Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Whisper from the East - implications

The last posting dealt with Plato's ideas (interpreted by Josef Pieper) that language is designed for men to communicate truth to one another, and that anything less is what Plato would call "flattery" - worthless words designed only to sway men's will, not communicate truth. I observed that much discourse these days is just this type of communication. Reader SarahD made the point that the sophists may not have won. They may be enjoying a Golden Age, but that some still value true and proper speech. I certainly concede that point. As long as men interact with one another, forming families, friendships, and associations, truth will be spoken. However, I would claim that much of the public discourse in our culture is what Plato would call flattery. Regardless of the arena - politics (of course), media, entertainment, commerce, whatever - success is often measured by how persuasive you are, not how truthful.

To revisit the topic, I'd suggest that men surrounded by a culture so strongly influenced by sophistry will be effected in several ways. It seems to me that there are at least three:

Men will have a distorted view of the truth
This is the most obvious point: if speech is not used to communicate truth, how will men know it? But I think it goes even deeper: men will not only not know the truth, they will have a distorted picture of what the truth is. I heard a classic example on a radio interview recently. The host was interviewing a man who was espousing the current conspiracy theory that the federal government actually blew up some of the levees in New Orleans to flood out the poor blacks remaining in the city. The host was pressing the man for factual support for this outrageous canard, but none was provided - only louder and ruder speeches about how racist the administration was, etc., etc. It was clear that facts were not of interest to this man. His purpose was to rant long and loud enough that enough people would come to believe what he was saying, if only through brute repetition. It was clear that he thought if enough people believed this story, that would somehow make it true - so much so that he even offered that as support ("A lot of people believe this, you know!")

That is one example of having a distorted view of the truth.
It may be true that in a republic like ours, having enough people believe even a falsehood can translate into political power, but neither quantity of believers nor political power can make a lie true. But this sort of confusion is to be expected in a world dominated by sophistry.

Men will have a distorted view of the purpose of speech
This is a more subtle point, but critical. I remember reading about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, wherein each candidate spoke for hours on end about the issues of the day while their audience listened patiently in the hot sun. (Ever read those debates? I doubt many college graduates could follow them, yet these rustics ate the stuff up. Real hayseeds, those Illinois farmers.) At any rate, once Steven Douglas made some cogent point, and in appreciation the audience gave him a round of applause. He actually stopped his speech to gently reproach his listeners, saying that he was far more interested in convincing their minds then tickling their fancies, and that he'd far rather they considered his ideas than give him a round of applause.

Can you imagine!?

Whether or not you agree with Douglas' positions, his response illustrates a crystalline understanding of the purpose of speech. Yet if that were to happen in today's world, the politician would not only bask in the applause, he'd pull his speechwriter and campaign manager aside afterwards to dissect what button he'd hit, to make sure he'd hit it three times in the next speech. Do you see? The purpose of speech itself has been reworked. "Good speech" is what gets the applause. How that speech relates to truth is secondary (if that.)

This matters greatly to anyone concerned with communicating truth, be it an infantry sergeant, a safety instructor on an oil rig, or an evangelist. If people come to see words as just a tool of persuasion, they will stop considering the question of the truth behind the words and see them only as levers being used to work the hearer around to a certain position. At worst, the listener can fall into a cynical attitude about any sort of persuasive speaking. ("This guy's trying to talk me into something. Why would he do that? What good will it do him if I allow myself to be persuaded?") The cruel irony is that is just these kind of people who are most open to being swayed by sophistry.

Men will have a distorted view of themselves
That clunky Pieper quote in the last post contained a critical line: [the sophist] no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person. This is obviously true from the speaker's perspective. Someone who is seeking only to sway the masses has little respect for the masses. He sees them only as sheep who may be useful for his ends, but has no respect for them. But men are not fools, and at a gut level they know when they are being treated like sheep. But what if they're always treated like sheep? How will they come to see themselves? Probably not as noble and responsible citizens of an honorable society. Certainly not as image-bearers of God. Yet those identities are still there, constantly struggling to emerge. No matter how depraved and cynical a man gets, part of him wants to honor nobility and goodness. Nothing on earth can erase the imprint of God's image. Yet if much of the communication a man hears tells him that he is a sheep to be herded, what kind of inner conflict will that engender?

Those are my observations. I see a fair amount of attention being paid to the first point, but on pondering Pieper's work, I began to see how important the second and third were, too. Any thoughts?

1 comment:

SarahD said...

I read, I agree, I have nothing to add. :-)

Sorry, it was an interesting post, but one that sends me off into my own head to ponder for a while as opposed to inspiring comment. We are still out here reading you, though.