There are none, of course. Or, so, apparently I’ve convinced a fair number of my students that there aren’t, even without attempting to do so. We’re working through our textbook, one that essentially posits rhetoric as the center of the universe, and while I’m rather keen on the idea, it worries me. That worry came into sharp focus today.
While discussing Augustine’s argument for a “true” rhetoric, the class moved from broad discussion of the ideas like “truth” and “justice” and “evil,” to a moment of invention when the students pressed for the creation of axial chart in order to help us clarify what we meant by such terms. So, we created the chart together. Along one axis was a continuum between truth and falsehood, and along the intersecting axis was a continuum between ethical and unethical. The upper right quadrant would be those acts that would be most aligned with truth and ethical behavior, and the lower left would be evil and unethical.
I thought the next step would be easy: identify something that we could all agree belongs in the upper right quadrant. I suggested, innocuously enough I thought, rescuing a child from a burning building. I figured this noble act would gain immediate support.
I was wrong. One student disagreed. Then another. What if, one said (albeit somewhat jokingly), the child was Satan’s child? Another offered (not so jokingly), “or Hitler?” Discussion ensued, some of it compelling, some of it tortuous. When I suggested we find an alternative, I was, frankly, even more surprised by the solution to our quandary. The best thing for the upper right quadrant, the class decided, was returning a lost wedding ring to its owner.
I didn’t know what to say.
I still don’t.
Certainly, I think returning a lost wedding ring is a good thing to do, but I suggested to the class that we were essentially arguing that returning a lost wedding ring was higher on the axis than rescuing a child. We all laughed at the seeming absurdity, but I’m still not entirely certain of my feelings about the class deliberations. It points to an uncertainty about making ethical claims, and, for me, a confusion about how to go about making those claims. I’m reminded of previous classes I’ve taught that have been decidedly unwilling to call something “evil.” Indeed, my own reluctance. How dare I, I think, presume to label something “evil.” How dare I think that rescuing a child is any better than returning a lost wedding ring.
All the chit chat about ethics and truth is central to how I teach the rhetorical tradition. The purpose is not to establish “truth” or any such thing, but instead to examine ways that different figures have constructed and developed ideas about the relationship between language and ethics. Can one lie and still serve a greater good? Can an evil man speak truth? For Augustine, the figure under examination today who prompted our discussion, the answer is pretty clear to the former question. He establishes his position in his text The Teacher, a little tome that focuses on the ethical use of language. In it, Augustine makes it clear that the teacher might, on occasion, lie for the benefit of his audience.
I differ from Augustine on this point, but all the wrangling in class today has forced me to think again about his rhetoric. He grounds his work on hermeneutics, insisting that the first step to persuasion is engagement with a text, in this case a sacred text. That hermeneutic becomes the foundation for the development of a rhetoric to suit a communication task at hand, and without it, the rhetor acts unethically. In the case of Augustine’s lying teacher, a clear understanding of that foundational text justifies a momentary lapse of truthfulness so that a greater (in this case, divine) truth can be made apparent. And so I wondered today, given the apparent spinning ethical compass of my students, what are the texts that are the foundation of their rhetorics? What stories or narratives have shaped their sense of the obligation as someone who seeks to persuade?
I know there is no single answer to this, but that is precisely my point. Augustine was able to call not only on a shared, authoritative text in establishing his claims, but a clear method of understanding the text. My students do not share such a thing, even if some do still have some degree of shared knowledge about a particular sacred text. Without that touchstone, what becomes the foundation of rhetorical action? In other words, without a hermeneutic, does rhetoric become the thing we most fear: persuasion without regard to ethics?
For someone like me who worries about the reductive potential of the worst parts of sophistry, I find this worrisome. It suggests rhetoric without clarity, or worse, a rhetoric without due consideration for justice. It suggests an inability to make ethical claims, and, if you’ll forgive my extending today’s class discussion a bit too far, it suggest that as a house fire blazes in front of us, we dig about in the sand at our feet seeking a lost ring.
This is rhetoric without limits, persuasion that does harm.