“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
- Aristotle, Metaphysics
I want to talk about the shift in rhetoric that we have seen in public interactions over the past few decades. I think this is a good time to explain what has happened from my perspective.
Language is important, because it creates and interacts with reality. Word choice combines with conveyance to create impressions and emotions in the person speaking and those listening. It’s harder than you might think to separate your own emotions from those of a speaker because we are naturally empathetic. When someone speaking is angry, their emotional state is mirrored by those around them, either through anger, or another equally strong emotion.
In the last few decades we have seen a de-formalization of culture. This has a lot to do with irony, humor, reality TV, and media trends. I think that this collective “letting down of the hair” is not bad per se. But it has come with a relaxation of social norms in more than one way. I think one of the main ways to see this is through, strangely enough, handwriting. If you ask someone to write out something for you, if they are under thirty, there’s a high chance the writing will be almost illegible. Because we no longer write, and instead type, writing, which takes thought and time, has changed. The process of saying what’s in your head before you think about it carefully is a similar phenomenon. In the past people were more thoughtful, because society was more uptight and looked down on things like swearing and bad grammar. In today’s culture in the USA it’s less expected that people speak accurately and concisely based on this lack of formality and respect.
I was laying in bed last night thinking about debate compared to argument. I think this shift in formality has caused a shift in language which has caused a shift in how we speak with one another. In the USA we take everything personally, from our clothing choices, to car choices, to the house we can afford. We have a culture based on external representations of who we are. I think this is in part human nature. However, where it becomes dangerous is when people begin to put their own sense of self value in external things, such as career or income. We are all equally valuable as human beings. However, the culture that arises from an external assessment of values makes it look on the outside like we are not of equal value. Putting so much weight on external things makes people vulnerable. Now, instead of us being inherently valued, we have to prove ourselves. This brings me to my final point.
There is a type of logical fallacy called ad hominem, wherein the speaker’s words are confused with the speaker themself—instead of attacking ideas, the debater or co-conversant attacks the person. This is the most pervasive type of “discussion” we see happening absolutely everywhere these days. Everything has become a personal attack, in almost every media platform you can see it. Labeling and name-calling are good examples of ad hominem attacks. It’s an effective strategy because it riles the other person into thinking irrationally and emotionally instead of logically.
I feel that ad hominem attacks come from a lack of respect that has arisen from the gradual de-formalization of our culture. The second part of this phenomenon comes from taking external values as indicative of our self worth: thus the words and person become one. This is not the case. Words are representative of us by arising from our values, beliefs, and perspective, but they are not us.
I think it would do everyone good if we stepped back and took a look at the way we speak to each other, in every occasion. And also to have a little more formality and respect for one another, to pause and think before speaking, to move away from irony and constant humor, towards a more sincere way of being, thinking, and doing.