A Generation of People Shunned Standards in Writing and Journalism...You Won't BELIEVE What Happened Next!

Let me be clear from the start: the sky is not falling. This essay is about what's happened to the former art of the editorial, and a criticism of tyrannical histrionics, so I need to state up top that I think we're in a period of transition. At least, I'm hopeful that we're in the temporary yellow-journalism stage of writing on the Internet (he said, writing an opinionated and subjective essay to be published on the Internet). New paradigms tend to go through growing pains, after all, and it feels like only recently (or suddenly) that the culture of rhetoric was transplanted into the world of the web.

You could write a graduate thesis on the ups-and-downs of the Internet generation. As far as journalism goes, unprecedented access, up-to-the-minute reporting, and the closest we'll ever get to truly independent reporting fills out the "pro" column, with problematic vetting, fact checking, and lack of substance settling near the bottom of the "cons". The Internet solved a lot of cultural problems and created brand new ones. To repeat my introduction, I hope this is temporary, and that the medium will fall into a pattern of natural regulation as it matures.

If the purpose of rhetoric is to persuade, how can today's blighted landscape of digital screams even dare to pretend to have noble intentions?

What frightens me is the toll all of this online living has taken on the way we write and consume rhetoric. I'm making a distinction between online journalism and online rhetoric. To be truthful, the line is getting blurrier by the minute. Raise your hand if you get the majority of your news/current events/opinion pieces from what shows up in your Facebook feed. Keep it up if you find out about reactions to current events before you even find out about the current events. Keep it up if you can't remember the last time you read a "news source" that at least pretended not to have a stance or agenda behind its reporting—or even did it's own reporting at all, for that matter. Finally, keep it up if you find yourself unable to read much in the way of online "news"—to say nothing of online "editorials"—without getting angry.

As we know, most traditional methods of trying to monetize words on the Internet have died a miserable death. Why pay to take down a paywall when Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Gawker, and Vice are all available with the click of a button? In this new web economy, the only currency is page views, and in the social media universe, the most effective way to generate those precious clicks is through the promise of outrage. Headlines peppered with adjectives like "disgusting", "unbelievable", and of course "outrageous" are the lures that draw us into reading, not the (perhaps empty, at this point) promise of an objective analysis or an argument supported by a rational line of thinking. No matter the issue, and no matter the opinion of the writer or reader, these sorry excuses for "think pieces" earn their keep by promising to light up lizard brain, if only for a moment.

There exist, at the moment, two definitions of rhetoric, the first:

The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.

The second:

Language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.

At first glance, it would appear that we've almost completely abandoned rhetoric that fits the first description in favor of the second, but even this conclusion may be too generous. By both definitions, rhetoric is designed to persuade. If we're approaching the word in good faith, rhetoric is based in the art of informing and educating. In point of fact, today's world of online screeds is not only ineffective at persuading, informing, or educating, it is plainly uninterested in such quaint purposes. The endgame of today's rhetoric is to rankle, on all sides of an issue, and to insure that the perpetual outrage engine keeps churning, fed by likes, shares, snotty comments, Facebook thread wars, and hate-shares. Today's rhetoric, coming from all points on the political and cultural spectrums, is so couched in furious invective that it usually prompts one of three reactions: enthusiastic agreement, righteous indignation, or frustrated indifference. I myself have been guilty of all three, on numerous occasions, but I find myself landing on the third option more and more often, these days.

If the purpose of rhetoric is to persuade, how can today's blighted landscape of digital screams even dare to pretend to have noble intentions? Even those pieces with interesting and well-argued points are so steeped in teeth-gnashing snark that anyone who might have been swayed by the author's rhetoric is far more likely to become galvanized and dig in their heels. Please, spare me the comments proclaiming that *insert pet cause here* isn't about being nice to people that have shitty opinons/are woefully behind the times/are too conservative/too liberal/racist/sexist/misandrist etc. This isn't a problem of manners, it's a problem of effective and informative writing. If we view rhetoric as a means of educating (which we should), then transplant the current en vogue methods into a formal education setting and see if your stomach doesn't churn. Do we combat illiteracy by hurling epithets at students and questioning the moral fortitude of children who can't read? Do we raise math scores by proclaiming that kids struggling with Algebra are "just not interested" in learning, or are "the worst"?

Writing, reporting, communicating, and learning, is seldom, if ever, about 'me'.

In the world of social media, the act of "sharing" has taken on a somewhat aggressive context. We don't necessarily share because we find something interesting, or because we want to have an honest and well-reasoned debate over a particular issue. More likely, we share certain articles, videos, et al, because we want to be reassured that we're doing the "right" things and being the "right" person. A share on a profile signals to the world what we believe, and any blowback is taken as an offense only slightly less personal than a physical attack. Disseminating rhetoric has ceased to be an act of inviting debate and hoping for education and become an act of consolidating identity. Everyone is screaming, no one listens, and no one learns.

There is, of course, a place for impassioned rhetoric. Outrage and catharsis are necessary expressions in a human's attempts to understand his or her peers and the world that surrounds them. It is part of, but not the sole method of using language to affect understanding and change. As I stated earlier, I'm no stranger to falling into any of these traps, but I'm trying. Here's a few things steps I'm going to take moving into the future. Feel free to join me, if you wish:

  1. When I find out about a hot-button issue in the news via a "think piece", "editorial", or other social media comment/share, I will track down as objective a piece of reporting on that issue as I can and read that, in its entirety, first.
  2. For every piece of righteous anger-filled rhetoric I read that aligns with my views on an issue or news story, I will read one that does not. 
  3. If I post articles/editorials on my social media feeds, I will take all discussion and disagreement as a difference of opinion, and react in a civil manner. This means no snark, no profanity, no ad hominem attacks, and no assumptions. I will expect all participating in the conversation to do the same.
  4. I will not get into arguments on social media with people I do not know in real life. That's just asking for trouble.

I could get deeper on my criticism of outrage culture, but far too many would-be keyboard pundits have weighed in already. For a third time, I fervently hope that the sky is not falling, and to do my part, I'm trying to not be a part of it, and remind myself that writing, reporting, communicating, and learning, is seldom, if ever, about me.

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Comments

Matt Pucci's picture
Matt Pucci from Milton Keynes, England is reading Anything and everything December 19, 2014 - 12:09pm

Great piece, John. Thank you.