The Rhetoric of Evil

Evil is around. A lot of people say that. Enough people say it that I think there’s probably some truth to it. But I often feel like I’m not actually understanding what’s evil. If you are liberal, you learn that conservatives are evil. If you are conservative, you learn that liberals are evil. And if you are in a class about rhetoric, you learn that institutions are evil.

I can speak to that last one because I am in a rhetoric course this quarter. And every week we learn how evil the American government and Hollywood are for misleading the public. Now, I’ve never been in the American government or Hollywood so I don’t know if I’m allowed to say what I’m about to say, but I’m gonna go for it anyway. I don’t think they mean to full us. I don’t think all of the producers in Hollywood get together at biweekly meetings and decide that this week they are going to use war-time propaganda to encourage war. And I don’t think the American government wastes meetings on how to best use domestication as a form of nukespeak.

I think sometimes we criticize others too harshly. How many times do we sit down and say, “I’m going to use rhetoric today to get my way?” I know I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t use it. It just means that the study of rhetoric is a useful tool for studying human behavior after the fact. It’s not predictive.

Evil exists, but it doesn’t exist in the places we most think we can identify it. It lives in all of those places where we convince ourselves that we are different than other people. It thrives on us believing that being conscious of rhetoric means that we should be put in charge of the world.

I was talking with a friend the other day, and I asked, “Why are people so confusing?” Instead of answering me (she never answers me), she said, “Isn’t it interesting that we always say that people are confusing. But it’s not like we are simple not-confusing people. I wonder what it would be like to not be confusing.”

Of course, she was correct. When a government uses seemingly rhetorical devices on its constituency, it’s doing so because it thinks it is somehow helpful. That doesn’t make it right. But it’s human. It’s something I can relate with.

Jesus said it really well back in his day and luckily somebody had the foreknowledge to get that stuff down on papyrus. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye ” (Matthew 7:5). Why do we ever think that we have removed the log? That’s not the point of this verse. Evil laughs when we think we have removed the log.

What do you think of rhetoric?

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