That Was Terrible and Incredible

The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. is a transformative place. It’s difficult to make it through the experience emotionally intact. We leave part of ourselves there, and we come away with a much less naive understanding of our capacity as a species.

The title of this post was a text message I received from a young person after her first visit to the Holocaust Museum. It’s important work the museum does, attempting to inoculate us with knowledge from the past to avoid an ugly future that is always closer and more accessible than we imagine.

In the German election of 1932, Hitler’s party received 37% of the vote, and the period that followed through the end of World War II would demonstrate just how much can be built atop a strong, outspoken political base of alienated workers fueled by rage.

Yes, there are parallels to contemporary America, but no, we are not on the verge of a spiraling into a Fascist state. To be sure, certain players currently in positions of power are pushing us in that direction, but very strong and significant counter forces are in place and active as well. History repeats itself but it doesn’t. The same desires and emotions (and rage) circle back around again and again, but the narrative is always different. That is largely because the social and cultural and even technological/scientific context is different.

Without a bit of doubt, however, I believe we live in terrible and incredible times. Since the Nixon/Kennedy debates, we have seen the rise of the power of mass media to move the electorate, and since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, we have seen the rise in media outlets that devote themselves unabashedly to political manipulation of their audiences.

It is always important for citizens in a democracy to understand the way language is used to manipulate thought, and now more than ever the ancient art of rhetoric is critically important. Just as the Holocaust Museum helps us understand the awful consequences of the rage of a citizenry focused and directed by amoral leaders, a deep understanding of the techniques of persuasion mitigate against falling under the sway of skilled rhetors.

Aristotle begins his Rhetoric, the foundational work on persuading speech, with the line, “Rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic.”

It was true then and it is true now. Honest conversations among individuals who seek to understand their world lead to a very different kind of knowledge than when the thinking of individuals is moulded by public figures skilled in playing on the fears of their audiences.

In Athens, the teaching of rhetoric was a controversial matter. Some viewed it as deceptive, teaching people to argue a proposition regardless of whether the proposition was true or false. One of Aristotle’s answers was that we need to be able to defend ourselves rhetorically just as we need to be able to defend ourselves physically. When false propositions are advanced, ethical speakers need to be able to respond forcefully, using all of the tools and techniques of rhetoric to ensure the true proposition receives a fair hearing.

We have no time to waste.  The forces of rhetorical darkness are increasingly sophisticated. We have a lot of work to do if we are going to prepare our students and our citizens to defend themselves against deceptive uses of language.

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