Monday, August 19, 2019

Love, Argumentation and Rhetoric

I have not written much of substance in some time. Additionally, with the exception of way too many Facebook/Instagram updates that were spawned from my most recent motorcycle pilgrimage, I have, mostly, maintained “radio silence.” It is not easy to keep my (virtual) mouth shut in the face of so much misinformation, half-baked truth and justifying interpretation, but I am, for the most part, succeeding. And I am for a couple of relatively simple and related reasons. Before I get to that, I should clarify that this has nothing to do with political or public goings-on. It is far more local than that. This has to do with the fallout from my decision to end a three year relationship, a decision that was somewhat complicated because we were living together for the last year of it.

Whereas I have spoken about the situation privately with friends, I have refrained, except in the most general and nondescript way, from making any public statements about it. That has not been true of the “other side” (which is who my once lover, soulmate, partner and best friend has devolved into). She has made certain claims regarding me and the situation that I will neither repeat or respond to, correct or otherwise mount a defense against here or anywhere else. At all. I ended the relationship for what I am even more convinced were very good reasons, not because there was no love. While those reasons are still present, it seems the love is not. It begs the question, but that’s not what this is about.

The simple and related reasons I alluded to earlier, the reasons why I will not rebut the claims made are not because they are not refutable. They are, and easily. If I wanted to “win” the argument, on technical grounds, I could, and not just because I am good at it. But, as should come as no surprise to anyone who has experienced these “matters of the heart,” logic, reason and winning mean very little. I have an overarching goal in life, one that is always achievable but often elusive. It is usually within my power to create… or at the very least, foster a climate for it to flourish. That goal is peace. Drama-freedom. Mounting a defense, or worse, a counter-offensive will not bring me towards that goal. It would do just the opposite. Reason number one – it cannot get me where I want to be, “winning” this argument will not get me peace. 

Related to that is reason number two. It is also simple but is grounded in the very essence of what I teach and study - rhetoric. Aristotle’s definition is still the most widely cited, perhaps due to its beauty and simplicity. He wrote, “Rhetoric is the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” While its simplicity opens this definition to many interpretations, from the wholesome to the nefarious, Aristotle framed his treatise as an indispensable tool for democratic society. As such, rhetoric, used appropriately and ethically, is a means to achieve the common good, justice and cooperation. Persuasion, then, is part of the democratic decision making process, whether it’s a group of friends deciding what movie to see or the US Senate deciding what is the best course for the nation. Both decision processes involve people attempting to convince – to persuade – each other what would be best, what is right, how we should proceed. Each presents his or her reasons why we should go see the latest blockbuster or the tiny, sub-titled indie film from Greece (keeping with the Aristotle theme)... or even whether we should go to the movies at all. The hope is that all involved are persuaded because the reasons are good, that the little indie film is, indeed, a better choice and all will benefit from it. Unlike an argument, rhetoric is not about winners and losers. Ideally, everyone wins.

Lloyd Bitzer
For my current situation, there is no decision to be made. There is no way to proceed and as far as what is right, those who are important to me already know. I do not need to persuade anyone of anything and even if I could, to what end? While there is certainly a series of claims and counter claims – the makings of an argument - there is not a tenable rhetorical situation. In 1968, Lloyd Bitzer wrote that a rhetorical situation is an “exigence” (a concern, problem, or emergency) that could be remedied by the collective action of an “audience.” The rhetor would have to overcome any "constraints," or obstacles, that would prevent his or her persuasion from being effective. In public relations, the art of damage control in the face of a PR disaster is an exigence that can often be mitigated with effective rhetoric. While the “common good” is sometimes a limited group of people, it  might also be the public at large, especially when the charges are unfounded.

I am not experiencing a rhetorical situation. While the misinformation, half-baked truth and justifying interpretations are bothersome, even irritating, the only audience is one that does not have any direct effect on my life and is one that cannot be convinced anyway. There are constraints in place that prevent any rhetoric from being effective. What that leaves me is an argument that I can win, but will gain me nothing. My ego wants to mount a defense, but my soul desires only peace. In this battle, the soul has convinced - persuaded, for good reasons - the ego to let it go. There is nothing to be gained and only peace to be lost.

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