John Oliver on How Internet Bullshit Works

March 28, 2016


Having sat thru innumerable climate denial videos in the last 10 years, the parallels are rather stark. And in this case, funny.

Relates to this new post by Joe Romm at Climate Progress. Donald Trump’s mastery of bullshit rhetoric.

Climate Progress:

“An emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise.” — Aristotle, Rhetoric.

Donald Trump is a master of classical rhetoric — what Plato called “the art of winning the soul by discourse.”

Did you know that there is a rhetorical device, a figure of speech, that allows you to lie and exaggerate and say the most absurd things — “Mexico must pay for the wall” or “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese” — while actually making lots of people believe you are a genuine and truthful person? Donald Trump does.

Yes, while Donald Trump may seem to be a clown or buffoon, he is in fact one of the most effective practitioners of persuasive rhetoric the political world has seen in a long time. If he wins the GOP nomination it will be in large part because of his mastery of rhetoric.

I use the term rhetoric here not with its current negative connotation of overly ornate and stylized speech that is utterly unlike the way real people speak. Rather I use the term in its more classical, Aristotelian sense — the art of persuasion using the figures of speech specifically to match the way real people speak. The fact that Trump sounds more like a real person than his political competition shows precisely how upside-down our current view of rhetoric is.

Rhetoric works to grab and keep attention — and to make ideas and phrases stick in your head — which is a key reason modern marketing whizzes and branding experts stuff their advertisements with them. Trump is nothing if not a marketing and branding genius. Indeed, he is arguably nothing but a marketing and branding genius.

How powerful is rhetoric? In his dialogue, “Gorgias,” about the master rhetorician, Plato gives him this speech:

If a rhetorician and a doctor visited any city you like to name and they had to contend in argument before the Assembly or any other gathering as to which of the two should be chosen as doctor, the doctor would be nowhere, but the man who could speak would be chosen, if he so wished.

So a rhetorician could persuade any audience, no matter how intelligent, that he was more of a doctor than a real doctor. The Elizabethans certainly viewed rhetoric that way. One best-selling 16th-century handbook asserted that mastery of rhetoric and the figures of speech makes the orator “the emperour of men’s minds & affections, and next to the omnipotent God in the power of persuasion.”

To fully understand Trump’s success requires understanding his mastery of the figures. After all, modern social science has confirmed what the best politicians, orators, and speechwriters have always known — that the figures of speech are the key to being both memorable and persuasive. That was a central point of my 2012 book on the figures, Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.

In general, our greatest presidents have been the masters of rhetoric. Lincoln being the greatest of all. So yes, rhetoric put to good use is very inspirational. Churchill also. JFK. Clinton too and even Reagan. Some clearly understood rhetoric, others, like JFK, had speechwriter(s) who were masters of rhetoric, like Theodore Sorenson.

The point is that rhetoric is powerfully inspirational and motivational — but obviously it can be used to motivate the worst in people, not the best.

How many current politicians can you name that have been intentionally using key figures of speech for 40 years? In Donald’s case his preferred figure is “hyperbole” — or rather “truthful hyperbole” as he labels it in his 1974 bestseller “The Art of The Deal”:

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.

It’s an effective form of lying while excusing and rationalizing your lies. In that sense, “truthful hyperbole” is a “euphemism,” which itself is a figure of speech. And since hyperbole is by definition untruthful exaggeration, Trump’s phrase is an “oxymoron,” which is also figure of speech.

That said, the hyperbole Trump is using four decades later isn’t “innocent.” Why? A key purpose of hyperbole is to express the emotion of anger, as Aristotle explained in classic work, “Rhetoric,” the first in-depth study of the art. Aristotle explains the hyperboles “show vehemence of character; and this is why angry people use them more than other people.”

When Trump makes wildly over-the-top claims — he’s going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it — it has no effect on his supporters to point out that this is hyperbolic nonsense. Quite the reverse. Trump’s claim moves them emotionally and persuades them precisely because it is hyperbolic nonsense. They are angry, and he’s showing that he is angry too — which is vastly more effective communications than the bland assertions by the professional politicians that they “understand” there is a lot of anger out there.

Worth reading in its entirety.


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