Rhetoric and Reality

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One of my former colleagues was angered recently when NBC Nightly News on March 1st announced its story about President Trump’s speech to the joint houses of Congress with a banner that read, “Rhetoric & Reality.” His response on Facebook: “No no no! I can’t stand this Platonic framing anymore. Rhetoric and Reality are not opposed! Rhetoric and reality are on the same side, and lying and falsehood are on the other! 249039_pastedImage_13.jpg

Even a basic understanding of rhetoric could have saved our country from so much turmoil. However, when those on the side of lying and falsehood understand the power of rhetoric better than the average voter, rhetoric does become the enemy of reality and truth. The fact that the average voter was often getting his or her “news” via relatively new social media led to a victory of false rhetoric over the truth of the sort that has happened in the past only when other would-be dictators realized that shaking people’s faith in standard news media gave them the power to make people believe anything.


During the election, all of us saw things that we wanted to believe. Many of us did what has to be done when a claim is put forward: we looked to see what evidence there was behind that claim and what warrants it was based on. We looked at the source and the reliability of that source. Hopefully, we did this before we hit “share.” Politicians and supporters on all sides of the issues seem to understand the willingness of the American populace to hit “share” without questioning the source or the validity of the argument far better than most of us, even those of us educated in the field of rhetoric.


What does it take to shatter that belief in a single source of “truth”? The immediate future of our country depends on our ability to find an answer to that question. Those who believe that their single source of information are not willing to hear the arguments on the other side. They may be truly ignorant, but many of them are also willing know-nothings. Their faith in their “truth” is reinforced by one good speech that stays on track and sounds presidential. They can see and hear the support for the claims they want to believe, but opposing arguments are seen as only sour grapes because the other candidate didn’t win. One of the most frightening responses is the attempt, through bizarre unconstitutional legislation, to silence opposing voices. If they feel that campaign promises are being kept, they close their eyes to the effects of carrying out those promises.

Three sources of hope: we can hope that some eyes will be opened to the truth when promises kept start to negatively impact those who wanted to believe in those promises—when the absence of illegal workers starts to affect agricultural businesses, when families lose their health care, when the next would-be shooter is able to buy a gun because there is no legal reason he can’t, in spite of his mental illness.

We can hope that some eyes will be opened to the truth when promises are not kept —when the next terrorist is homegrown and not stopped by new immigration laws, when new pipelines are not built using American steel, when jobs are not saved.

We can hope that truth will win out when there are indisputable facts proving collusion with our enemies, indisputable facts proving that power in our country can be bought and sold, indisputable facts proving that the American public has been lied to.

True, those most willing to accept false reasoning have not yet been swayed by facts. The tipping point will come when enough of those in power and enough of those who hold the power of the vote over them listen to the voice of reason, listen to rhetoric in its finest form, and stand up for it.


Credit: View from the press seats by JoshBerglund19 on Flickr, used under a CC 2.0 License 




About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.