Chickens, Eggs, Opinions, Identities

Today I asked my classes which of the following is more true:

  • I pick my friends based on my beliefs
  • I pick my beliefs based on my friends

We were discussing the opening chapter to Crowley and Hawhee's Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, paying particular attention to the emphasis C & H place on ethos: "Communication researchers have discovered that people generally adopt the opinions of people they know and respect." What comes first (pardon the pun): the knowing or the people? I thought this a particularly interesting question when put aside C & H's supposition that you can change opinions without changing your identity. I'm not sure about that one.

I like the Crowley and Hawhee as a primer on rhetorical theory, and it matched up nicely with a number of the readings we have already done this semester (almost all can be traced back to Burke in one way or another): Corder on ethics and narratives, Lanham on "fluff and stuff," Lakoff on frames, Booth on the distinction between evidence and reason, and Tannen on agonism. But there was one part of the reading that rubbed me the wrong way--the statement: "we mean no disrespect when we say that religious beliefs and political leanings are ideological." I get skeptical whenever I hear the preference "we mean no disrespect" since that often means that the next clause contains the possibility of significant disrespect. I find that the case here. Putting religious belief and political leanings (leanings, could there be a more demeaning word here?!?) in such close proximity equates the two. Is it the same thing to be a democrat and to be a Christian? Even as a heathen, I'm going to guess the answer is "no." Nor do I think religious people would be likely to explicate their faith in the terms of C & H's follow-up sentences: "Quite the contrary: human beings need ideologies to make sense of their experiences in the world. Powerful ideologies such as religions and political beliefs help people to understand who they are and what their relation is to the world and to other beings."

Of course, two pages later I believe C & H expose their own [metaphysical] orientation (one that allows for such an easy equation between ideological necessity and religious conviction) when they describe Protagoras:

...the Older Sophist Protagoras taught that "humans are the measure of all things." By this he apparently meant that anything which exists does so by virtue of its being know or discussed by human beings. Because knowledge originates with human knowers, and not from somewhere outside them, there is no absolute truth that exists separately from human knowledge. Moreover, contradictory truths will appear, since everyone's knowledge differs slightly from everyone else's, depending on one's perspective and one's language. Thus Protagoras taught that at least two opposing and contradictory logoi (statements or accounts) exist in every experience.

They are speaking my language here--my metaphysical language. But I think identifying Protagoras as a metaphysical position is to acknowledge the explicit disrespect that such a position potentially engenders for someone of faith. At least, that "no disrespect" had my Levinasian sense tingling--to understand how orientations toward language and truth, rather than shielding themselves from offense, have to acknowledge their violence. Such is the ethical sensitivity that rhetorical training can make possible.


Mark said...

Dude, didn't that guy already warn you about this contructivist, prescriptivist stuff? He's gonna be so mad when he comes back here and realizes he didn't change your life.

Casey said...


erik_satie_rollerblading said...

And yet Zeno, in taking increasingly smaller steps toward his conclusion, managed to spend eternity in the paradox of infinite motion, going nowhere..

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

both, as I have very outspoken beliefs, as can be seen from my septem artes series

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Oops, a technical problem occurred.

my septem artes series - this link should work.