September 2, 2005

Journalism and Rhetoric

In Plato's Gorgias, the character of Socrates poses a serious challenge to the possibility of a craft of rhetoric as a craft of speaking about anything. His claim is that the craft one uses when speaking about a subject is the same craft by which one understands the subject. Rhetoric is therefore redundant and dangerous. It is redundant because one does not need anything above and beyond the understanding of a craft to speak about the craft . It is dangerous because it enables one to pretend understanding of a craft, falsely persuade others that they now understand that craft, and encourage speakers to seek pleasure in the audience rather than understanding. Modern journalism contains many of the same properties of Ancient rhetoric. It too claims to be a craft of speaking about anything.

The debate begins with Socrates asking Gorgias what the craft of rhetoric is. Gorgias responds by saying that it is the greatest of all crafts. Of course, Socrates is unsatisfied with this answer, so he asks of what rhetoric is a craft. Gorgias claims that it is the craft that uses only speech, not manual labour. Here is where Socrates catches Gorgias. He points out mathematics and astronomy use only words, and they are the crafts used when speaking about numbers and stars. The deeper claim here is that the craft used when speaking about a subject is the same as the craft used when understanding the subject.

Gorgias concedes Socrates' claim that astronomy is the craft used when speaking knowledgeably about a subject. Gorgias attempts two separate parries here. The first is that he says that rhetoric enables the speaker to speak about a craft persuasively even without understanding it. He gives the example of helping his brother, a doctor, persuade a recalcitrant patient to undergo treatment. He boasts that, even though neither he nor the patient know medicine, he was able to speak more persuasively than the doctor. Perhaps realising he has conceded something rather shameful sounding, he then attempts a second argument. He argues that rhetoric's specific area of expertise is the just and the unjust. This is its proper subject, as there is no other craft associated with the just and the unjust as there is with stars, and it is the topic on which rhetors spend much of their time speaking.

The conversation breaks down here, as Gorgias believes everyone knows what justice is and Socrates believes it is a specialised craft. When Gorgias's young pupil, Polus, takes over, Socrates really lets him have it (Socrates here is the most caustic and agressive he appears in any Platonic dialogue; the nastiness here is striking). Socrates bluntly claims that rhetoric is not a craft and that rhetoric is to politics what pastry baking is to medicine. When doctors speak about medicine using their medical knowledge, they know about their subject and seek to impart at least some of that knowledge to their hearers. Rhetoric allows the ignorant to persuade the ignorant, or, at best, allows the knowledgeable to persuade the ignorant without actually making them any less ignorant. How do they do so? They do so by appealing to their emotions and, moreover, by pandering to their emotions. They try to associate their desired conclusion with positive emotions while trying to associate what they are trying to argue against with negative emotions. As such, they merely have a knack for creating pleasure in their hearers at the right things, like pastry bakers pretending to be doctors, hawking their wares as medicine while only selling what is pleasant.

Let us return, then, to journalism. Journalism has many features similar to rhetoric. Newspapers and television speak about any subject they believe will be of interest to the audience, and uses the same people to do so. Many of the people involved are trained in journalism, and not in the specific topics they discuss. Is it then even plausible to believe that journalists have expertise in every subject they discuss? Even in those cases where they may do so or they are quoting experts, are they imparting understanding to the audiences or just (true) opinions? A quick look at today's front section of the National Post speaks about military strategy, trade agreements, engineering, medicine, meteorology and flying helicopters. However, the authors of these articles are neither generals, economists, engineers, doctors, meteorologists nor pilots. If they do not understand the craft they are speaking of, no one can learn anything about the craft from them either.

Journalists do, however, focus on a specific type of subject, much as Gorgias did when his hand was forced over expertise. They will focus on politics, the area of the just and the unjust. A reader should ask, then, what specific qualifications journalism gives journalists to speak about the just and the unjust. Are they, for instance, special experts on what contitutes human happiness and how to provide it? Do they know how to distribute goods appropriately? Have they worked through hours of humiliating and painful dialectic in order to carefully draw moral distinctions? Have they given any serious study to politics or to ethics at all, or do they assume that justice and injustice are things that everyone knows? Instead, journalists have no special expertise to speak about justice and injustice, except that they know how to speak persuasively. This persuasion, like all persuasion, functions by giving emotional pleasure and associating it with the desired object. It is, as Socrates said, a form of pastry baking.

If this essay sounds a little caustic, I apologise. It is hard to reflect Socrates' argument without reflecting his tone. However, his claim is an utterly devastating one concerning how we form opinions. Without actually understanding a subject, we are easy prey to those who would help us form our opinions using our emotions. As a result, there will always be emotional pastry bakers out there pretending to be doctors. In Socrates' time, it was the rhetors, and in our time, it is the journalists.

1 comment:

Air of Winter said...

One of the the great benefits of the Internet is that the experts all can have platforms to speak from if they wish them; and without much expenditure of time and effort, we can easily not only read what they have to say directly, but we can watch them argue with each other.

I'm old enough to have spent the first half of my life without Google or the Amazon database. I don't know whether the average person's opinions are formed on any better basis than they ever were, but it's easier for those interested in pursuing information in more depth to do so.