilization of more analytic, objective, and dialectical approaches toward all rhetorical spaces, as well as through the argument of how the self-appointed leaders of these spaces— the likes of information-gathering conglomerates Facebook, Twitter, and at times even in our very own U.S. government— willingly and knowingly withholding information from the people and furthermore, attempting to limit speech, can be perceived as a form of violence against them, and therefore carries a harmful quality about it, which can lead to more physical types of violence from the populous. The seeking of truth here, is paramount in avoiding such outcomes.
It seems evident to say that truth is important. Such a proposition is unlikely to find much opposition within current societal discourse, at least on the surface. Truth seems to be integral to mankind’s ever-expanding search for knowledge. Though, power and influence appear to be the more common tools sought in gaining such knowledge, considering with power and influence one can impose truth— rather than allow it to be freely sought— which, even in the digital age is brought about through speech. Speech is, and has always been, a powerful vehicle through which both truth and falsehood could reign, in both a written and spoken sense. This has been increasingly evident in both the media and political realms of Western society; perhaps even more so due to the rapid expansion of easily accessible information, continually at the tip of our fingers. Both of these realms of information and influence are areas where truth must be the supreme consideration. Without this consideration, what is known becomes a result of what is imposed upon the people as truth— rather than what is thoughtfully presented and allowed to be reasoned— through the very tools billions of people rely on to be better equipped in the realm of knowledge. Knowledge is, after all, power. Because it is power: the willful withholding of said knowledge, or the complete suppression of the vehicle that would bring it into being, is tantamount to violence. This idea of violence will be further expounded upon, at a later point.
The question of truth’s significance to our modern society is not altogether different from in Plato’s Athens, where open forums were the playground of those who came equipped for verbal jousting and public negotiation (TRT 80). Exploring the work of Plato’s ideas regarding truth and rhetoric are instrumental in determining the state of our own media-oriented spaces. Rhetoric, in the public space of media, has become what Plato admonished as its greatest shortcoming which, as mentioned, is the tendency of rhetoric toward seeking personal desires rather than seeking truth. Plato of course makes a clear distinction between truth and self-will (TRT 83). A distinction this paper will seek to use in analyzing the violence of speech infringement, as well as the inclinations of companies, specifically Twitter, in using rhetorical strategies to further promote such violence against individuals while claiming to fight it. Can truth even be found in climates oriented around influence and power, for the sake of influence and power?” This topic will allow the case to be made that rhetorically oriented media climates do not actually allow room for truth at all, as they stand currently, and will also seek to demonstrate how, in analyzing modern society, we can better understand how seeking truth itself can lead society to a better understanding of rhetoric, especially in relation to national and global social movements; the end goal being a better hold on understanding and knowledge.
One of the side-effects of taking a World Cultures class is, one is continually confronted with how they interact with other people, especially those in other cultures or groups. On a daily basis, especially in such a diverse society as America, we come into contact with people of varying beliefs, cultures, and backgrounds. And yes, how we interact with some of those people can many times come out of our belief that the stereotypes we have come to know about them are indeed true or the only relevant thing about them, if they are true. We forget that stereotypes, even the ones based in truth, are many times fallacious assumptions that lead us to perceive people in a particular way, therefore limiting our ability to effectively analyze or receive them as an individual person. Of course, many times we go about our days this way and of course it can be harmful, but moreover, it does both us and others a disservice in the long run, as it can serve to both alienate and diminish opportunity for both friendship and common ground to be found.
Stereotyping: Racist or Misinformed?
This theme of culture bias and stereotyping is quite present in the essay On Becoming American, by Tadasu Imahori. He speaks of being born Japanese and coming to live in America during the 70’s. Imahori-san expresses his own struggles with identity, especially in two very different cultures: American and Japanese. He expresses his coming into contact with varying people and their comments to him that were either steeped in stereotypical bias or perceived racism, evidenced both by his interactions with the hotel attendant and the police officer. The thing I found interesting though, is that he seemed more inclined to attribute these interactions with racism than with people’s own cultural naiveté.
In the “Becoming an ‘Other American’” portion of the essay, he says, “When I found this daunting similarity between my experiences and those of Takaki and Nakayama, I was no longer uncertain about the reason why I was not fully accepted as ‘American.’ I knew that my culture and my ‘foreign’ status are the same to the ‘racist American’ society” (Imahori 263). This is an interesting perspective he takes and the irony is altogether
present, considering how homogenized Japan is and has always been. The truth of the matter is, when someone does not understand something that is foreign to them, they tend to rely on such stereotypes that they have come to believe are accurate representations of who or what a person really is. This phenomenon is not particularly right per se, but does it exist maliciously? Relying on stereotypes may cause people to make uninformed or perhaps even insensitive inquiries, but it is important to acknowledge when it is from a place of well-meaning or a place of malice. There is a clear distinction, I think, between actual racism and merely possessing a lack of knowledge. I would posit that more often than not, on a daily basis we come more into contact with the latter than the former. Imahori-san also many times rebukes the assumptions that people make in assuming he was a “Japanese-born Japanese,” which he was of course. No matter how I look at this, it strikes me as problematic to find complete fault with assumption.
To me, an assumption is merely the brain’s attempt to bring a stranger into a realm of understanding so as to find a common thread between that stranger and oneself. It is a way for one’s mind to remedy the dissonance between thinking and understanding. Assumption is a natural human cognitive response to not knowing and through that assumption, inquiries can be made; thus, leading to communication as to the merits of said assumption and of course on to understanding one another. I think the view Imahori-san puts forth, seems to come out of a sort of inability to accept oneself. Every person, I think, has multiple versions of themselves within the one. When those selves come into contact with one another, through the lens of the external world, it causes a person to question their value to others, which of course has more impact on their perceived value than on their actual value.
Othering: Society or Self?
In his essay, On Living In Between, Imahori-san speaks more along these lines. He says,
“Rather, my cultural maverick identity is a variant of my ‘other Japanese’ identity, and my ‘foreigner’ identity is a metamorphic transformation of my ‘other American’ identity. Therefore, I continue to also identify as being ‘other American’ and ‘other Japanese.’ I am neither Japanese nor American” (Imahori 270).
This entire section is evidence to me, at least on the surface, of someone who can not accept themselves for what they are and thus they attribute themselves to being neither. In actuality, he is both Japanese and American: being a citizen of both countries. Presumably, no one has told him that he is not a part of these two cultures. On the contrary, he has perceived himself to not be a full part of either, because he fits on the outside of them, in a manner of speaking. In actuality, many who might be inclined to inquire of one’s heritage, are genuinely interested. This again, aids in understanding.
I think the common misconception in human thinking is that we are what we perceive others to perceive us to be, rather than traversing our world confidently in who we are and how we can share and improve ourselves, others, and the various cultures and perspectives that live within us. Though I do see his disconnect from both of these very different cultures, I also see how problematic and dare I say how specious that type of thinking can be as well. It seems to me that if one sees oneself as an “other” or as an outsider, that this can cause a person to, whether consciously or subconsciously, put others at arms length because they either feel others can’t or don’t want to understand them enough accept them without asking questions. The truth of the matter is, however, that the main way many of us know how to attempt to get to know someone of another culture, is to make such inquiries. Now, admittedly, we should always attempt to approach others without the built-in preconceptions with which we have undoubtedly become familiar with, but there is another imperative here: for those of the “outside” culture to also attempt to be patient enough with those of us, who may simply be ignorant of a culture we were not raised in.
In Conclusion: Personal Note
In reading these two essays, I have found that they do force a person to look at themselves and their own interactions with the world around them. Talking about other cultures and gaining a glimpse into individuals who may or may not be foreign to our nation, can open up the doors of communication and understanding with people who are different from us. One of the things that I believe can aid all parties involved, in this strange terrain we find ourselves a part of, is attempting to learn enough about cultures we most often come in contact with, to demonstrate an active participation in the process of understanding and ultimately, communicating. One way I have done this in my own life, is to learn Japanese.
Learning a language is a process that immerses you in that other culture. It teaches not only how to communicate more effectively, but also what aspects of the other culture pose an obstacle to your own, which of course allows you to engage the critical mind to find ways of commonality, between yourself and others, so that the obstacles can be traversed together. Anecdotally, I grew up in an area of Georgia where I was always surrounded by people of varying backgrounds and cultures which has given me a love for making friends and learning about other cultures. Through my upbringing, I have also gained a way of seeing the world that lends me to believe that lowering a person to their aesthetic or cultural markers can many times do more harm that it does good. Reducing someone to “white,” “black,” “Asian,” “long-hair,” “short hair,” “blue eyes,” “brown eyes,” or any other immutable group descriptive, can detract from the simplest fact that they are a fellow human being who is complex and has a wellspring of rich heritage within themselves, as you do. None of those things determine who a person is on the inside. In fact, they only further condition and proliferate people’s biases and cause them to hold fast to their belief in stereotypes. For my daily interactions, so that I can have better interactions with all sorts of people, I will always try to be what in Jewish culture is called a mensch, or rather, an honorable and kind person. It seems to me that if everyone would try to simply be a mensch, that every interaction we have with any individual would bring us all into better understandings of one another. Fewer people would be “othered” and fewer of us will have done the “othering”.
There have been many panels that have been presented at KSU, but this is the first one I ever attended. the topic is not one that would usually incline me to excitement, but it was fairly interesting. While I am certain that many from our class will surely write on the feminist aspects, for which the presentation was focused, I was actually more interested in something that came from a place I did not expect.
A bit toward the end of the discussion, the panel opened up the floor for the students in the audience to ask questions of the panelists. One female student began to tell her story, from an interesting perspective: of someone born from interracial parents. The one thing she said that was interesting to me was that her struggle was in finding out what it means to be “fully black” when you have one parent who is, and one who isn’t. It is an interesting thing to think about on the one hand because I know that my future children will probably ask me similar questions. On the other hand, it is interesting to me, that she chose one side, over the other, when she is both equally.
As a thought experiment though, it truly is fascinating to see what people come up with, when thinking of such a question. Especially when we consider that very few “black” people in America (whose ancestors have been here for generations) are actually 100%, or “fully black” to use the young woman’s words. In actuality, most are a mixture.
This fact hit home to me when I started doing our family ancestry and I found out that I, myself have about 20-30% European ancestry, 60% African ancestry, as well as Cherokee ancestry. Though these results all matched with the oral familial stories we have been told for years, it was interesting to see them put in actual number form. This gave me a bit of a more nuanced view of what it meant to be anything because truly, we are all a mixture of the beautiful intricacies of those who came before us, of those who lived rich and diverse lives, and of those who traversed the world to bring us to where we all are now.
This question of what it means to be “black” falls short, in my estimation, of the real question that should have been asked: what does your heritage tell you about being a human in this diverse and nuanced world, of which we are all apart? At the end of the end of the day, the immutable comes to little meaning. Skin may influence culture and it may place you in a community where you have an obvious aesthetic commonality, but it does not determine intelligence, worldview, where a person will end up in life, or that person’s worth. There is beauty in every living being and to me, there is a subtle beauty in seeing that which is at odds, come into oneness. But as humans do, we tend to focus on one part of ourselves, rather than on the self, as a whole. In seeing ourselves in such a way, we fracture ourselves; disregarding the intricate strands that makes us who we are. Who we are is not found on the outside, but just a bit deeper beneath the surface.
This panel was quite interesting to me because I do enjoy seeing the perspectives of other people. Though the panelists had different experiences and worldviews than my own, I think there is something to be said for allowing those perspectives to flourish, so we can learn from one another and broaden our own views. This is what allows us to become more effective rhetoricians, as we step onto our respective rhetorical stages in life.
It seems to me, important to note, that I have never been someone who has cared much for speaking about race; mainly because the term and the concept is thrown around and almost weaponized, on a daily basis, in our modern and softer-skinned culture. I think this feature of who I am, is at least part of the reason I was less than excited to take my first free Saturday in a while, and venture to a place where race was the preeminent focus. In my aversion to race-related issues, I did recognize that perhaps a bit of apathy had arisen in me, over time, since I have had the privilege of growing up in a society that is vastly different from what my grandparents knew. But that apathy sort of colored (no pun intended) over the fact that these things I saw on the walls, were actually experienced by people in my own family. It seems likely that a sort of dissonance is created upon realizing that many of these things I saw were also perpetrated by others in my family.
As soon as you enter the initial room of the museum, you are met on both sides with pictures littering the walls.
On the left side, black and white photographs, crowned with neon letters that read, “White”. On the right side, black and white photographs, crowned also with neon letters that read, “Colored”. There wasn’t really any weight that hit me here, as I have known that this was the case, once upon a time. In fact, my own mother told me years ago, about when she had to get her birth certificate from her home town (of Metter, Georgia), how on it she saw the same words, “colored”. So, having been faced with it before was not really altogether shocking. It was more interesting, than anything, at how similar the walls were. On the one side, there were people smiling, dancing, and living their lives. On the other, you had the very same thing. What was so different about these people? Well, nothing. The black and white tint of the photographs demonstrated that much.
My inquisitive nature meant I had to fondle the dials a bit, and run my fingertips over the metal casings, of these devices that seemed so foreign yet so familiar. It was fascinating to me, to be so close to something that was out of the past. I didn’t quite feel the same way though, when I came to the wall that read, in big white letters, “SEGREGATIONISTS”. A wall adorned by men who would have seen me and wondered how I could be in such an institution as a University; men who may have even looked upon me bewildered or even angry at how immensely their efforts failed. I didn’t feel any sort of animosity, in the least. On the contrary, I have more of a passing fascination with how a person can look upon another human being, who is made in the same image, and hold such a disdain for them, simply due to a difference in the hue of their skin. It always strikes me as highly illogical and unfortunate, because it is the easiest way to miss out on getting to know good people and getting to see the best of what those people have to offer your life, or society as a whole. But that is the point though, isn’t it? When people have come up in an environment of fear of others, or a disdain for them, rather than an acknowledgement that all human beings are in this life-walk together, it leads them to lack value for the sanctity of every single life. And when that value for life’s preciousness is found deficient, man can bring his mind to the proper rationalization that malice against his neighbor, is justified, necessary, and perhaps even the right thing to do.
The violence, is what brought me out of my apathy toward this trip. In particular, the lunch counter simulation. A previous professor of mine told me about it, but I sort of dismissed it, for reasons I have stated, but experiencing it firsthand, is a different beast altogether. Upon first sitting down, writing on the counter prompts you to place your hands above the hand prints in front of you; the goal of course being to simulate a peaceful protest. The thing I noticed immediately was that having your hands in that position, sort of forces you to arch your back and place your head in a downward position. Immediately, your ears are bombarded with voices of men bellowing vulgarities in your direction and it escalates to a level of surreality that I had not expected. The vibration of my seat, to simulate someone kicking it, caused me to jump a bit and told my mind, ‘this is real’. With perfect clarity, I could hear a man sneering in my ear. I could hear the sound of spit he sucked in as he ravenously threatened me with, “I’m gonna kill you boy.” It was as if I could actually feel him with one hand on my shoulder, as he slid his face next to my ear. I noticed the words on the table in front of me also prompted me to close my eyes, but I refused to close them. I already felt as though I was there, and I knew if I did, my eyes would probably betray my successful composure. Upon getting up, I walked over to a friend from class, who had been sitting at the table next to me, and she was in tears. Every tear she wiped away broke me a bit. It broke me for a few reasons: it moved me that she was more upset about it than I was; seeing the pain in her face was eating away at the composure I had put so much effort into; and it reminded me just how far we have come.
We have come so incredibly far, in our society. I do not think we focus on that fact quite enough, if I am being honest. I also believe we forget that it would have been almost impossible to have gotten where we are, had people on both sides of the racial divide not organized under the auspices of togetherness.
Not togetherness in a generic or contrived sense of the word, but in actually coming together to combat a problem people on both sides saw and wanted to fix. What struck me throughout the exhibit, as profoundly amazing—whether from freedom riders who were willing to be beaten or killed for their cause or the holding of hands during marches, risking police retaliation—were the pictures of people of all hues, singing & walking together, showing that only together could this problem be fixed.
Many times in our society, as a result of much of what has transpired in the past, we tend to paint all people in one group as the boogeymen, when in actuality, it takes people from all sides, to bring a nation together. It is a mistake not to recognize that only together, can we continue to move forward. Only through the lens of love’s patience, love’s kindness, love’s gentleness and understanding, can we move past the chasm of separation and onto the fertile promised land that Dr. King saw. He saw us ALL as Americans that were equal, under the only three colors that should really make the difference. We should all strive to remember what those colors are and why they hold us together.