Hopeful Rhetoric

My base belief is that what people believe is their truth, and rhetoric is a primary way to convince them. Part of the rhetorical mechanism is to introduce evidence, but this, too, is shrouded in rhetoric.

I’m not talking about the evidence that ‘standard’ water boils at 100°C at sea-level. This is tautological. Water is defined as H₂O. Literally, 100°C is the definition of where water boils under these conditions.

But things that cannot be repeated in controlled environment with the ability to alter parameters within the environment rely on rhetoric. This is why Newton’s laws seemed som compelling until a new narrative (somewhat) supplanted it. Still, this is not the point I want to make. I want to concentrate on the socio-poliotical domain.

I feel that given two equally viable explanations, the one offering more hope will prevail. Donald Trump knows this. This is why in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he railed at a presser how he chastised a reporter for questioning his (false) narrative of hope. Politics relies on more than one rhetorical thread, and many already have the disposition of reviling Trump, so any messages from him are discounted at the start.* But, ceteris paribus, if a person assesses two equally probable outcomes—a typical door number 1 or door number 2 scenario—, and (for whatever exogenous reason) hope is associated to particular door.

In a survival scenario, perhaps you are one of three people lost in a cave and there are two possible paths forward. One person asserts that s/he feels that—without evidence—the left path is best way out but adds logically there is no way to tell, that you might as well flip a coin. The other person confidently conveys that s/he knows—without evidence—that the right path is the path to salvation. Being otherwise indifferent, you are likely to acquiesce to the second person, the one who offers hope over logic.

I fully admit that this is 100 per cent fabricated whole cloth from thin air, but the reason I come to this point is when you compare atheists to theists, anarchists to statists, nihilists to Existentialists, and any such analogic pair, the right side gets more traction and requires much more evidence to sway people to the left.

So when Occupy Wall Street (effectively anarchists) made demands, the status (read: the general population) asked ‘Who’s your leader?’ When the media-industrial complex broadcast this, the public was immediately sympathetic to the structured system. This is slightly different in that it’s not necessarily hope, rather a comfort zone—an endowment effect. It’s a benefit accruing to the incumbent.

My point is: hope floats. It acts to buoy otherwise rhetorically equivalent arguments. Or perhaps hope is simply an employed rhetorical device, so it’s unnecessary to call it out. Now, I’ve convinced myself to adopt this position.

* This is why ad hominem attacks can be effective, as persons swayed by the attack discount messages delivered by this person despite there not being a necessary connection between the grounds for debasement and the claim being asserted.

Rorty on Truth

To a comment on Death of the Metanarrative, I responded about the notion of truth relative to the map and the terrain. Although my rambling response was lengthy, I thought I’d share Richard Rorty’s view on this from his Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. According to Rorty, rationalists and empiricists turn claims about the world into the world—convincing others that a map of the world is the world.

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there.

—Richard Rorty

“We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there.

Richard Rorty

“Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world in its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot…

“The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak…

“It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth’. But in abandoning the traditional notion of truth, Nietzsche did not abandon the idea of discovering the causes of our being what we are … In his view, in achieving this sort of self-knowledge we are not coming to know a truth which was out there (or in here) all the time. Rather, he saw self-knowledge as self-creation. The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language … So the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language…

“[O]ne can—fruitlessly, in my view—come at [the question of knowledge] by way of anthropology and the question of whether there are ‘cultural universals’, or by way of psychology and the question of whether there are psychological universals. [There is an] indefinite plurality of standpoints, [a] vast number of ways of coming at the issue sideways … It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. This openmindedness should not be fostered because, as Scripture teaches, Truth is great and will prevail, nor because, as Milton suggests, Truth will always win in a free and open counter. It should be fostered for its own sake. A liberal society is one which is content to call ‘true’ whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be.”

Husky Meme – According to this book, I can’t read.


Whether in English or in French, I don’t believe Foucault ever uttered the words, ‘It is meaningless to speak in the name of – or against – Reason, Truth, or Knowledge‘*, but I don’t think he’d disagree with the sentiment.

“All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.”

Michel Foucault

Foucault was a postmodernist, and on balance, political Conservatives (Rightists?) dislike the notion of postmodernism. Evidently, a lot of Postmodernists are also Leftists (Progressives or Liberals in the US), so somehow critics such as Jordan Peterson conflate the two clearly distinct concepts.

A basis for Conservatism is the notion of an objective truth, and despite recent sociopolitical trends, they at least say they are guardians or truth and purveyors of knowledge. Conservatives (OK, so I am broad-brushing here) are staunch individualists who believe strongly in possession and property, of material, of an objective reality. Fundamentally, the are aligned to a monotheistic god or at least some discernible (and objective) moral compass.

On the Left, especially post-Enlightenment, they’ve substituted God with some anthropomorphic Nature. In fact, they find comfort in natural laws and human nature. Science is often their respite because science is objective. Isn’t it? Leftists are friends or Reason, and one can’t acquire enough knowledge. Moderation need not apply here; the more the merrier.

This being said, evidently, many on the Left seem to have abandoned this comfort zone. Of course, this may be because the Left-Right dichotomy doesn’t capture the inherent nuance, and so they were miscategorised—perhaps, much in the same manner as persons are miscategorised in a binary gender system. No. It must be something else.

In any case, both side claim to the parties of knowledge, reason, and truth because the opposing parties are clearly abject morons. There is no hint of irony in the situation where each side claims some objective notion of truth—whether divinely granted or self-evidently reasoned—, yet they can’t resolve what the true truth is. If only the other side were more rational.

By now, we are well aware of the demise of homo economicus, the hyper-rational actor foundational to modern economic theory. In reality, humans are only rational given the loosest definitions, say, to (in most cases) know enough to get in the shade on a 37.2°C day. However, as behavioural economist Dan Ariely noted by the title of his book, people are Predictably Irrational. Ariely is just standing on the shoulders of Kahneman and Tversky and Richard Thaler. My point is that humans are only marginally rational.

As I’ve written elsewhere, truth is nothing more than a rhetorical endpoint. It is hardly objective. It’s a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, systems of government and jurisprudence require this objective truth. In truth—see what I did there?—, social fabric requires a shared notion of truth.

A shared notion doesn’t imply that this notion is objective, but if it’s not objective, how does one resolve differences of opinion as to which is the better truth. Without establishing a frame and a lens, this is impossible. The problem is that frames and lenses are also relative. Whether the members accept a given frame or lens is also a matter of rhetoric. It’s turtles all the way down.

Turtles all the way down

Even if all members agree on all parameters of truth at day 0, there is nothing to prevent opinion changes or from new members not to share these parameters. Such is always the problem with social contract theory. [How does one commit to a contract s/he is born into with little recourse to rescind the contract, renegotiate terms, or choose a different contract option. The world is already carved up, and the best one can do is to jump from the frying pan into the fire.]

In the end, the notion of truth is necessary, but it doesn’t exist. Playing Devil’s advocate, let’s say that there is a single purveyor of Truth; let’s just say that it’s the monotheistic Abrahamic God of Judeo-Christian beliefs. There is no (known) way to ascertain that a human would have the privilege to know such a truth nor, if s/he were to encounter, say, a burning bush of some sort, that this entity would be conveying truth; so, we aren’t really in a better place. Of course, we could exercise faith and just believe, but this is a subjective action. We could also take Descarte’s line of logic and declare that a good God would not deceive us—sidestepping that this ethereal being was good, as advertised. I’m afraid it’s all dead ends here, too.

And so, we are back to where we started: no objective truth, limited ability to reason, and some fleeting notion of knowledge. We are still left with nothing.

Enter the likes of Jordan Peterson, he with his fanciful notion of metaphysics and morality—a channeller of Carl Jung. His tactic is to loud dog the listener and outshout them indignantly. His followers, already primed with a shared worldview, are adept (or inept) cheerleaders ready to uncritically echo his refrain. To them, his virtue-ethical base, steeped in consequentialism awash in deontology, Peterson speaks the truth.

He also potentiates the selfish anti-collective germ and rage of the declining white man. He’s sort of a less entertaining Howard Stern for the cleverer by half crowd. He gives a voice to the voiceless—or perhaps the thoughtless. He uses ‘reason’ to back his emotional pleas. He finds a voice in the wilderness where white Western males are the oppressed. If only they hadn’t been born centuries earlier—albeit with iPhones and microwaves.

Those would be the days.

* I believe this phrase attributed to Foucault was a paraphrase by philosopher Todd May.