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Monday, July 29, 2019

Rhetoric and Imagination

Even in earliest practices, rhetoric was synonymous with persuasion. Today, most still think about it this same way. To be rhetorical is to be persuasive.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle adds to this when he argues that rhetoric is a counterpart to dialectic. That is, dialectic, a method of philosophy, engages in questioning statements of truth. Rhetoric, he claims, also engages in questioning statements, and in this sense it becomes a philosophical, critical discipline. The difference is this. In dialectic, we question whether or not statements of truth are absolute. In rhetoric, we question opinions, most of them having to do with issues of public policy, praise or blame, and legal guilt or innocence. The art of rhetoric is aimed at discovering the best opinions, and it is focused on opinions because they are what we have with most issues in the world.

Where dialectic is seen practiced among philosophers, rhetoric is seen in everyday life. The key here is that in Aristotle's terms, rhetoric is no long just persuading. It is also an art involved with observing what is persuasive with individual audiences. To the degree that philosophy seeks absolutes, rhetoric seeks to understand what persuades people in real, not ideal, settings.

Aristotle details three areas of interest. First, he notes that people are persuaded mostly by three things--by the character of the speaker, by emotion, and by reason. He also notes that the character of the speaker, or ethos, is most persuasive. In other words, when other good reasons are missing, our being persuaded will depend on our trust of the quality and character of the speaker. Second, rhetoric has to do with important issues we do not have absolute knowledge about. Third, rhetoric concerns opinions.

The importance of ethos seems especially relevant today. It suggests why we see so many personal attacks against public figures and politicians. These attacks are often effective, especially if a speaker can convince an audience that they really do face an either/or choice. In the terms of the old school, these are examples of fallacies--ad hominem attacks, that is, attacks "against the man," and devil terms. For devil terms, think "socialist." Think "nazi." Think "Un-American," a term used to great effect during the Joseph McCarthy trials of the early 1950s. Think of all the attempts to characterize President Obama as a Muslim or not American. Rather than attacking policies, we attack the people who are detailing them.

Rhetoric and Imagination
The example of attacks against President Obama are especially malicious, and illustrative. The slur "Muslim" in this case becomes a devil term in the post 9/11 era, where it conjures pictures of extremist groups like the Taliban. It suggests wildly imagined scenarios of a terrorist in the White House without ever having to actually state such an absurd scenario. The scenario is absurd in that it can't be based on any policy or aspect of Barack Obama's character.

I recently was reminded of all of this when I saw a post on social media claiming that any Muslim in America who wanted to follow Sharia Law should be forced to leave our country, because they weren't really Americans. This deeply shocked me. I fear now for people of Islam who have just as much claim to the American experiment as any Catholic or Protestant believer.

Similar tactics have been used with the current president. The interesting difference, however, concerns that in this case, the people accusing him of fascist tendencies are pointing to actual policies, both with immigration and in his actions with the judicial and legislative branches, that seem to be a real concern for anyone interested in supporting constitutional democracy. With the former president, all they had were accusations about his birth certificate and, apparently, his name.

In both cases, with both men, these are examples of exploiting and arousing real, longstanding fears held by the American electorate. And both require imagination. While members of both groups susceptible to these fallacies would certainly claim that they are just basing their thinking on the evidence and being reasonable, they are in fact mostly driven by their rhetorical imaginations. In both cases, their imaginations are being engaged to conjure fear.

When this happens, we have in our public imagination moved beyond appeals to reason. We have debased character. And in making what remains of ethos the whole debate, we have moved into areas of bigotry, discounting whole groups of people on the basis of something like religion, which is protected by our constitution.

Of Realtors and Rhetors
Consider these less political but very real scenarios.

When we were selling our house in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2001, our realtor went through our house and told us to remove most of our personal belongings. There needed to be empty spaces, she told us, so that prospective buyers could come in and imagine themselves in our rooms.

The important emphasis here was on getting prospective buyers to imagine themselves there.

Don Draper, of Mad Men, said as much when he noted that his company wasn't selling a product so much as a way of life.

These are commercial examples of rhetoric and imagination, of leaving just enough empty spaces for others to fill with their imaginations. And, in the old art of Rhetoric, as a counterpart to dialectic, these empty spaces would invite questioning and prodding. Is Obama really a Muslim? Is he really going to invite the Talaban into our country? Will Trump really become our first dictator? Or will other branches of government check him?

As the discourse of advertising--of appealing to a vicarious imagination in a few strokes--has become wall-to-wall in our thinking through TV and social media, we seem to have forgotten to question--ourselves, first. We have certainly become cynical about all claims. But we also seem to have become willing accomplices in undermining ourselves when we simply join the bandwagon and don't stop to question things.

This all leads to my main appeal: Never has the need to teach classical rhetoric been more serious than now. I know that I should advertise this by appealing to the rhetorical imagination--imagining a perfectly informed city square where reasonable people engage in questioning and elect the perfect candidates.

Such a realm has never existed, least of all in Ancient Athens. But the ancient art of questioning--and beginning that questioning with "Why am I personally so persuaded by this speaker? Is there something of flattery or fakery in this?"--should still be enshrined in all education--including vocational and technical education. The art of asking critical questions remains in the domain of the Liberal Arts, first named as liberal or liberating by Thomas Jefferson.

We need them now to be givens across the board.

Support your local rhetorician. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

On Grief and Doing What We Do Not Do Well

A new series streaming on Netfix this season, called The Kominsky Method, stars Michael Douglas as an aging actor who has never quite achieved success. When the series begins, he is an acting teacher in Hollywood. His best friend, a successful Hollywood agent and a mover and a shaker in the industry, is played by Alan Arkin.

In the second episode, the agent played by Arkin loses his wife to cancer. Kominsky (Michael Douglas) helps his friend to put together the memorial service his wife planned after she went off chemo for the last time. In addition to requiring that her service include performances by Barbara Striesand and Patti LaBelle, and a five minute talk by Jay Leno, all friends of the Hollywood agent and his wife, Alan Arkin’s wife requires that they find driftwood from a shipwreck on a nearby beach or island to use to make her coffin.

This episode works well as comedy and as a commentary on Hollywood. Certainly, when it comes to Hollywood serving itself, no one should be surprised that death would be seen as just another reason to put on a show. Yet watching it, I was struck by something very human about about how we see and approach death and dying. We approach it the way we do everything, by trying to do what we do best. In Hollywood, it’s perform. I could imagine construction workers going out and building some memorial. At the loss of my son, I wrote poetry.

Yet the problem is this: What we do well in life isn’t always what works when faced with the grieving and with the loss of loved ones.

What the Church Does Well
As for the church, I have noticed that the one thing we do well is talk. Talk is the way we control ourselves and others. Even when I have sensed that I am not getting through to someone, for example, when discussing politics with a friend who holds a different position, or with one of my children, I will keep talking. And when I stop talking, I am still thinking about the things I want to say. Perhaps if I reframe it, I think, all will become clear. Even after I stop talking, I am still thinking, not about what the other is saying, but about the next point I am going to make. 

Before thinking about it, this is what we will bring to the grieving among us, our methods of control; no matter how gentle we think our words may be, they are our tools and methods, after all. This is how we have lived the life of faith. Suffering stands before us as something that might challenge that control.

Unfortunately, too many of the things that we say to the grieving, too many things that I have said to the grieving, can leave the impression that they are not really accepted in their current state. We tell them that their loved one is “in a better place,” or that “their loved one would not like to see them like this.” These are words of dismissal. They tell the mourning to get over it, to move on.

Part of our need to talk may also come from thinking that we need to defend God. With suffering, when everything that has happened would seem to defy our expectations for a good life and what we sometimes call the promises of God, we might be prone to defend God and put this experience in the proper light. We must speak for God. In this spirit, so many people have felt led to share “overcoming” and “triumphal” words with me that simply made me more sad than I already was.

This is something along the lines of what Job’s comforters did. Recall that, in that story, after Job lost everything—his possessions, his livelihood, his children, and his health—his friends came and sat around him and wept with him. They did that for a week.

During the second week, however, they began to talk. They talked about what God really thought of what had happened and why it happened to Job. And these friends turned out to be wrong. At the end, they were told to repent. 

We may fail to notice that our talk may be telling the grieving to deny their loss. If we want them to have hope and to put on good cheer, our saying so actually goes in direct opposition to the experiences of the one who is suffering. In telling someone to look on the bright side or accept that their daughter is in heaven, we are asking this person, in all of his or her stress, to somehow ignore that their loved one is gone. When I was told to just praise God anyway, I felt like I had sinned deeply because I really couldn’t. I missed my son. I also felt horribly responsible for his death--as all parents do. 

Doing What We Aren’t Good At
This focus on what we shouldn’t do shows us what we should do. In fact, what I’ve found is that doing what we should do actually opens the way to God’s grace in the shadow of death. I came to understand this after attending a few Survivors of Suicide meetings and listening to the instructions. We were instructed, first, not to interrupt another or to give them advice. We were to let the other talk until finished. Also important was that when someone began to cry, it was not our place to hug them, touch them, or hand them a tissue. Such actions, especially handing them a tissue, suggest that we want them to stop crying. What was desired in the group was for everyone to be honest, forthcoming, and fully expressive of their grief. Even handing someone a tissue could be construed as a kind of denial.

Behind the pain of those of us who grieve is the real loss of a person we would like to have back. And getting that person back is deeply tied to getting back the life we ourselves once lived with them. And that is what we can't have. So we are faced with this most harsh journey. We must go on living without the one we love. We are the ones who must do it, and no one else should take that away from us or add to it. We must simply go forward with loss.

The Beatitude reads, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

This is messy, but it is the mourning that Jesus says will be comforted. Do we have the faith to see and believe this? It isn’t what we tend to do well. But it is worth trying.  

Thursday, May 23, 2019

What Might be in Our Words to the Grieving

Something I learned, finally, in the years between graduating from high school and nearing retirement, was this: Preferring my theories to what others around me are experiencing is almost always a mistake. In my ongoing dance between my thoughts and various phenomena, I don't like to have my values exposed as illusions. I think this is especially true of things that are said about politics. Over the years, I have learned, finally, to pay attention to what is really going on and to set aside my cherished theories when warranted. My political views have changed over the years as I've learned to take in new experiences, cases, and facts. 

Setting aside my theories and beliefs, however briefly, and instead listening to another person is especially helpful when we approach the grieving. Certainly, it's possible that my most cherished ideological or theological framework might feel threatened by someone else's loss. I may want to work out my own doubts by encouraging or forcing my grieving friend to feel better or get over it. It will seem that to just go with the flow will be wrong. So often, people talk to the grieving as though it is their job to contain, control, and channel grief. But this is always the worst approach. People who are suffering loss do not need to be controlled or preached to or reminded of things.

What people have to me said over the past 20 months has cued me in to what they might be thinking. Usually, the words have suggested to me that when we approach the grieving, our thoughts are more on ourselves than on our friends.

"I can't imagine what you are going through." 

While this is true, it can also be a cop-out. What is said to follow this might be key in determining the rightness of it. Sometimes, I've noticed that what is meant is "I don't want to imagine." In contrast, a friend of mine said this right after the memorial for our son: "I just can't imagine what you might be going through." But he followed it with, "but I'd like you to know that I'm available to just listen and find what you are facing." That was real care.

"He's in a better place."

This was said to me right after my son took his life. And it was such an offhanded remark that I'm not sure that the person saying it gave it much thought. Of course, this was said in a church. But really, do we know that he is in a better place? Most of my life I've lived as a believer, but I've never been clear on where exactly the better places are. Most of all, when I am missing the presence of my son and want to talk to him--especially right after we lost him--this remark had the effect of casting my desire to see him as the most selfish of possible desires. My wanting my son alive was to wish him in a worse place. How dare I think such thoughts.

Final message? You have no basis to feel bad. Stop grieving.

"You have such wonderful memories of him to share and keep him with you."

While this statement actually cuts a little closer to the real absence that the grieving feel over the loss of a loved one, it raises other real questions. The first one I considered when this was said to me was this: What in my memories are so much better than having my real son still around? My memories are vague, subjective, open to change. Is it really true that they can replace or take the shape that our dead loved ones once assumed? C.S. Lewis once referred to this idea as idolatry. He imagined replacing his deceased wife Joy with all of his memories of her, which he would increasingly render as sentimental. But this idol he created wouldn't stand even a few seconds in the presence of the real presence of Joy, were she to suddenly appear to him.

Shortly after we lost my son, our older son made a case for us to remember his brother Michael in all of his flaws. He didn't want us to forget the real person. He wanted us to remember how he used to swear.

Behind the pain of those who grieve is the real loss of a person we would like to have back. And that is what we can't have. So we must simply go forward and keep living with loss until we have learned to live in loss. But it seems that the people who say the things they say don't understand that the loss is relational, that we miss a real person.

That is the problem with approaching the grieving with our pet theories and sayings. It's best to set these aside and just sit with them and listen. It is really easier with the grieving than it seems. They, we, don't want advice. We don't want to be brought to look on the bright side, to see the silver lining. For us, there is none of that. Cards and flowers are nice. Thoughts are nice. Prayers make a difference. But the friend who is not afraid to bring up the lost loved one and is not afraid to simply listen is a friend.

(The comments from C.S. Lewis are from his book A Grief Observed.)

Saturday, April 27, 2019

How Apocalypse Works as an Ending

Walter Terry, the main character of my first novel, Apocalypse TV, is mostly certain of one thing: his own uncertainty and the uncertainty of others.

This is a weakness to some readers. It is a strength--even what keeps him interesting--to others.

I didn't plan on this dichotomy. Indeed, I wish I'd been able to anticipate that some readers turn to fiction for active types and might be turned off by his doubts. Certainly, I should have guessed this just by watching the political debates taking shape, where members of different parties are not swayed by evidence but by those who argue with absolutely certainty that they are right and everyone else is criminally wrong.

This is a milieu in which Walter hardly fits, but it is one where his type is sorely needed.

When I was writing Walter's story, I was simply intent on telling it. I didn't realize that some readers would question his masculinity or his passivity. He is an academic. He is given to polemics and pedantry. Learning and knowing are matters of importance to him. So he corrects others just often enough to be awkward and not invited back when groups begin to form. This makes him a decent enough professor, but it hurts his participation, where it matters most, on a reality show about the end of the world.

Apocalypse? Or Apocalypses? 
And there is plenty to correct people on where the end of the world is concerned. First, on the set at the Plymouth colony re-enactment site, he overhears one of the Pilgrim impersonators asserting as fact that the world will end in the year 1700.

It's not just that Walter delights in this information. He's studied enough to know that just about every generation since the first century C.E. has believed itself to be the last generation, the ones who will see Christ's return. He knows that there are reasons to question things.

So he uses this. And it persuades no one. Obviously, as he should know, this is not a fact to convince anyone of anything. We remain dogmatic in our belief that the generations that came before us were simply more ignorant than we are, had less facts to go on, or were not aided by technology. They were in error, but we won't make the same mistakes.

Except that to Walter, it appears that we are doing just that.

Then there is the question of exactly what an apocalypse is and will look like. Walter's reality show colleagues all assume that the word refers to a final, explosive battle. Apocalypse equals a catastrophic event of the proportion of a nuclear, genocidal, or viral holocaust. Since the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, apocalypse has come to be associated with a big, world wide battle or destruction.

As Walter is quick to point out (and it wins him no friends), apocalypse, a Greek word, refers to the pulling away of a veil. To use another English word, apocalypse means to reveal.

That is why the last book of the New Testament is sometimes called "The Revelation," and not, as a friend used to correct me, "Revelations."

It is one pulling away of the veil. It is the revealing of the Second Coming.

Again, the show ignores Walter and spends money on a set designed to play to American viewers' expectations of a holocaust. Of course, you can read to find out how the thing plays out.

Interpreting Scripture
I think I realized something in writing all of this. I understand that we are in the middle of asserting a modern interpretation of scripture--and not just one seen through the distorted lens of dispensational theology, which has been popular in Protestant circles since the 19th century (a theology that Walter, as a former Catholic, is quick to question). It is this: We are reading a first century text, which was written in historical circumstances we are largely ignorant of an unable to recreate: we are reinterpreting this ancient text largely in terms of our own very different historical moment, which is a moment when we are threatened on all sides by our advanced technology. The fears I grew up with as a boomer, which included the spread of communism and nuclear war, now include fears over technology and its assault on privacy and identity.

With the rise of the machine, our Apocalypse comes as the result of huge advances in technology and shifting semantics. Neither Walter, the main character of Apocalypse TV, nor I, his creator, are ready to say that most people are wrong about this. Things do appear as threatening.

It's just that nagging question of certainty. And, in what may be Walter's main contribution to the current question, it's that nagging question of the meaning of words that we've forgotten.

Thank you for reading. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Writing, Math, and the Question of Right Answers

As a writing teacher, I often hear people comparing writing to math, with writing taking on the negative charge in the pairing. At least in math, the person I am talking with usually will say, there is a right answer. You can do the same equation every time, and the answer will be the same. That can't be said for writing, which is so subjective.

We've all heard this and probably believed it, because we have all experienced writing classes (at least I have) where our different teachers had varying criteria for what they thought was good writing. A student furthered this argument recently when he acknowledged sadly, "I can spend an entire day trying to write a good paper, but at the end, it still won't be good enough. That's not true of math."

The problem with these complaints isn't that we are wrong or to think them. It's that we aren't really clear on what we are comparing. If we are going to compare writing to math, and if writing is so messy and subjective, so uncertain, then why compare it to something so clean as basic math? Why don't we think about writing in ways that makes it a bit more clear?

I propose that we do this. If we are going to compare writing to simple forms of math, we might argue that the five paragraph theme is roughly similar to algebraic equations. Plug ideas into the formula, run it, and you get predictable results. But if you move away from simple forms of writing into the place where writing becomes an act of discovery, then my student is right. You can write all day and not have a perfect paper. You might need to put it away, come back at it again a week later, think about what you've discovered, and go at it again in a new draft. You might repeat this process many times, the way that actual writers do. Then you might have something that more closely resembles the kind of problem solving that mathematicians do. I'm talking about the specialists in math who recognize that there are different ways to arrive at solutions, and they know how to come up with ways to describe, for example, how traffic jams happen, or an orbital flight that results in going to the moon.

Such a flight is not the result of any math I ever took. But it does resemble more closely the way I think about writing, and here is the problem. We think that high school writing and math should both be simple. Neither is, if we are teaching problem solving. If we are teaching students to think and to reflect that thinking in their writing, and not just teaching forms, then we are teaching them to think as rhetoricians. We are teaching them something that, were we to compare it, our closest kind of math might be something resembling calculus.

I'm not arguing that the comparison between writing and math is like comparing apples and oranges. I am suggesting that we haven't taken the comparison seriously enough. We haven't given writing its just due. We haven't respected our students or the seriousness of what it takes to write well.  

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Allegory of an Unwritten Poem

This is not an official account of anything. It is not even, I think, that original. I've heard other writers talk about it. It has to do with process and following hunches and writing things down, often without knowing where the first jottings, or inklings, are leading us.

Over the holiday season, I sat in my favorite coffee shop with my wife. We were there during one of several morning rushes. As we sat and the door kept opening to the mild, 58 degree morning, the Christmas music kept reminding me, for some reason, of snow. Lines emerged, and I wrote them down, not sure what to make of them. They seemed the poetic equivalent of sound effects, but nothing near to a complete song.

After we left, I wrote the lines I'd composed in my head in my journal. It amounted to one stanza of little more than what we were doing: sitting in a coffee shop, where the crowd of latte seekers kept opening the door and coming in and reminding me of winter and the holidays in my childhood. I kept imagining boots scuffing off snow, but when I looked I saw only an occasional gust blowing in the leaves.

Not much to that, I guess. If I could make it rhyme, maybe it would be something.

Obedience Rewarded
That happened during the waning days of December, two months ago. I like my notebook--I like to look at what I've jotted down--even phrases that stand like abandoned docks on a lake, pointing nowhere. There's an affirmation in them. They remind me to keep going.

This past week, while involved in something else, that verse about the coffee shop and the opening door came to me, suddenly, as a first verse. The second verse might have something to do with my thoughts about our lost son. It might have to do with awareness of another world just out of sight to us but available through suggestion.

A title also came to me: Intimating.

We shall see. I'm still in process. And it is the first poem I am attempting in a while to make rhyme.

It may go nowhere. But it is the obedience that finally, sometimes, gets rewarded. There are spiritual applications to this as well as creative. I sometimes am convinced that the life of faith is the most creative path one can take, if only because so much remains unfinished and certainly very different from what we expect to happen. Our call is simply to follow. It is okay to question as we go. But keep going.

Thank you for reading.

I'd love to hear from you about your experiences with either composing or living out of faithfulness. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A Reflection on Personal Writing and Healing

It amazes me sometimes the way that things can happen quickly. In real life, of course, change is slow. I sometimes doubt that there are causes that lead to effects so immediately as they do in the movies or in certain novels. I doubt that in real life I have much efficacy. But then something happens to change all of that.

Here's what happened, and it started, most surprisingly, with my writing. I wrote my monthly newsletter and sent it out to people who still want to hear from me. About a week later, one of my readers--a colleague with whom I worked and taught writing--emailed me about my newsletter.

I had written about how writing had been part of my healing after losing my son. I included in my newsletter a poem. I've been writing poems lately, and they've been finding readers.

My friend invited me, on the strength of my newsletter, to talk with him on his podcast about how a certain kind of writing can lead to healing. He was talking especially about personal, expressive writing, the kind of writing we do for ourselves, not expository or argumentative writing.

His questions became quite specific, and I attempted to answer them, but not according to any plan. It turned out, though, that I was fitting into research he has been doing on the subject. He asked me if I had noticed any difference in the nature of my grief after writing.

And I had. I had written all sorts of unplanned things over the last 15 months--poems, journal entries addressed directly to my son, accounts of things that people had said, reflections for no one else, thoughts about God.

The podcast can be accessed here if you would like. 

This is something that I have found I had to do. After our loss, I retreated to writing, to carrying a single notebook set aside for the purpose with me just about everywhere. I even chose the notebook based on our son. At one time in high school, he wore red t-shirts every day. Plain red t-shirts. The notebook I used was plain red, with no words on the cover. I took it to work. I kept it at home. I took it with me when we vacationed in Hawaii.

I've written in it less now. I've written just one entry in three months. But it served its purpose. I have passed through the shock and sadness and am somewhere else now. I am trying to write something more formal, and I am drawing on what I wrote down during those hellish months.

Writing is not what most of us think it is. In high school, so many students are alienated from it because of the way it is taught. We prefer technology now. But my android phone and my laptop would not have served me well as the small, red covered notebook has over the last year.