Rhetoric *Still* Matters

In 2018, amidst the far-right shootings from people with ties to 8chan, I thought there was a lot of truth to the argument that rhetoric/words matter. This argument was mostly being made on the left and I disagreed with Ben Shapiro’s side of that argument — though not entirely. I changed my Twitter handle to “Irenic Integralist” during that time.

I think a lot of evangelicals on social media who are sometimes unfairly (and almost always unhelpfully) labeled “woke evangelicals,” were pretty much where I was on the issue, though maybe not for the same reasons. In 2018, I thought about writing something that would explain why I disagreed with those on the right who were taking a stance more in line with Shapiro. I thought I might approach the topic by relating the importance of rhetoric to an experience I had while doing some work in a memory ward when I worked for a medical equipment company. Time slipped away and I never wrote that piece. Setting aside most of that and the details of the anecdote, let me touch briefly on the point I was mulling over and relate it to our current crisis.

When interacting with people who have normal cognitive function and who basically operate in the same linguistic domain, we can take a lot for granted in the sort of jokes we tell or hyperbole we use. But when you’re interacting with someone who doesn’t have normal cognitive function or share your linguistic landscape, jokes and hyperbole that might have otherwise been harmless can be harmful and even dangerous.

My point wasn’t then, and isn’t now, that our society lacks normal cognitive function or that it doesn’t have any of its linguistic landscape in common. But our society is fractured in many ways (cf. David French’s recent piece on lacking a moral center) that heighten the stakes in otherwise small and insignificant events and words. Take for example the way Jimmy Fallon wearing black face 20 years ago carried so much significance for how people felt and behaved today. At the same time, in a nation of over 300 million people (and a large drug problem), there are a lot of individuals who are mentally unstable and we can’t and shouldn’t assume that they are isolated from the way we conduct our debates in the public square. But there are also a lot of bad actors who are willing to capitalize on society being nudged towards the edge, even if they aren’t pushed over it via the rhetoric per se.

I think a lot of evangelicals on social media who we might say belong to the “soft tribe” (cf. my post from yesterday, I don’t use that term pejoratively) would have agreed with this in 2018. At the time, our rhetoric about immigration, legal and illegal, was the target of our discourse on responsible rhetoric. Many in the “soft tribe” agreed that conservatives needed to reign in talk about immigrants stealing our jobs and lowering our wages, when the facts don’t support that narrative — also that conservatives should drop hyperbole about an “invasion.” Spreading photos of South American carivans marching towards the border, when everyone knew or could have known, had they been responsible, that the vast majority of those people were not going to be crossing the border, let alone make the entire trip to the border, was needlessly stirring anxiety and presenting a distorted narrative.

But consistency demands that our rhetoric about the state of race relations in America should also be carefully weighed and measured by the facts. Rhetoric that might be needlessly stirring up fear and anxiety over a black genocide and black people “being poached like animals” can be just as dangerous as rhetoric that might be needlessly stirring up fear and anxiety over Mexicans stealing our jobs or an “invasion.”

It’s important to seek out the truth in individual cases and see whether they confirm or disconfirm the narrative, instead of letting the narrative determine our reading of the event. (I’ve explained some of the danger in letting the narrative color our interpretation of the event, instead of letting the event speak for itself, here — see points 12–21.)

Instead, too many evangelicals on social media are not just silent in the face of divisive rhetoric that is part of an overall narrative which doesn’t have much evidence in support of it, but they are actively promoting pieces of that narrative — though more are doing this by retweeting and liking comments related to the narrative than actually rehearsing the narrative themselves.

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John Bowling

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.