I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post is part of chapter two. To have a look at other parts of the book, click here.
Concept 2.7. Audience and rhetorical strategy. Just as organisms have evolutionary strategies (more or less cooperative; more or less aggressive) for success, survival, and reproduction, writers have rhetorical strategies (more or less friendly; more or less obnoxious) for the success, survival, and reproduction of their messages. As a writer, you may choose to be generally low-key or high-strung; ironic or serious; optimistic or pessimistic; rational or irrational. These are gambles that you’ll make in the moment, hoping they’ll appeal to your audience and perhaps make for the success, spread, or preservation of your words.
As an example, consider your tone of voice in writing. Tone has to do with mood; it is conveyed from the very first sentence, and it is present in every sentence thereafter. Tone is a pathos appeal (an appeal to an audience’s passions or emotions) and can change through the course of a piece of writing (humorous at one moment, earnest the next). The hope is that your audience will pick up your emotional weather, and reflect it (laugh at your jokes, share your passions). Your success as a writer depends on it.
Writing is a bet laid down on the future. So your next sentence is always a gamble, and what you write is thus driven by an appraisal of your environment (whether you judge your audience to be skeptical, sympathetic, attentive, intelligent, etc.). When beginning a piece of writing, therefore, you are engaged in a process of selection: what model do you have in your head as to who is in your audience, and what do you bet will please them? Especially at the start of a piece of writing, there is an attempt to strike lightning in the consciousness of the reader by guessing which words, and in what order, are most likely to do that. Mark Twain (1835-1910) famously put the weight of the writer’s selective responsibility at the level of even the smallest word choices. He observed that the right word distinguished from the almost right word is akin to the distinction between the “lightning” and the “lightning bug.” The poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) once wrote in a letter,
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
On opening a book of poetry, she hoped the writer had found words that would dazzle and spin her out, and as a writer, her goal was to locate words that would decapitate both herself and others through their aptness, velocity, energy, and truth. Sometimes she’d miss, sometimes hit. Hit and miss. The essay writer’s opening sentences have a similar function to the poet’s: arresting and capturing an audience’s attention.
Living is an art—and so is rhetoric. Because situations vary, and can shift dramatically in each hour, life has no recipe book for what to do from moment to moment. Living is an art. If, for instance, you were a literate tortoise on the island of Galapagos, there’s no guidebook to read, instructing you in how to be a successful tortoise from day to day. (“On such-and-such date, move to the left of that tree over there, stop to eat for ten minutes, chat-up the female tortoise that will also be there, then move back toward the ocean before noon.”) Instead, each tortoise just has to play the jazz of being a tortoise in each moment, doing the best it can with what its got.
So it is for humans. Humans are what Aristotle called political animals (social animals), finessing, not just their interactions with the material world, but also their interactions with each other. And that’s where the jazz of rhetoric comes in. Becoming good at deploying rhetoric is an indispensable part of making one’s life work. It entails sharing words in speech and writing, and of sharing images and gestures (recall that one can practice oral, written, and visual forms of rhetoric). Dancing, for instance, can be a form of rhetoric. Your proficiency with playing the jazz of rhetoric from day-to-day can dramatically influence your access to resources, work, and mates. As with any art, decisions have to be made about one’s goals in practicing it and how to proceed. In the case of rhetoric, your aim may be to impress your audience as to how clever you are, raising your social status; or it may be to share something zany on Facebook or Instagram that you think will make your circle of friends smirk. Whatever your social goals, if you are not accomplishing them with swords—forcing people—you’re doing it with words—reasoning with, coaxing, delighting, and spell-casting others.
Words, not swords. Deploying words, images, and gestures instead of violence to get what you want is the basis for civil society. It makes possible the gathering of humans into ever larger, cooperative circles–and this trait–talking things out, rather than fighting them out–has been decisive in the blossoming of our species from narrow tribal affiliations of, say, 150 people to cities of ten million or more. The deploying of words rather than swords to achieve ends underlies our elections, advertising, courts, and educational practices. A good reason to go to college, for instance, is to become more proficient and self-aware surrounding critical and rhetorical modes of thought. That’s a big thing that one does throughout college: practice critical thinking and rhetoric so as to get better at them. In a community that relies on words more than swords to settle differences, knowledge of critical thinking and rhetoric really is power.
Lincoln’s evolutionary gamble: his “better angels of our nature” speech. On March 4, 1861, in front of the still-in-construction U.S. Capitol building, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as the 16th President of the United States of America, and in his first inaugural address, he delivered these now famous words of appeal to the slave-holding southern states not to leave the Union:
One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended….In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war….We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The better angels of our nature. Lincoln’s intimate appeal to fellow feeling and the best part of ourselves was a rhetorical attempt to avert war. It failed. In the month following his speech, the Confederacy of slave-holding states attacked Fort Sumter, a Union sea fort off the coast of South Carolina, initiating the first shots fired in the Civil War.
Who’s in, who’s out? Although Lincoln’s conciliatory words did not avert war, from a rhetorical perspective they are instructive in terms of thinking about human evolution in relation to speech and writing, for notice how saturated they are with vital questions surrounding community survival and identity, and how they attempt to sway the American people to undertake a shared evolutionary strategy: cooperation and unity, not distrust and war. Who’s in and who’s out of our community? How cooperative will we be with one another, as sharers of a broad continent? These are the great issues surrounding the speech: whether the nation’s circle of empathy should be narrowed or broadened.
And notice Lincoln’s deployment of the first person plural we and our throughout his sentences, priming the hearer to sympathy for a continent-wide tribal affiliation, placing all Americans securely in the same national family. What will be the status of us in relation to outsiders who don’t share our values or national identity? Will white and black, South and North, be friends—or enemies? These are issues surrounding borders. To whom do we extend our concern—and to whom do we shut our hearts? Will we deploy memory and narrative in the service of division, resentment, and grievance—or unity, fellow feeling, and a shared destiny? Will we submit to the darkest of our human passions (racism and war)–or love and reason? Lincoln cast his lot with the better angels of our nature; with sympathy and understanding—though a month later he would find himself in the role of a war President.
Competing selection pressures complicate Lincoln’s rhetorical choices. Lincoln clearly implies in his first inaugural that such things as trust, deference, and vulnerability in discourse belong to the better angels of our nature, and that withholding them from others is a bad thing, but noting this is not meant to imply that, rhetorically, adopting a speaking or writerly voice like Lincoln’s is necessarily preferable in all circumstances to other tonal voices. Evolution problematizes didactic formulations of good and bad, whether as to inclinations, emotions, or motivations because evolution is about the production of variation cast into new environments: may the fittest organisms and words survive in this here and now. Sometimes the best evolutionary or rhetorical strategy, given the environment you find yourself in, is to abandon what worked in the past, and, to echo the poet William Blake, “roll your cart over the bones of the dead.”
Thus the angels of human nature needn’t be treated as better or worse, per se, or as wholly at war with one another, for human beings possess both cooperative and selfish, truth-telling and manipulative—and even rational and irrational—traits for good reason: they can be adaptive. It depends on the environment you find yourself in. Indeed, it might be maladaptive to be too cooperative, trusting, or openly committed to rationality in certain contexts—leading to death, either for yourself or for your family or tribe. And human emotions and motives rarely come in their purest forms, but are fluid and unstable. They much more frequently arrive—and often in rapid fire—as ambivalent admixtures of the conventionally good and bad, as Shakespeare so effectively captures in characters like Othello, whose love is intermixed with a debilitating, and ultimately murderous, jealousy. Soliloquies in Shakespeare are also characterized by a roller coaster range of rapid shifting tones of voice, emotions, and motives, high and low, as in Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Harvard evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson puts it this way:
The internal conflict in conscience caused by competing levels of natural selection is more than just an arcane subject for theoretical biologists to ponder. It is not the presence of good and evil tearing at one another in our breasts. It is a biological trait fundamental to the human condition, and necessary for survival of the species. The opposed selection pressures during human evolution produced an unstable mix of innate emotional responses. They created a mind that is continuously and kaleidoscopically shifting in mood — variously proud, aggressive, competitive, angry, vengeful, venal, treacherous, curious, adventurous, tribal, brave, humble, patriotic, empathetic and loving. All normal humans are both ignoble and noble, often in close alternation, sometimes simultaneously.
To be or not to be, to think or not to think, to act or not to act–or to be nice or mean. These are the questions. As it is in the human breast, so it is in writing. An appeal to the better angels of our nature may thus arrive intermixed with lower appeals to, say, the seven deadly sins (lust, greed, envy, pride, sloth, gluttony, wrath). We may appeal to a reader’s vanity or a group’s narcissism (“our tribe is best, piss on the rest”); or we may make implicit threats of exclusion to those who don’t reciprocate our love. These too are evolutionary, rhetorical strategies that a social organism like ourselves might adopt in communication, assisting the success and survival of our messages–and perhaps, even ourselves.
What social niche do you occupy? As Lincoln’s first inaugural suggests, tone of voice and mode of address are intimately bound up with one’s adoption of a persona (a mask) for writing and speaking, a concern in rhetoric surrounding ethos (the presentation and credibility of the sender of a message). In a social species like ours, the personae we present to one another can enhance or cripple our life prospects. Our personae play a large role in determining our status within groups, who we will affiliate with, and with whom we will mate. Just as organisms in the wild fill ecological niches (the bottom-dweller, the one that clutches to walls, the predator), so we fill social niches (the funny person, the serious person, the sexy person, the dominant person, etc.), and these social niches change—sometimes daily, sometimes hourly, sometimes by the very minute. In one moment, you might broadcast a relaxed persona to a friend via a phone text; in another, a studious persona to one of your professors as she passes your study table in a college library. The personae we emphasize to the world, interpersonally and in our writing, vary and are context dependent. With some people we want to come across as silly, with others as smart and in-control. The personae we adopt function rhetorically, sometimes influencing or even spell-casting others in such a manner that they think, feel, or act in ways we want them to, providing us with advantages in ongoing thriving, access to mates, and so on.
How good are you at reading a room? If we’re projecting masks—personae—into social situations, it’s important that people believe them. Our personae also need to be attractive. And we also want to have a good sense of timing (knowing when to deploy a persona to maximal effect). We also want to read others well, and gauge what they’re up to. And we want to be self-aware. That means it’s to our advantage to model the states of mind of others, and to model to ourselves our own states of mind—that is, to be both extrospective—outward-looking—and introspective—inward-looking. Scanning our outer and inner environments for clues as to what the communication situation demands, how different scenarios are likely to play out, what our purposes are, and what’s most likely to succeed in achieving our purposes, is what it means to read a room (whether that room is literal, as when mixing at a party, or metaphorical, as when a writer imagines her audience of readers).
The Big Five trait model. Is there a way to know ourselves and know our audiences so that we read rooms better and make better rhetorical decisions? Something that might help is the Big Five trait model (also known as the five-trait model), which some psychologists use, via a brief questionnaire such as the ten-question Newcastle Personality Assessor (readily available online), to gauge temperamental traits that tend to correlate, to a greater or lesser degree, with such things as career success, proclivity to addiction, and even longevity (high conscientiousness, for instance, is associated with five years of longer life). Each trait seems to have some degree of heritability (a genetic component), and shows a significant measure of stability over an adult lifetime (how you score at twenty on a trait is unlikely to be substantially different a decade later). Via external observation methods, all five of these traits have also been measured in chimpanzees—and four have been measured in other species (humans and chimps alone share conscientiousness as an identifiable trait). So the Big Five trait model assumes a Darwinian framework: it recognizes evolutionary continuity between animals and humans, and identifies the traits measured as variations along continua that are subject to natural and cultural selection. Variations surrounding the traits are seen as measures, not of disease or health, but of different evolutionary strategies—evolutionary gambles—on the part of each individual, beneficial in some environmental contexts, and not in others.
Extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness. The five-trait model locates each individual as:
(1) more or less extroverted
(2) more or less neurotic
(3) more or less conscientious
(4) more or less agreeable
(5) more or less open
Individuals tend to be able to self-report rather quickly and accurately, even absent the use of a formal psychological questionnaire, where they stand in relation to these traits (extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness), and where others they know stand. If you’re more extroverted than introverted, you may tend to feel ready and motivating rewards in even the simplest things, and enjoy parties more than books; if you’re high in neuroticism (high on neuroticism?), you may see in yourself a deep sensitivity to pain, and an inclination to worry and double-check things; if you’re high in conscientiousness, you may feel deep concern for others—even strangers—and are highly organized, planning things way in advance; if you’re agreeable, you may see in yourself a tendency to avoid conflict and an ability to make friends easily; and if you’re open, you may find in yourself strong artsy and novelty-seeking impulses—and have a decided aversion to behaving conservatively or conventionally. Recall that these are tendencies along continua and highly contextual. You may, for instance, be more characteristically introverted than extroverted, and yet when you are in some environments, you may be quite extroverted (talkative when you are among your closest circle of friends, etc.).
So, are you a shark of a bonobo? Perhaps the take-away here is that evolution has no preferred evolutionary strategies. From an evolutionary vantage, if there’s a natural law at work with regard to success, survival, and reproduction, it’s whatever works. This would seem to apply to writing as well. Whether you’re an amoeba, an octopus, or a writer putting forward memes (memorable packets of language), rather than genes, what is staked in your gambles is the future. Whether you are a go-it-alone shark or a highly gregarious and social bonobo (a species of chimp with a reputation for being, among themselves, peaceful, cooperative, and highly, highly promiscuous), each animal positions itself as a more or less friendly, more or less cooperative, more or less risk-taking, more or less violent, more or less promiscuous organism–and this positioning may or may not serve success and reproduction. Thus it is that sharks and bonobos have different evolutionary strategies for getting their DNA into the future—as do writers with their words.
Writing 2.7.1. Reflect on where you might locate yourself along the shark-bonobo (go-it-alone/cooperative) and cautious-daring spectrum. How might your location along these two continuums impact your style of writing? Who might be attracted to it—and who put-off? Is there a middle ground here? How might you bridge the gaps between the sharks and bonobos in your audience without perhaps leaving both groups unsatisfied? Should you balance the interest of these competing groups, or go all-in on one side as opposed to the other? What is your end, ultimately, in writing?
Writing 2.7.2. Imagine that a friend recently inherited $100,000, and has now asked you for your advice as to what, exactly, he or she should do with it. Write two different responses. In the first response, advise caution and conservatism; in the second, risk-taking. After generating these responses, observe and think about the nature of the arguments and observations you’ve made on behalf of each of these contrasting evolutionary strategies, and how they worked in terms of tone within your writing. Then write a reflection on whether is it really possible to reliably advise another person. If you think it is, on what basis do you draw this conclusion? And if not, why not? Is there a middle ground here?
Writing 2.7.3. Draw a longish horizontal line on a piece of paper and place at the left pole the word, “shark,” and at the right, “bonobo.” Hash off seven places in between and locate seven well-known people along your continuum—from the more shark-like (go-it-alone and selfish) in temperament, behavior, and persona (presentation), to the more bonobo-like (cooperative and friendly). Of those included, who thinks, speaks, and writes most successfully? Who has produced the most offspring (either biologically or in terms of followers)?
Writing 2.7.4. Now ask this question, in turn, of each of the individuals along your shark-bonobo continuum generated in 2.7.3: What might it mean to write something in that persona? Who would be the best audience for receiving a message favorably from a persona of this sort? If you are doing the exercise with others, discuss your conclusions with the group and see if they arrived at similar author-audience conclusions. Ask the group these questions: Do more shark-like personas only appeal to other sharks? Do the more bonobo-like personas only appeal to other bonobos? Who, along the continuum, if anyone, has cross-over appeal to both bonobo-temperaments and shark temperaments? Why do they have this appeal? What are their rhetorical tricks (in terms of ethos, logos, and pathos)?
Writing 2.7.5. Write a paragraph or two in which you express empathy for a person, group, non-human animal, or ecosystem, and justify your empathy. Then write a paragraph or two in which you withhold empathy from a person, group, non-human animal or ecosystem, and justify the withholding. After writing your paragraphs, observe the contrasts in the feeling tones of the two pieces of writing, noting the different aspects of the human psyche they appeal to—the better and worse “angels of our nature.”
Writing 2.7.6. Write a paragraph or two in which you intermix some appeals to the conventionally better angels of our nature with some conventionally worse angels of our nature, and see if what you write possesses a more-than-usual interest. Is your writing more energetic than otherwise for entertaining such tensions—or does it feel less coherent, hopeful, and inspiring? (This experiment may entail working with a dialogical, as opposed to a monological, voice.)
Writing 2.7.7. The tone of your writing primes readers to adopt and track your attitudes and energies. But if you’re not careful here, you may lose them immediately. So imagine you are starting a longer piece of writing on a topic of your choice and ask yourself this question: “What angel of human nature should I try to evoke to start a piece of writing on my topic—humor, empathy, sobriety, cooperation, selfishness, enthusiasm, snark, lust, etc.?” After you pick either a better or worse angel of our nature to start the hypothetical piece, actually write a couple of sentences—or even a full paragraph—attempting to evoke your chosen attitude. After you write those opening sentences, read them out to another person and ask what tones of voice and energies your hearer actually inferred from them.
Writing 2.7.8. Estimate where you would place yourself along the traits measured in the Big Five trait model, and where you think someone else you know well stands. How might what you know about yourself, and what you know about that other person, influence how you try to communicate to them?
Writing 2.7.9. Imagine yourself writing to an audience of people high or low in one of the Big Five traits (a group, for instance, that is highly neurotic or low in openness). Address an issue of interest or concern to you—but angle it to appeal to your target audience.