Once in a while, I’m going to write to you, my reader, out of frustration.
Today is that day.
I am tired of being surrounded with lazy thinkers and I’d like to challenge you to do the leg work that is required to contend with culture.
Laura Bolin Carroll defines rhetoric as “the way we use images and language to persuade,” so let’s chat for a moment about how to be more persuasive and start thinking more critically about our culture.
No matter what kind of audience you write or speak for, this will increase your credibility.
Your education, your reading, and all of your cultural consumption in general presents you with knowledge and allows you to negotiate ideas to form your own.
The first step in writing or speaking persuasively is to understand the conversation that is already happening.
This is what Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein attempt to convince college freshmen: “the thesis or ‘I say’ moment of your text–should always be a response to the argument of others.”
We must read articles and books from every corner of the library to learn about different thinkers– some ancient, some modern, and some contemporary– in order to understand the preexisting conversation.
When you read these thinkers, watch these movies, and listen to our culture’s music, start holding the words in your hand, weigh them against your own ideas and the ideas of others, and then, and only then, decide where you stand in relation to them.
To do this, though, you need to really wrestle with their exact words.
Not your mom’s words, not the latest Huffington Post headline and certainly not the words you read on your Facebook friend’s comment.
To contend with any thinker, you need to quote them exactly, which means reading their work or consuming their cultural product. Paraphrasing ideas can be effective, but there is real power in conveying the words of a philosopher in the exact manner he wrote them.
Quoting your research, your reading, a movie, or a song when you write or speak accomplishes three things:
- It shows your audience you respect their time.
- It shows your audience you respect other people.
- It adds credibility to your own ideas.
- It advances your argument.
Whether you agree or disagree with the statement you choose to quote, it is so important for you to establish the already existing conversation in order to participate in it effectively. If it’s worth mentioning at all, you need to be able to articulate it well so that you can dismantle it.
As a culture, we tend to criticize what we don’t understand.
The reason we don’t understand it is because we haven’t taken the time to know it.
How many times do we hear people bash politicians without having a clue as to what that politician believes? When is the last time you heard a professor bash a musician you love or criticize a book you like?
When they do this, more often than not, they have never listened to that musician’s music or read that author.
I hear people criticize the Kardashians all the time, but if you slow down and ask them what they specifically don’t like about that Armenian family, they will probably just repeat a headline to you.
They don’t actually know anything about that family, other than they are one of the most visible families in our American society.
That makes them an easy target, but it makes you a lazy thinker.
If you do want to criticize the Kardashian family, or Miley Cyrus, or Donald Trump, then be specific. They are not a catch all for everything that’s wrong with America, or maybe they are, but you are perpetuating the problem by not articulating it.
Anything else is a straw man fallacy and what you are really doing is perpetuating the cultural currency of their brand. I guarantee your audience isn’t silently defending these cultural figures and waiting to be proven wrong by you mentioning them when you write or speak.
If you don’t, your not being helpful–you’re not provoking critical thought or change, you’re just being a hater.
And our culture is full of haters.
The same goes for English teachers when they make fun of the Twilight series. I’ve heard these books are terrible, but I don’t condemn one when my student tells me it was their favorite book.
I don’t condemn them at all, because I haven’t read them, and I never plan to.
Contending with culture in a respectful and helpful manner is possible, but it takes work. If you are in a position of leadership, and if you have credibility and influence, then this message is for you.
If we want to engage in intellectual conversations and be credible as thinkers, it is imperative that we read primary sources — the text itself, rather than commentaries about the text or the latest headlines in the media. We need to read the words of anyone worth contending with, we need to wrestle with their ideas, and only then should we offer criticism or praise and advance our own arguments.
Get to work.