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In preparation for a symposium about teaching writing in the post-truth era, I encountered a little book by one of the symposium participants, Bruce McComiskey. Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition is one of the short-form books published by Utah State University Press. It’s a quick read but makes a good point: When we teach writing, we need to address the consequences of unethical post-truth rhetoric. This has, of course, always been part of writing instruction, but it seems more pressing than ever to address not just effective communication but the principles of ethical argument.  

McComiskey discusses the Aristotelian concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos in this context. Ethos appeals to a group’s beliefs, pathos is an appeal to emotions, and logos uses evidence and reasoning to persuade. Ethos and pathos are triumphant at the moment. Whether a news article or speech or Tweet aligns with one’s pre-existing beliefs and allegiances has more weight than the veracity of whatever “facts” are expressed. Appeals to emotions – anger, fear, resentment, pride – take the place of reason.

Logos is not so much in evidence, according to McComisey. When factual claims are made (crime is at an all-time high, vaccines are dangerous, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is a Communist), they are asserted without proof and accepted because they appeal to the emotions of the in-group. As McComiskey puts it, “in the topsy-turvy world of post-truth rhetoric, ethos and pathos have themselves become effective sources of arguments, and logos is actually denigrated.” It’s true because it feels true. It’s true because the person you believe in said so.

Ian MacIntyre, who has also written a useful short book on this subject, quotes an exchange between a reporter and Newt Gingrich that illustrates this perfectly. When the reporter challenged Gingrich on Trump’s claim that crime was at an all-time high, pointing out that’s provably false, Gingrich said “The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think crime is down, does not think we are safer.” When the reporter pointed out it was, nevertheless, a fact that crime is down, Gingrich replied “what I said is also a fact . . . people feel more threatened.” He considered feelings to be facts and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports “theoretical.”  

But sometimes proof is part of the pudding. Conspiracy theories are elaborate and detailed arguments that employ evidence at length to arrive at a place that often defies reason. Logos has a role in post-truth communication, but as a utilitarian ingredient of persuasion or as a kind of elaborate world-building exercise. The ethical underpinnings of truth-seeking, the practices that truth-seeking professionals have evolved in areas such as scholarship, journalism, and science, are subordinate to creating a persuasive and exciting story.

As sources of information multiply, as falsehoods are replicated across the web, and as the business model for creating and sharing information becomes detached from the traditional roles of truth-seeking institutions, depending instead on acquiring and retaining attention to serve ads and gather user data, deciding what to believe is treated as a matter of consumer choice and a kind of fan culture, setting up a space where interacting with and remixing information is encouraged as both a pastime and a profitable form of self-expression.

McComiskey points to the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing and the WPA Outcomes Statement for First Year Writing for inspiration. The latter states by the end of the first year students should have a foundation in critical thinking so they can “separate assertion from evidence, evaluate sources and evidence, recognize and evaluate underlying assumptions, read across texts for connections and patterns, identify and evaluate chains of reasoning, and compose appropriately qualified and developed claims and generalizations.”

Whoa. That’s a tall order, rather like expecting students to be able to evaluate sources after a fifty-minute library workshop. But it’s important, and probably should be practiced not only when analyzing academic writing but for critiquing writing in the wild. Because it’s pretty wild out there, and post-truth influencers are gifted rhetoricians.

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