Rhetoric is a bitch

Rhetoric is a bitch December 20, 2012

Rhetoric is an art which leads the soul by means of words.

-Plato, Phaedrus

I love Christmas. I usually even love Christmas preparations. I do not, however, love Christmas preparations in this 80 degree kill-me-now weather, with a husband who finished his grading and promptly disappeared to work on his dissertation, and a baby who hates sleep almost as much as he hates being put down ever.

Since I’m totally grinching out about everything right now, I might as well put that irritation to good use and blog a response to the bevy of “that’s not what they meant to say” responses on my post on that Spock meme. I’ll sum up my response succintly:

Dear the internet: John Doe doesn’t give a damn about what you mean.

If your response is, “who is John Doe?” or “what does John Doe have to do with anything?” I can only say, exactly.

When you write anything, from a facebook meme to a blog post to the Great American novel, you must consider your audience. And that means not just the 500 people who already like your facebook page, but the other 500 million who could see this meme posted on someone else’s wall.

The thing is, what you mean can’t change what you’ve said, if you’ve said it in the wrong way. Your friends might understand what you mean. Many people with similar ideologies might understand what you mean. But if you say something to a wide audience without considering how Complete Stranger X might understand it, there’s a good chance you’re going to be misunderstood. I could say, “I’ll be praying the rosary tonight” and it could mean something entirely different to a select group of Catholic women than it does to everyone else. That doesn’t change the content of what I said. I’ve written posts where I’ve said idiotic and asinine things, and people have called me out on it. I’ve gone back and responded, “oh, that’s not what I meant” and they’ve said, “great, but that’s what you said.” And they were right.

One of the problems with the internet is that it has a tendency to render us tone-deaf. We reside here, in our little corner of Blogistan, whatever that corner may be, and we speak a common language because of our common beliefs. So when something like this meme gets out and people who don’t reside in Catholic Blogistan freak the frak out, it’s tempting to try to clarify and explain that that wasn’t the intention.

Guess what no one cares about? What you meant. They care about what you said, and how you said it.

You cannot accuse me of arrogantly shoving words in someone else’s mouth when I’ve simply repeated the argument set forth in the meme. Which was, in case you’ve forgotten, “If you take God out of schools you get evil. The politicians took God out of Sandy Hook and a man with a gun killed little children. Therefore, the death of the children is the direct result of the lack of prayer in public schools.” And, Dawn, the creator of this meme is manifestly not saying that “taking God out of schools causes issues and sadness.” He came up with this meme the day of the shooting for a reason. He is clearly saying, “taking God out of schools causes the brutal murder of first-graders.”

Context is crucial. A meme that I would have rolled my eyes at on Thursday of last week was enough to make me spitting mad on Friday. In this case, the context was clearly not accidental. The meme does not state that the children deserved death because prayer was taken out of schools, but the act of putting it together for public consumption the very day those children were murdered does imply a certain amount of smug satisfaction, and a chilling detachment from the tragedy at hand.

Listen, I’m the first one to agree that our postmodern, post-religious society has lots of problems specifically because of a lack of moral and spiritual beliefs. But I don’t think a law banning prayers from being said on public school grounds (which, as one of my commenters noted, is actually not even a real law) is remotely causally relevant to the death of these children. I think, like so many laws, this non-law is a direct result of our crumbling belief system. But honestly, the law or lack thereof is neither here nor there. What matters to me, right now, is that every Christian understand something.

What you say on the internet is important. It’s important because you don’t know who will read it. It’s important because you are representing Christ. It’s important because your words have the ability to affect how others feel about Christians, and thus, how open they will be to the message of salvation that Christ admonished us to share.

I don’t think the creator of the meme was trying to be smug. I don’t think he meant to say, or imply, that these children deserved to die. I’m not even sure that he meant to say that the shooting was a direct result of the lack of prayer in public schools. But he didn’t consider his audience. He paid frighteningly little attention to the medium or the voice. A Spock meme on a facebook page is hardly appropriate when the context is the still-warm bodies of dead children piled up on the floor of their school. And as far as I can tell, the only goal was to obtain echo-chamber-like approval from likeminded facebook pals. Because if the goal was to win minds and hearts for Christ, then I’d kind of like him to stop playing for our team before he scores all the points on the opposite goal.

So yes, my commenters, I agree that what the meme says is probably not what the creator meant. But rhetoric is a bitch, and by not being careful enough to say what he did mean at an appropriate time and in an appropriate way, he ended up saying and implying some pretty horrible things.

Likewise for the people who shared it. I agree that the message of the meme, on it’s face, was almost definitely not anyone’s intention. Unfortunately, the tone-deafness of people insulated in corners of the internet where everyone thinks like they do got the better of them.

Rhetoric is important. It’s important enough that I find myself wanting to brush up on old rhetoric books to ensure that I don’t make this kind of mistake. It’s important enough that if you write anything on the internet, even if it’s just a facebook meme, and  you don’t know what rhetoric is or why it’s important, you should stop writing until you do.

Since I’m pretty sure some of you are ready to explain rhetorically in the combox just how you feel about me after reading this post, I’ll save you the trouble. This about sums it up, I’m sure:

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