Just the facts, ma’am…

The first week of classes is over. I spent some time this afternoon reading for next week, in which I’ll be engaging my sophomores in an introduction to rhetoric. Something I just finished reading speaks to the use of polls to establish “facts” as outlined in this article by The American Prospect.

It seems that Zogby International might be an equal opportunity polling firm, i.e. ideology is no barrier as long as you have cash. As an added bonus, the reputation of a Zogby poll is enhanced by the firm’s contracts with legitimate news organizations. As the article says:

As Zogby himself acknowledges, the repute he derives from media polling helps him sell his services to more self-interested clients. The lucky groups end up with the Zogby brand name attached to findings that advance their agendas.

These polls, combined with the an ethos of journalistic respectability, create “facts.” And facts are powerful persuaders.

And that’s exactly what I was reading about–facts as persuasive tools. I’m a scholar interested in the ancient rhetorics of the Greeks. Among them, I am most interested in that group known as the Sophists. I teach the classic rhetorics.

In general, the Greeks did not put much store in facts as persuasive tools. They were enamored of the power of language itself. They had a highly evolved sense of community: Self, opinions, values, truth, were all community assets. People were the storehouses of knowledge because it existed in them and not in what we would call “reality.” And arguments about issues of the day largely involved deductive reasoning. What is at issue; what is the community value/truth/asset that it concerns; how do we resolve or agree based on that value/truth/asset?

Marshaling facts was not necessarily a part of most Greek rhetorics. Facts belonged to the inartistic proofs–stuff that already existed and that you simply presented in your arguments. Rhetoric consisted of that which must be invented–artistic proofs. Here, skill in language use played a vital role. For the Greek, style was as important as what we might identify today as reason.

We are not Greeks. For modern Americans, facts have become all important. To our peril, we often fail to acknowledge the role that appeals to character (ethos) and emotion (pathos) play in persuasion–especially in politics and journalism where rhetoric is a pejorative term and “facts” are considered objective, even sacrosanct.

But what of facts when they can be manufactured? What of facts when they are reported without comment or context? What of facts when journalists fail to reveal the source of polled facts–and the funding? There’s your “empty” rhetoric for you.