Why rhetoric? Critical thinking in application: Consider Trump

Rather to my surprise much of what I do now focuses on analyses of rhetoric. For example, what follows from representing Buddhism as a religion, when “religion” is identified with the individual quest for transcendence.

Rhetoric is an old-fashioned concept, but one that is sorely in need of resuscitation. There are doubtless more formal definitions available, but I have come to use the term to refer to how things are said, not just what is said. The how always has unspoken implications, ideas and concepts that are entailed by the way something is expressed. So we wind up with conversations that often are frustrating—

Is Buddhism a religion? seems a simple enough question, the implication being that it can be answered either by yes or no

When the response is–

What do you mean by religion? or

Yes and No, it depends. or

Why do you ask? the questioner may often feel not just misunderstood, but as if they are being mocked.

Ideas and their truth value, are parts of webs of supporting ideas, concepts, claims, and categories. The term prapañca refers to the spinning out of thought (that metaphor itself is an example of rhetoric)—one idea leading to another and then on to yet another and so on. While often used in relation to meditative practice in present-day Buddhist discourse, where it is sometimes misunderstood as a mental factor to be permanently suppressed, it has much wider application, including political. It is a label for a characteristic of mind, and is not inherently negative. It does, however, need to be understood.

Some people react to rhetorical analysis with disdain, as if it is simply some kind of pointless academic game of intellectual one-ups-manship, a sophmoric “define your terms.” But…

…out of all the huge amount of analysis about the election, one column stands out for me. If you ever wondered why all the specifics against Trump failed to gain traction—his attacks against women both verbal and physical, his business failings, his ignorance, his narcissistic self-absorption, his unmitigated lying—read this: Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality.

There is a need to understand how propaganda works: make the lie big enough and repeat it often enough and people will believe it. The Nazis knew that very well, and combined it with spectacle and celebrity. It is the entire web of ideas, concepts, claims, and categories that acts to support each element. The dialectic relation between them is more powerful than any one element, and is why the constant flow of lies and incoherence overwhelmed fact-checking. As Hitler said: “The great masses will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.” (I know that there is a truism that whoever plays the Hitler card first, automatically loses, but it is long past the time for avoiding comparisons between different instances of authoritarianism.)

How can we have forgotten? Truth is more than individual facts, it is itself part of a larger web of truths, and that web is only sustained by attention to the connections, to the rhetoric. Understanding prapañca as the network of ideas, as simply one description of how the mind works, means that rhetorical analysis provides one means of controlling that spinning-out of thoughts, directing it to more creative, beneficial ends.

Truth is powerful, but it needs the support of an entire network of truths.

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