Everything Is Rhetoric

Academic disciplinarity is an odd but useful thing. One of the roles it plays is to understand the world in terms of a particular set of theories within a particular body of knowledge. So everything is politics. Everything is history. Everything is rhetoric — which it really is, because, yeah, that’s my discipline :-)

Why I bring this up on a bicycling blog is because we human beings understand and create the world based on how we talk about it. And as the great rhetoric scholar James A Berlin said: “Language is never innocent.” That means (and I agree) that there is no way to talk about something that isn’t interested or serving some kind of agenda. That’s neither good nor bad. It’s just the way it is with humans. So we understand and create the experience of driving a bicycle in traffic based upon how we talk about it.

I’m bringing this up because there’s an interesting discussion going on ahead of the I Am Traffic meeting in February about how to talk about what it is we’re talking about. There are two concerns as I see it. 1) Any group that would assert itself into a public conversation for particular purposes must establish or appropriate a language — what terms are acceptable and what do those terms actually indicate. 2) A  group must do the rhetorical work of persuading the public that its terms are the most accurate and/or least misleading.

From my particular theoretical perspective, these concerns are always problematic because I believe Berlin is correct. Every word we use serves a purpose and a point of view. The question for me isn’t choosing accurate words, it’s how we persuade the public to accept our terms and how we use them.

Berlin’s idea is bothersome to many people — especially people in the so-called hard sciences or learned professions such as engineering or medicine in which accuracy is what keeps buildings standing or patients living.

But there is a very practical element to this theory I am espousing. Thinking critically about your terms — and your opponents’ terms — as rhetorical devices helps you understand the relationship between the words you use and getting what you want, i.e. creating a particular reality, the world as you would have it. Thinking this way gives you a control much greater than simply asserting claims of accuracy.

We at I Am Traffic are very interested in bicycling education and the role of bicyclists in traffic. So it is good that we are talking about what is is we are talking about. I will be sure to report on the language issues as they arise at the meeting. Until then, I’m not at liberty to disclose any of the discussion so far.

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Comments 3

  1. Eli Damon wrote:

    I agree with the Berlin quote, but it could easily be misconstrued as the subjectivism cop-out, “You have your truth, and I have mine.”

    Posted 28 Jan 2013 at 6:40 pm
  2. Andy Cline wrote:

    It’s more like who’s truth gets to win depends on a number things. Now what those things are depends upon your theoretical perceptive. Berlin is an academic Marxist (not the same thing as the political boogey man), so he would say that whose truth wins depends upon power. My answer would be culture.

    Posted 28 Jan 2013 at 8:10 pm
  3. Khal Spencer wrote:

    You are spot on, Andy. Maybe you need to invite Stanley Fish and some post-modernists to the conference, too.

    As a geologist, I’m used to observational science where one rarely has all the puzzle pieces. One comes to a problem not only with one’s own hypotheses, but with the observations available to us. Kinda like the Blind Men and the Elephant. One has to know, or at least intuit, what one does not know. Even those medical doctors and engineers only know to measure those things they *think* are important. As we know, one sometimes finds out the hard way that one is measuring the wrong things, or at least not all the right ones. Science stumbles forward.

    Rhetoric is indeed loaded. That ought to be cast in bronze and mounted on all our offices. The job of the I Am Traffic folks is to remember the blind men and the elephant. I wish everyone had that story on their desktop.

    Posted 28 Jan 2013 at 9:23 pm