Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Partial Truths and Rhetorical Lies

Historically, Americans have had great respect for persons skilled at using language to persuade. Schools teach about Plato, Lincoln, Churchill, Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; men who spoke great words that touched emotions, inspired people to change the world, emboldened them to open their hearts, and helped them find resolve during desperate times. The list of important orators is long and impressive.

Another list of notable speakers might include Hitler, Jim Jones, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We wonder how so many people (even millions) can rally to less-than-virtuous (even evil) causes. Indeed, the gift for verbal persuasion is powerful. I now realize that the real purpose of those school lessons was not to train me to use persuasive rhetoric, but rather to 'discern truth' when listening to the eloquent words of leaders, commentators, teachers, and preachers.

Sadly, the critical ability to not be moved by every public utterance has been lost or forgotten by many Americans today. Fewer people think for themselves. More are content to parrot back the clever one-liner they heard some pundit deliver on talk radio.

Occasionally I stop mid-morning and have a cup of coffee. Sometimes I turn on the TV to catch a minute or two of mindless blather before getting back to work. This morning I heard a commentary by Pat Robertson on the recent health care reform initiative in Congress. This is a guy very skilled at telling an absolute lie by forming it into a partial truth. This kind of irresponsible and unethical public speaking would be laughable except that the American audience has become gullible. Robertson's motives are not at issue here (whatever they are), but using words to manipulate his audience is shameful.

In every crowd there are people who see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and believe what they want to believe. Perhaps we all do to some extent. Most have a reason; not always a good reason. In the case of Robertson, he can spout utter nonsense dressed up with careful verbiage and many listeners will believe because they can not imagine a charismatic Christian ever lying to them to promote his own perverse agenda. Shame on all who abuse language for their own selfish ends. Shame on America for giving these frauds an ear.

Too many of our elected officials practice rhetorical fiction with wreckless abandon. They forget that truth, not deception, is the begetter of free speech. Watch any Sunday morning political talk show and you can cut the partisan-double-speak-half-truths with a knife. Statesmanship is a high calling, one that only the most thoughtful and skilled speaker can pursue. To represent fellow citizens is the kind of work that requires tact, a willingness to appreciate other opinions, and above all, to express in clear and influential ways the view-points of one's constituency – truth as understood by the citizenry. Am I alone in wishing our representatives would stop dressing up their snake oil with words?

As a writer I celebrate the 1st Amendment. Free speech and all other forms of expression are essential rights that allow Americans to discuss, debate, sing, paint, and protest. So, I am not advocating restrictions of any kind. To me, false-speech is transparent. Yet the politicians and commentators continue to spin their jive unchecked. They must believe that America is really that stupid.

My children are on their own now; pretty much. Days of parenting, example-setting, and ethics-instilling are behind me. It makes me laugh to remember those times when my son would try to talk his way out of trouble by crafting some half-truth. Yes. He did think I was that stupid. I proudly boast that all of my kids learned, above all, that integrity is priceless. Honesty is inviolate. There can be no gray areas; no partial truths. Words can not be used to torture a lie into something it is not. Words will never change wrong to right no matter how cleverly the speaker arranges them.

1 comment:

  1. It's fashionable of me to place the blame for this loss in the general public of the ability to think critically---but I think the education system has failed us to a large degree. I live in an area lauded for great schools, yet I never thought our son was ever pushed to question or dig very deep in assignments. Schools "teach to the test" and reward correct multiple choice answers. There must be much more reward for questioning, thinking "outside the box", encouragement for analyzing, for making mistakes, for learning how to distinguish shades of grey (things aren't always either/or), and for drawing valid or supportable conclusions, whether popular or not.