Archive for the 'Rhetoric' Category

Monetizing Anger (and the joys of goats)

David Brooks wrote an interesting story in the New York Times: How We Destroy Lives Today. It deals with yet another case where a racist is shamed on social media. I honestly don’t know the details of this individual case, but I did find the analysis interesting. Brooks writes about the ensuing journalistic onslaught:

Before you judge the reporters too harshly, it’s important to remember that these days the social media tail wags the mainstream media dog. If you want your story to be well placed and if you want to be professionally rewarded, you have to generate page views — you have to incite social media. The way to do that is to reinforce the prejudices of your readers. 

From this perspective, the problem with social media is not social media itself. The problems seem related to the old business models of the press. However, I don’t want to make a fundamental distinction between social and legacy media, because I think they overlap so much — there are actually two tails wagging each other in Brooks’s analogy. The “We” in the title of the story refers to both social media and the New York Times. The interaction between social media and traditional news outlets is fairly clear, but their relationship is not as hierarchical as Brooks wants to argue.

Thinking about this, it dawned on me that maybe news media has not changed as much as we have been told. They still have to make money and they now have many more sources, materials and, well, media to do it with than ever before. A reporter does not have to get out of his or her chair to investigate and write a news story. If they go on Twitter and find out what people are talking about, the story practically writes itself. Of special interest are things people are angry and bitter about. I think that’s what is implied in Brooks’s article, at least, and there really is a lot of bitterness and anger online. Expressing your anger online is one thing. Some people can’t help it, because it feels good. Monetizing anger is a completely different ball game.

Can the blame really be shifted on social media as a whole? Certainly some of it can. Social media businesses make tons of money from ignorance and rage. But shifting the blame entirely on social media would be short-sighted. Brooks seems to channel a view of social media that is informed by the kind of journalism he criticizes:

It’s hard to believe that people are going to continue forever on platforms where they are so cruel to one another. It’s hard to believe that people are going to be content, year after year, to distort their own personalities in service to a platform, making themselves humorless, semi-blind, joyless and grim.

Yes, there’s all that on social media. But that’s clearly not the whole story. For example, I just unfollowed about half of the people I followed on Twitter because my feed was getting pretty rancid and filled with moronic rhetoric. I think someone could have monetized some of the idiocy I got used to seeing every day, but I will feel much better with a feed that is easier on the nerves. Journalists may not have this luxury. The rest of us can do otherwise. We can unfollow the bores and follow accounts that bring us joy, like the one that posts pictures of goats every day. After all, if we really want to know about all the depravity going on in the world, old-fashioned news organizations scraping the bottom of the barrel have our back.

boer_goat_(8742860752)

Source: Wikipedia

Moron Clarity

I recently discovered a new YouTube video format. It consists of people called sovereign citizens getting into trouble with police officers and judges. Much like the flat-earthers (another guilty pleasure), these people seem to live in a reality of their own. They seem to think they can hold all the rights and none of the obligations of US citizens. That’s probably the only way you can be “sovereign” and “a citizen” at the same time. Some of this stuff goes over my head because I’m not that familiar with US legislation. Mike the Cop tells me that these sovereign citizens sometimes cite the Articles of Confederation as a legal document to argue their case — the problem here is that the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution in 1789. Mostly, however, these people just spew a bunch of irrelevant loopy legalese.

What really fascinates me about the videos is that these people are absolutely convinced that their cause is true. As a result, they make a routine traffic stop a major issue, get arrested and get into a lot of trouble. At first I thought this was the effect of the Internet. These sovereign citizens sound very much like trolls or the kind of people who argue endlessly about everything on online forums. Sometimes things get really serious, as with the guy who marched into a police station wearing a hood with a semi-automatic rifle and a sidearm to “make a complaint”. Some of these people are clearly nuts, but what makes those who are not completely insane so sure of their reasoning? And why is it so pleasurable to see the theories forged in their social media bubble crumble when they try to apply them to real life?

Frank Guan of the New York Times pointed me to the term “moral clarity”. The term gives us the answer to the my first question. Guan writes that “we hear about moral clarity any time there is impatience with equivocation, delay, conciliation and confusion — whenever people long for rapid action based on truths they hold to be self-evident.” His longer definition and added comment are enlightening as well:

Moral clarity is long defined by usage as a capacity to make firm, unflinching distinctions between evil and good, and to take action based on those distinctions. These are fighting words: They mean knowing the enemy, which is the first step to taking up arms against the enemy. But they’re potentially applicable to any side of a fight. What adrenaline does for the body, moral clarity does for semantics: It generates a surge of willpower, serving as a prelude to — and maybe a pretext for — combat.

Guan talks a lot about politics, where moral clarity is a kind of rhetorical flourish reserved for occasions where the state has to wield its power. But the brilliant analogy between adrenaline and moral clarity links rhetoric and psychology in a way we can all recognize. When arguing with someone who has moral clarity, you quickly discover that they are not interested in resolving an issue or learning from the debate. They are in it for the fight. Meaning matters less and a wonderful pointlessness covers the conflict like freshly fallen snow. It’s a deadlock and something outside the debate must resolve the deadlock. Sometimes that something is a baton or a taser.

So why is it fun or funny to watch people applying moral clarity in cases where it serves little purpose? Moral clarity is great if there is an enemy coming at you in the battlefield and you have to stand your ground no matter what. Or so I would imagine. Verbal arguments are not very useful in actual combat, I’m told, so moral clarity has to be installed before you put people in that situation. That’s what military training is for: you learn not to think too much in certain situations so you can act quickly and decisively. But regular everyday life is not a battlefield for those of us who are lucky enough to live outside actual war zones. Seeing someone apply a warrior mentality to a speeding ticket is incongruous, and incongruity breeds comedy.

When you watch people in everyday situations harass the police or a judge with empty rhetoric, usually the police and judges — who deal with this stuff on a daily basis — quickly find them out. Why this happens is something Guan is very eloquent about:

In politics, as in all things, it should be possible to match decisive action with intelligent consideration. Clarity achieves only the first of those two; left to its own devices, taken as a virtue in itself, it tends to generate more problems than it solves.

Guan writes beautifully, but what he basically says here is that if there is no wisdom behind moral clarity, it can get pretty dumb. If moral clarity is all you have, the disparity between your ethics and actions grows as your moral clarity grows. In simple terms, you will eventually go full retard. And you should never go full retard, no matter how much moral clarity you may think you have.

People Standing Around Talking About How Busy They Are

Everyone is in a hurry these days. And everyone talks about how everyone is in a hurry. I was re-reading Bruce Boyer’s True Style tonight to relax. He made me think about the connection between sprezzatura and manners. He writes:

It’s an important lesson we seem to have forgotten, this idea that civility rests on the little lie, the sin of omission, the harmless compliment, the overlooked slight, the tiny fabrication, the artful ability to conceal effort and inappropriate passions. These little niceties – manners, they used to be called – are the grease on the wheels of social friction. […] Sprezzatura is a matter of reaching for perfection, while cultivating the impression of never having given it a thought. It’s the sense of ease, the air of never having prepared, that wins the day. The man who’s all color coordinated is the one, we feel, who blatantly tries too hard. His clothing sends a clear message: he’s insecure.

Concealing art and effort have their own national manifestations, I’m told. Like Boyer says, there’s the Italian sprezzatura, there’s American cool, and then there’s a distinct British rumpled nonchalance. You can see the latter in upper-class people or people who like to pose as upper-class people: they never have to try very hard. If they do it right, you won’t know the difference. In fact, you may think their work and life are  just a well-rehearsed stage show they just happen to effortlessly star in.

If you approach complaining about being busy as a question of manners (as opposed to a question of style), people might take offence. Is it rude say you are stressed out and overworked? I don’t think so, especially if it is a call for help or, as is more often the case, empty small talk. However, I think the small talk in this case may drown out actual calls for help. In this sense, it would be rude to talk casually about stress, because you may be making light of someone’s real distress.

What, then, should be done? Talking explicitly about how people use talk about being busy is crossing the line in both cases, so a smartass meta-analysis is not the way to go in casual conversation. Perhaps the thing to say is: “I won’t keep you, since you are so busy.” Or: “Let’s talk some other time when we both have the time.” Both of these options seem fine to me. What you shouldn’t do, I think, is start comparing notes about how busy both of you are. If you do that, at the end you will be two extremely busy people wasting time talking about how busy you are. And that’s just silly.

Book Review: Men and Manners: Essays, Advice and Considerations by David Coggins

men and mannersI came across David Coggins when I happened to see his new book called called Men and Style: Essays, Interviews and Considerations. A quick search pointed me to a few of his articles in various journals, magazines and websites. I wanted to take a little break from menswear books, and a book about manners by someone who looked like a traditionalist seemed interesting. The other thing that drew me to the book was Coggins’s prose style. He favours short and straightforward sentences and brief texts that include anecdotes and interviews. In other words, it’s light and pleasant reading. I bought the ebook, which I now regret, because the physical book looks very nice. Perhaps I will get a physical copy of his book on style a bit later.

Men and Manners is divided into eight sections, only one of which concerns dressing up. It has advice on very basic things from how to behave during public occasions to suggestions for more intimate situations. Advice on how to tip, for example, is useful for those of us who live in countries where we don’t really tip. How to attend and leave parties I found useful, because sometimes slightly less formal public occasions can be difficult to negotiate. Reminders to keep plans are welcomed by anyone who finds it annoying when people cancel plans at the last minute. The English teacher in me was glad to see a chapter on punctuation. And it’s always good to hear someone saying that looking at your phone in company is distracting. Coggins’s tone is not too normative on this last point, and he appeals to friendship instead:

When we’re together, let’s make it count. Bring your good material, open that good bottle of wine you’ve been saving, ask questions and, since you’ve gone through all that, for goodness’ sake, man, pay attention!

Despite what I said earlier, the bits about dress were the ones that I was drawn to when I started reading. Coggins has a take on formality that somewhat echoes what Bruce Boyer has said before. It involves the strange idea that dressing in a more casual manner makes you more authentic. Coggins writes:

There’s been a proliferation of the unwelcome view that if you dress in a sloppy way then you are somehow more authentic. This exists the closer you get to Silicon Valley and is meant to convey that you have more important matters to think about than dressing well. All it implies, in fact, is that you are authentically sloppy. Does not having good table manners make you more authentic? Does not bathing make you most authentic of all? Of course not.

This authenticity could be formulated in another way. It’s actually very calculated. People dress down to identify with a certain class of people and to indicate their preferred peer group. Casual clothing is thus a kind of uniform, perhaps even more so than formal dress. People who dress casually like to say that they don’t really think about clothes, but they usually do. Sometimes they think about them more than people who wear suits. Suits are easy and require little thought once you have them and know how to wear them. Finding the right band T-shirt for the right occasion is much harder and overdressing or underdressing becomes quite complicated when the line between the two is blurry.

Because Coggins is a professional writer who wears many hats, he likes to think about dress and manners in terms of editing. By way of an analogy, he maintains that the signs of a well-edited mind show in our outward appearance and actions. Like I said, the book is light reading, but it did teach me a lot about writing. Reading the book, I was horrified by my previous reviews on this blog, and a few other texts as well. Convoluted sentences, like clothing and accessories, can seem garish and peacocky. After reading Men and Manners, I will try harder to edit myself in the hope that in trying harder, my writing on the blog will look more like an effortless exercise in casual (but not too casual) thought.

Making Sense of Trump with Emerson

emersonI had to give a lecture today about American Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Emerson, Thoreau and the like. This lecture is usually pretty easy and I normally enjoy it very much. Today, however, much of what I love in Emerson and even Thoreau seemed different. The can-do attitude  that, following the British Romantics, embraced the everyman and shunned the establishment, elitism and tradition had gone a bit stale. The anti-intellectualism, however intellectually stimulating in all sorts of interesting ways, seemed slightly offensive. The Yankee version of German Idealism was still fine, and it was wonderful, as always, to explore the possible implications of the universal mind we see animated into communities in Emerson’s amazing prose. His language never grows old even if some of the things he wrote seemed off today.

Transcendentalism served a need at the time. In the lecture, I illustrated this with Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s lament in The Hasheesh Eater (1857) about the narrow-mindedness of empirical science:

The Transcendentalists are, indeed, climbers over, as their name signifies, yet not over sound reasoning nor the definite principles of truth, but over that ring-fence of knowledge brought in through mere physical passages, with which a tyrannous oligarchy of reasoners would circumscribe all our wanderings in search of facts and laws.

In this passage, Ludlow was voicing the view that the world was more than a materialist perspective can assume. We do not have to revert to mysticism to see this in Transcendentalist thought. Emerson’s passionate calls for a new American culture pointed out that we are all connected by language and language, in turn, is connected to the world and spirit. In “Nature” (1836), he wrote that words are not merely linguistic codes. They send us back to nature. Nature, in turn, is not merely a pile of material. It is also spiritual. To put all this in more modern language, there is a relationship between the world, language and the human mind that is forever in motion. It is not a simple subject-object relationship. If it were, nothing would ever change. We would forever be subjects staring at objects.

What we see changes us, that changes how we see the world, which in turn changes the world as it is seen by us, and so on. The best part is that this mechanism can be reverse-engineered. We can imagine a new world, a new culture, one that is ours and ours alone, and make it happen. There is virtually nothing holding us back. No tradition or status quo can resist an idea once it becomes powerful enough. The human world, in a very real sense, is made of language. This does not mean there are magic words we can say to make the world into whatever we please. However, together we can shape it and change it – if we only have the language with which we can imagine it together. The possibilities are endless.

The language Emerson talked about was the language of the common man. It is frighteningly powerful, because it unites us all into a collection of minds that are virtually one single organism. In “History” (1841), Emerson wrote:

There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.

Go read Plato and you will understand him the same way Plato’s first students understood him. Think of a friend in distress and you will know his distress. We share our existence with others in a way that is almost embarrassingly intimate. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise, an Emersonian orator might want to add. You know what it is like to be the Other. It is a trippy idea and quite convincing dressed in Emerson’s beautiful rhetoric.

However, “History” ends with a passage that has caused me sleepless nights. Emerson said:

Broader and deeper we must write our annals, — from an ethical reformation, from an influx of the ever new, ever sanative conscience, — if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes. Already that day exists for us, shines in on us at unawares, but the path of science and of letters is not the way into nature. The idiot, the Indian, the child, and unschooled farmer’s boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary.

What he said is subversive, revolutionary and frightening. The old order has to fall and be replaced with something less and more than science and letters. With a preacher’s fervor, Emerson handed over the role of our conduit to nature to the idiot and the unschooled. I cannot reason away his anti-intellectualism here, nor do I think one should.

Is it a wonder we have seen Trump’s clumsy rhetoric win over the voters? Changes had to be made, we were told. The old status quo had to fall. The language of the common man was the vehicle which made it possible to reignite the spark in the hearts of those who still believed in the Great Experiment Emerson sketched out in his speeches and essays. As far as I can see, those who stood behind Trump did the right thing by their own traditions when the flag was flown. I do not like the way things turned out at all myself, but I can see why they turned out the way they did. The clown politician, the idiot, was the one who, in the minds of many, spoke the truth, and they followed.

In the end, it all comes down to faith, as always. But the elections have also shown the world the power of a tradition that started out as a way of destroying old traditions in favor of the new. It will turn on itself again soon enough. In the meantime, I think everyone should brush up on their rhetoric and study the tradition to end all traditions very carefully. The next turn of the wheel should not come as a surprise even if it is impossible to predict what exactly will happen when it happens.

Passion’s Trumping of Reason

Every time I make a political comment online, it feels like a mistake. Stupidly raging against faceless mechanisms of power and the people who manage them may be satisfying for a few minutes, but afterwards you feel bad and that resentment slowly builds and grows into chronic angst. On the Internet, no one can hear you scream. And nobody really cares anyway. There are a few people who make change happen online as well, but mostly the Internet is just a playground for bullies whose mission in life is to make others feel bad.

Hulk_aQUINASI prefer comics and heavy metal to politics. You very often learn much more from them than from professional politicians or political reporting. They have simple moral lessons that can help you in all sorts of ways. They are rarely like the over-emotional and manipulative news stories we are subjected to these days. There really is very little in the news for someone who wants an objective version of current events with which they could assess the political situation of their country. You are better off with the funny papers. Luckily, we also have a fairly good library at home filled with books that can do the job.

With the awful state of the emotional press and the subconscious ways in which I find myself imitating it, I began to think about Thomas Aquinas. Christopher Tilmouth describes Aquinas’ thinking about the passions, reason and will in his book Passion’s Triumph Over Reason very well:

Reason need only present what it deems to be good directly to the imagination as pleasant, and what it deems to be evil as painful. By thus influencing the ‘forms’ of the imagination, the very basis of the sensitive appetite, it can redirect the latter to produce passions which favour reason and the will’s own rational courses. […] One especially important manifestation of this mechanism is man’s ability to set one kind of sensitive passion alongside or against another as the will dictates. According to Aquinas, man has within him ‘not only a bent towards what is beneficial and away from what is harmful’ — this is the realm of the sensitive appetite’s ‘concupiscible’ passions — but also a power of ‘resistance to contrary and destructive forces’ which ‘block’ his aspirations or otherwise ‘menace’ him — this, the province of his ‘irascible’ passions. The irascibles, especially when driven on by the will, may act as ‘champions and defenders’ or the concupiscibles, attacking those ‘obstacles’ and ‘threats’ which stand between man and his desires; but equally irascible passions may be invoked by the will specifically to counteract the sensitive appetite’s initial, concupiscible inclinations, and even to make the soul ‘submit to pain’ when reason judges this the right thing to do.

Hulk_1_coverIn Aquinas’ famous conception of the mind, at least according to Tilmouth, emotions, the will and reason come together to form a web of interaction where we have some form of control of all the faculties relationally. If someone tells you they cannot help the way they feel, you can point to Aquinas. You actually can help the way you feel and make yourself do things accordingly — unless, of course, there is something pathological going on. That is not to say Aquinas got everything right, but to note that you are in charge of your emotions even, and perhaps especially, when you decide to give them power over your rational faculty.

Why is this, then, relevant to political reporting or anything else for that matter? The reporters’ job today is to serve up feelings for readers. Those of us who are into the arts gaze in wonder at their lamentable offerings. Anyone can get a more meaningful emotional experience from reading the Hulk or listening to a Cannibal Corpse song, I promise. Even if you don’t like them you will see and hear something you have never seen or heard before. Because of this, you will feel things you have not felt before and you will have to cope with those feelings using something like the mechanisms outlined by Aquinas. Experiencing art, in this sense, is like going to the gym. Your emotional gains will help you cope with difficulties in your life. They also help you to call bullshit when you need to and, finally, to shut up when it is wise to do so.

Ferrigno_as_HulkDoes this mean I support the notion that art has an instrumental use only and without it art would be just pretty figures and ornaments? Yes and no. Dogmatic approaches to something so central to all of us sound ridiculous. Tilmouth can tell you that a lot happened after Aquinas: Hume and the sentimentalists showed that feelings and moods affect everything we do, Kant tried to systematize how this happens, and so on. If someone accuses me of thinking about art only in terms of instrumental value, I can point to that tradition. Everything we do and everything we sense around us is informed by and filtered through our emotional makeup. If poets and artists are able to influence that in profound ways, they can control the ways the world shows itself to us. That is instrumentality, but it is very different from what is typically referred to as instrumentality. It is one thing to use art to cope with your emotions and the surrounding world, but when you realize you are really coping with how you are in the world and that this howness just is you, things take a more serious turn.

The Stagnated Rhetoric of Political Extremism

m_90621Helsingin Sanomat published an odd story about a Finnish neonazi group this Sunday. Apparently, the reporters infiltrated an online forum where members, several whom were doxxed and had their names printed in Finland’s largest newspaper, discussed the group’s planned propaganda campaigns. The London Review of Books published Slavoj Zizek’s piece on the Charlie Hebdo attacks where he concludes that “we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.” He calls this perhaps the “the most depressive lesson of terror.” Tariq Ali has been promoting his new book The Extreme Centre: A Warning where he seems to go Russell Brand on readers who have become totally apathetic with politics. Prince Charles expressed his concerns about the radicalization of young people on the BBC.

Warnings about political extremism have become a tool for established politicians and media personalities to promote their stale ways of thinking and to maintain their hold on power. An unthinking person might jump to the conclusion that to refuse to participate in this circus is a suggestion to join an extremist group, but this would be missing the point. Politicians have recruited radicalism and extremism to serve their own ends. Anyone who embraces extremism, it seems, will only be a useful idiot to those already in power. The discourse has been appropriated into the system and resistance seems futile. What, then, is to be done when the possibility of a revolutionary vanguard has been pre-emptively neutered by the clammy hands that guide the media?

Perhaps the first thing we could do is to recognize the stagnated rhetoric of political extremism and the even more foul-smelling use of the rhetoric of extremism by those already in power. Politicians who claim to be the only bulwark of reasonableness between us and extremism are not there to keep us safe and spotless. Their job is to get into office and their rhetoric does not essentially differ from the propaganda of extremist groups. Extremist groups, on the other hand, are hardly an option for most people who like to think themselves sane.

We should remember that great old William James quote: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” We should recognize that what is being presented to us instead of thinking are thinky toys© which we are then expected to play with, preferably in the privacy of our own heads. Their use in journalism and the media to sell papers and books should be made more obvious to everyone. Eventually, the media might do it all by itself just by producing more lazy journalism and spouting tired rhetoric as news. If the ruse becomes grotesquely obvious, people will notice, get bored with them and finally resist them. That’s a big “if”, but where there is banality, there is hope.