The Disappearing Difference between Rhetoric and Argument
Recently (during and since the 2016 U.S. presidential election) there has been a lot of “chatter” about “facts.” Someone publicly labeled a public truth claim an “alternative fact.” This neologism created a great deal of consternation, controversy, and more than a little tittering.
This event, or series of events, provoked me to think about truth claims, “facts,” and reality. Long before someone uttered the phrase “alternative fact” someone else said that “perception is reality.” I’ve uttered that myself in certain contexts. Some years ago the “sociology of knowledge” became interpreted by many intellectuals and academics as the “social construction of reality.” Others cautioned that the sociology of knowledge should be interpreted only as the “social construal of reality.”
For quite a long time now European and North American intellectuals (and please don’t think you’re not affected by what they think and say, something I’ll explain later here) adopted “anti-realism” or its softer version “critical realism.” The “social construction of reality” expresses anti-realism; the “social construal of reality” expresses critical realism. Both points of view accept the sociology of knowledge but with different degrees.
I long ago gave up any thought that “facts” (truth claims) match reality perfectly—as it actually is. I adopted a critical realism posture toward truth claims. All truth claims construe reality from within some narrative, some story about what is real and important, some perspective on “the world,” some point of view. As some thinker said, there is no view from nowhere.
I worry, however, that many people in the Western world (Europe, North America, places influenced by their intellectual trends) either 1) Don’t know or accept the inescapable social construal of reality or 2) Embrace the anti-realist social construction of reality view.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Some readers may know that much of what I am talking about here comes, at least partially, from American sociologist Peter Berger who died very recently. I was privileged, over the past two-to-three years to call him my friend. He initiated the friendship and I was simply “blown away,” to use an American colloquialism, by that. We met over lunch a few times, corresponded a few times, and he invited me to respond in a public colloquium or symposium to one of his last books. And he suggested to the editor of a volume of essays responding to that book that I write a chapter. By “friend” I don’t mean we were “chums” or “buddies” or anything like that; we knew each other and had some friendly social as well as professional interactions.
Through my friendly acquaintance and interactions with Berger, widely considered one of the “fathers” of the sociology of knowledge, I discovered that he was not, as many have assumed, an anti-realist. He believed, he told me directly, that there are methods of research, in sociology itself, that filter out bias, subjectivity and perspective. This felt a bit inconsistent to me—at least with many people’s interpretation of Berger’s sociology of knowledge epistemology.
It was not Berger, however, from whom I first learned about critical realism and the role that narrative, perspective, and social location play in everyone’s construal of reality. I first learned that, something I already suspected, from…(drumroll)…Wheaton College philosophy professor Arthur Holmes. In some of his writings (e.g., Contours of a Worldview) he used the term “interprefacts” for all truth claims. The point is that all “facts” are someone’s interpretation of reality. Holmes, an evangelical Christian philosopher who influenced two or three generations of Wheaton College students, and through his writings many others, was a critical realist. (I’m not claiming that he was always consistently that; I’m only saying that some of his writings seemed to me to assume that posture toward epistemology.)
Of course, as everyone who has studied these matters knows, a breakthrough classic of critical realism, if not anti-realism, was Thomas Kuhn whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) fell like a bombshell on the playground of the philosophers and scientists. Kuhn argued that, even in the “hard sciences,” there is no pure objectivity, no “view from nowhere.” Kuhn used the term “paradigms” for what sociologists of knowledge meant by terms like “perspective” and “social location.” All this is modern intellectual history.
Here’s the point and the “rub.” My own experience and observation of my culture—North American academia—leads me to believe that many people with tremendous influence—even where their names are never heard or known outside of academia—have adopted the belief that because of the sociology of knowledge, critical realism or even anti-realism (belief that “knowledge” never even comes close to matching reality-as-it-is if such even exists), because of the “social construction of reality,” all that’s left to us is rhetoric. The traditional ideas of “facts” and “arguments” are simply “old school thinking.” Since that is the case, many movers and shakers of culture believe, there is really no “line” between argument and rhetoric. All arguments (about what is the case) are actually only rhetoric and therefore….Yes, what follows the “therefore?” Bear with me as I give an example in order to answer that question. A few years ago I met and had lunch with a man who is an executive of a major American “news” corporation that owns numerous “news” outlets spread out all over the United States and even the world. If I mentioned its name every reader would recognize it (or at least one or more of its news outlets—print or broadcast). This executive told me what I already suspected. A high executive of the corporation publicly stated to the people working under him that the purpose of the corporation, other than earning a profit, is to “promote our narrative.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I admire and respect that news organization executive for at least admitting the truth. But this is why I have largely given up reading, listening to, or watching news outlets. Most, if not all, are driven by some “narrative” which means, some perspective on reality that is tied to a particular group’s overall social location and agenda.
Now, some of you, my dear readers, might be thinking, and preparing to say that this has always been the case so why now stop reading, listening to, and watching the news? I believe there was a time in my life—long ago—when at least some journalists actually tried to deliver news objectively—without his/her delivery being driven by a narrative or agenda. Of course, I don’t believe there ever was a time when news was delivered in a purely objective manner such that the words being spoken matched reality perfectly without any distortion and without any perspective playing a role in how it was gathered and stated. But I think there was a time, even during my own lifetime, when most journalists and academics believed the “pursuit of truth” was worthwhile and that there was a real difference between rhetoric and arguments, between information and manipulation. Now, however, it seems to me that all news delivery includes blatant manipulation. If nothing else, the manipulation lies in delivering “news” that people want to hear or read and ignoring “news” that will harm ratings or readership. But I believe I detect also in it a not-very-well-hidden agenda to persuade readers and viewers toward a certain perspective on reality. In other words, much, if not all, “news” is really social engineering. Once your “eyes” are opened to it, you can’t miss it. It’s everywhere. We all know it’s part of contemporary advertising, but many people still dream that somewhere there is a news outlet that is dedicated to facts separated from any narrative.
So, do I blame the journalists? No. In fact, when I do watch television news (which is rare) I actually have feelings of sympathy for the talking heads, most of who probably know that what they are communicating under the guise of “facts” is really part of some nameless, invisible group’s social agenda rooted in a narrative about how reality is or should be.
Oh, I could give hundreds of examples. One very obvious one is how little we read or hear in American news about events taking place in Africa—unless it affects “American interests.” Do you want to know something about Africa? Watch Anthony Bourdain’s CNN series “Places Unknown.” It doesn’t even pretend to be news, but many of his episodes take place in Africa—from Libya to Senegal to Ethiopia to Zaire. From them you will at least realize what earth-shaking things are happening in Africa that you will never read about in or hear about on American news.
So, some of you will want to say “Watch the news on BBC!” and “Read The Economist.” I have; I’ve stopped. In my opinion, both are also driven by narratives and agendas and by people “at the top” who expect them to promote those narratives and agendas.
Some of you, at least, will think I am being “Chicken Little,” but I don’t think so. In fact, I will go further than Chicken Little and say that the sky has fallen already; it’s too late even to hope for a return to real concern with “the facts” separated from someone’s narrative and agenda. In my opinion, relying on memory and on things I have read about him, Walter Cronkite at least cared about the facts, about attempting to tell us Americans about the realities of world events.
Today, as I see it, the lines between argument and rhetoric, fact and persuasion, news and social engineering (and entertainment), have largely been erased both in academia (professional societies are driven by narratives and agendas that determine what is appropriate to think and say and what is inappropriate to think and say) and in journalism. Which means both are dead in any traditional sense.
If you want to watch a fascinating documentary that well illustrates the implicit anti-realism I am talking about, please get your hands on and watch the final episode of the series The Day the Universe Changed: A Personal View by journalist James Burke (1985). It is entitled “Worlds without End: Changing Knowledge, Changing Reality.”
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