Alternative Worlds and the Words that Dismantle Them

*post by contributing author Tana M. Schiewer

A Philosophy of Rhetoric
A few years ago, I wrote an essay describing my philosophy of rhetoric. It was a required component of my coursework toward my PhD in rhetoric and writing.

I think it was my favorite assignment of all time.

I start off my philosophy of rhetoric with the following description of my favorite Heschel quote:

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a theologian, author, teacher, and active participant in the civil rights movement. In a telegram to President John F. Kennedy, Heschel urged the president to declare a state of “moral emergency” regarding the treatment of African Americans, noting that “the hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity” (Heschel vii). A famous photo from a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 reveals Rabbi Heschel on the front lines with Martin Luther King, Jr., separated from King by just one person. King himself called Heschel “one of the truly great men of our age” (Parachin 48).

Approximately 20 years after his death, Rabbi Heschel’s daughter Susannah edited and published a collection of her father’s essays, titling them Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity in honor of that letter to JFK. In her introduction to the collection, she writes of her father:

Words, he often wrote, are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness—or evil—into the world. He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds, he used to tell me when I was a child. They must be used very carefully. Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn. The Book of Proverbs reminds us, he wrote, that death and life are in the power of the tongue. (viii-ix)

This excerpt illustrates the power of language—both for good and for evil. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, language is the source of creation for the entire universe (“in the beginning was the Word”[1]): God spoke, and there was. The Genesis story doesn’t begin with God thinking; it begins with a depiction of a formless void, and God’s first action (beside hovering over the waters) is to speak. God creates the world through the use of words. Words are the source of life.

But I begin with this quote from Heschel because it is referring to more than the physical world in which we live. Heschel was speaking of the intangible worlds we create by the power of our words, worlds of ideology that construct multiple lenses through which we interpret events, people, and phenomena—worlds of ideology that can, at their very worst, justify genocide. In The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, Wayne Booth makes a similar assertion, declaring that “rhetoric makes realities, however temporary” (16). Heschel witnessed Hitler’s ascent to power beginning with the influence of his words, recognizing the evil that can be spoken into the world and the realities that negative rhetoric could create. But he also recognized the potential of rhetoric to have the same influence for good. His faith and theological training reminded him that words carried the power of positive creation, and he put that power to use during the civil rights movement. Heschel’s experiences remind us that the words we choose have awesome power, particularly when in the hands of a “good man speaking well” (Quintilian 12.1.1.). Martin Luther King, Jr. described Heschel as not just a good man, but a great man—and many would say the same of King (I would, certainly).

These men illustrate the potential of rhetoric—when paired with an ethical person—to act as a positive force of creation. We construct so much of our reality by the use (and misuse) of words that attention to those words becomes an incredibly important endeavor. This is the realm of rhetoric.

[1] John 1:1

My essay continues to flesh out the idea of maintaining an ethical component in the teaching and use of rhetoric. But the basis for my ethical argument is this: Words have power. Words create worlds.

Possible Worlds
Above, I describe the “intangible worlds we create by the power of our words, worlds of ideology that construct multiple lenses through which we interpret events, people, and phenomena.” I am, to an extent, describing my own abstract interpretation of David Lewis’s “possible worlds” theory. This theory uses counterfactuals to propose nearby possible worlds; for example, if I were to say, “if it were raining, I would have brought my umbrella,” this creates a nearby possible world in which everything is the same except it is raining and I have an umbrella. This is a way-oversimplified explanation of this theory, and I may have slightly botched it. But the basic idea is this: language creates other worlds in which proposed ideas are reality.

Now, Lewis believed these worlds actually existed.* That is not what I am proposing; instead, I believe that we should apply Heschel’s idea that “words create worlds” to the psychological worlds in which we live—those “lenses through which we interpret events, people, and phenomena,” and keep in mind how real those worlds feel to the people living within them. The words we use can create an entire worldview through which we filter all events, opinions, and facts. Allow me to provide an example…

Growing up, I was often called “stupid.” It didn’t take long for that idea to gain a foothold in my brain, and I began to believe it in spite of any evidence to the contrary. I was an excellent student; however, I believed that it was just because I worked really really hard (surely the smart kids didn’t take that long to get there). Or, in some cases, I assumed I had somehow duped people into *thinking* I’m smart. (Which is an interesting juxtaposition, if you think about it—I’m not actually smart, but I’m crafty enough to dupe people into thinking I’m smart? How does that work?) It took me clear until graduate school to finally think of myself as an intelligent person.

For most of my life, the words others spoke to me created my own little world—a bubble around me through which I interpreted everything. I lived in a world where the reality was “Tana is stupid.” How people spoke to me, how people interacted with me, the value they placed on the things I said or did—these were all filtered through that lens. Anything less than an “A” was unacceptable to me, because it would just be proof that I’m stupid. Any joking insult to my intelligence was a slap in the face. Every mistake I made was not simply a mistake; it was more proof of my stupidity.

I know that many other people live in such worlds. They view everything through the lens of being stupid, or worthless, or “trouble,” or “less than,” or any number of other labels. But it is important to note that it affects not only their perception of themselves or how they view others; it also affects the decisions they make. There is a ripple effect for everyone who lives in an altered world built of someone else’s false and hurtful words; it doesn’t merely stop with them, but it affects us all. And that makes it our collective responsibility to carefully consider the words we speak to and about others. Our words build other people’s worlds.

And this is where I think the concreteness of Lewis’s proposal has some merit. Because viewpoints affect actions, and actions affect more than just the one who acts.

Alternative Worlds
In a sense, we are seeing Lewis’s theory play out quite potently with the current occupant of the White House.** Both political parties attempt to create “worlds” for their members…we paint the world, its occupants, and their actions in a particular light in order to gain their adherence to the party platform. Once we are politically affiliated, we begin to interpret everything else—particularly what the opposite party does—through our cultivated lens. Trump took this idea to the max, taking existing ideas and shaping them into an extreme worldview that warps reality. In Trump’s world, the “other” is so unbelievably scary that we must institute bans and build walls, regardless of what statistics tell us (or how extreme the vetting process already is, for example). His language is harsh and unforgiving; his tolerance for dissent practically nonexistent. Trump’s ascent began with “uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda.” He essentially created an alternative world for his followers, and at this point they can’t seem to find their way out of it (nor do they seem to want to).

What is most concerning about these alternative worlds is that they are built on “alternative facts,” not just evil words or defamation. My world was built on others’ opinions of me—the harsh and harmful words they said to me. Though I would argue that the statements they made were untrue, they were more “perspectives” than facts the speakers were trying to offer up and defend. But we now have a leader and administration who propose “alternative facts” that contribute to the building of these worlds. And I fear these lies make this alternative world that much stronger.

I was reading through a comment thread on a friend’s Facebook post a few weeks ago, and my friend made the comment that Trump lost the popular vote in the election. One of the commenters said, “well that’s debatable.” My friend responded, “No, that’s math.” This is an example of the kinds of ideas that are coming from the alternative worldview: objective facts are now up for debate. Some folks—and this happens on the left as well—are so entrenched in their worldview that they can’t admit to anything that might threaten it at all. For people living in Trump’s alternative world, the danger is even more pressing: these “alternative facts” are the very building blocks of their world; denying them means their world starts to crumble. And that’s a scary thought.

Every false utterance, every “alternative fact” that comes from the White House continues to build and strengthen Trump’s alternative world, and with each building block, objective facts and reality become increasingly warped. I dismantled my altered world by adding up facts: I did well in school, I graduated summa cum laude from college, I got into graduate school. But in Trump’s alternative world, facts are not concrete; they are fluid, squishy, and, in some cases, “fake news.” To combat a world built on alternative facts with actual facts is just not possible.

So what are we to do?

Create worlds.

My two examples of world-building were negative. But positive worlds can be built as well. In my philosophy of rhetoric essay, I create my own definition of rhetoric:

Rhetoric is the epistemic process through which we develop, communicate,
exchange ideas in pursuit of the common good.

I describe this definition a little bit more fully in the essay, but the basis of it (besides the incredibly crucial fact that rhetoric [and writing] is epistemic, which is another post for another time) is the idea that rhetoric should be rooted in ethics. I close my essay by saying:

Rhetoric can be—and should be—a power for good. If we, as scholars and teachers of rhetoric, seek to instill a positive ethos in our students, we can work to create a cultural value of discourse as that which is positive, productive, and works toward the common good. I would argue that in many ways, the discipline of rhetoric as a whole has lost sight of Quintilian’s definition of rhetoric as the “good man speaking well,” and that the time has come to restore the teaching of ethics to the discipline of rhetoric. It is time that we use rhetoric to work toward the common good.

It is time to restore the art of the (excuse my paraphrase and update of Quintilian) “good person speaking well” to the realm of rhetoric. But how do we do this? Surely, facts are part of speaking well; truth is a positive value. It is good. But if facts aren’t working, then what?

We need artistic proofs.

Artistic Proofs
In his philosophy of rhetoric, Aristotle described the use of artistic and inartistic proofs. Inartistic proofs were pieces of evidence that could be supplied outside of the speaker—a legal document, for example. Artistic proofs required the creativity and ingenuity of the speaker—the modes of persuasion labeled ethos, logos, and pathos. These were Aristotle’s building blocks for rhetoric, and he seemed to prefer them to inartistic proofs because of the skill they require. It’s easy to see how Aristotle’s theories could be extended and warped for evil: the modes of persuasion can be used to move the audience toward wrong instead of right, evil instead of good.  And this is what we see not only in Trump but in many other circumstances: rhetoric is used to arouse suspicions, instill fear, and stoke hatred.

But it can be used for good, too.

It is clear that Trump’s alternative world cannot be dismantled with inartistic proofs (facts). So we need to take a page out of his book and use artistic proofs. That doesn’t mean I think we should start inventing our own “alternative facts”; it means that if facts are not being accepted, then we need to turn to the creativity of language. We need to use our words to work toward the common good.

We need to create worlds.

What does that look like? That’s a good question—one that I am wrestling with, and I invite you to wrestle with, too.

How do we create good worlds?
Though I am still wrestling with how to use my words to build worlds that work toward the common good, here are some conclusions I have come to:

It is important to abstain from using our words to insult Trump just for the sake of insulting Trump (i.e., calling him names that make fun of his hair, “orangeness,” size, etc.). Those words are not helpful; they do not work toward building worlds in which good reigns. Criticize his policies? Yes. Point out that his behavior is unacceptable? Absolutely. Protest? YES! But body-shaming him is not acceptable; we shouldn’t reduce ourselves to that which, until now, we have criticized others for doing.

And this is not just for Trump: we should avoid ad hominems in arguments/conversations with all people.

So, does this mean we should only speak in glowing, positive tones, free from any substantive—or perhaps even harsh—critique? Heavens no! Working toward the common good doesn’t always mean our language will be all marshmallow fluff and Laffy Taffy; it simply means that we root our language in reality and respect for others. Passion is a necessary part of the process.

We need to build passionate and persuasive arguments for the dignity of all humankind.

We need to build passionate and persuasive arguments for the value of human life.

We need to build passionate and persuasive arguments for honoring the people who lived in “America” before we colonized it.

We need to build passionate and persuasive arguments for helping those in need.

We need to build passionate and persuasive arguments for reforming the criminal justice system.

We need to build passionate and persuasive arguments against racism, xenophobia, queerphobia, and misogyny.

We need to artfully use our words to create worlds in which we are working toward the common good. Passionate, compelling, and strong words will create some amazing worlds. When we create these worlds, we create spaces in which people can imagine a world that is different, good, and productive. If we work hard enough, those worlds will become reality.

Speaking Well
I invite you to create artistic proofs that begin to dismantle Trump’s alternative world(s). But more than that, I invite you to not only dismantle but to create. Use your words to create good worlds. Explore the power of language to build sanctuary worlds for those fleeing Trump’s alternative world. Play with language. Test its limits. Fight for rhetoric as the art of the “good person speaking well.”

Yes, these times call for action—I’m not denying or ignoring that by writing this essay. But this all started with words, and we need to remember that words are part of the good fight. Now is the hour for “high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

It is time to create worlds.


*Google “modal realism.”

**Not that I think there is an actual, separate world from ours…more so that a world that exists theoretically in someone’s mind is made more concrete through certain actions.

This post also appears on Medium.