Matt brings us this month’s post.

Communication is alarmingly easy nowadays. Actually it’s not so much easy as it is simple. If I drag my thumb across the surface of my smart phone a few times, I can wish happy birthday to three people, two of whom I haven’t spoken to in five years. Through numerous devices I have access to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I can buy clothes, return a library book, order supper, and attend a meeting all without leaving my chair. There have been days at home alone in which I have not once spoken aloud. Sometimes I notice this and say something just to use my voice, only to find it thick, musty, and weak. I know I should speak more, but it’s becoming easier not to.

Speaking is supposedly my thing. I studied Oral Rhetoric for four years, and was one of the final four people to graduate from Calvin with that degree. It no longer exists. Communication is no longer the study of persuasion and artful rhetoric, but the study of social media, advertising, and business.

I loved the study of communication. I loved writing speeches. I loved giving speeches. I loved researching the effects of literature, visual media, and speech. Because I couldn’t get enough of speaking, I got a job as a high school forensic speech coach.

But despite my affinity for it, I find fewer and fewer opportunities to speak out loud. So many people shy away from speaking face to face. Most of us would rather text or email. This frees us up to communicate with more people, but it also thins out the depth of our interaction. Information is gleaned from Twitter and online forums. For the last election, I learned about the candidates from TV ads and the internet. I keep up with the Kardashians not through watching them, but through countless memes and commentaries. In the last few weeks, I think I have heard more from Left Shark than I have from many of the people in my life. It’s not their fault. Left Shark just has far more access.

When looking through history, one can see a clear correlation between the rise and fall of empires and the emphasis on rhetoric. Powerful empires, good and bad, always had influential speakers guiding them. When remembering the ancient Greeks, we think of philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. These men were skilled in the art of rhetoric, in asking questions, in challenging others and using discussion to hone their abilities. Debates in these days were popular events, and a person’s social standing was often influenced by his ability to orate. Over and over, civilizations are made relevant by their communicators. Cicero, Churchill, Hitler, and Confucius used their powers of speech to bring their people into greater prominence.

The United States, too, has had its share of great thinkers and communicators. This nation is founded on the rhetoric of forefathers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. It has been preserved through the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Our meaning is brought forth through the words Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Francis Scott Key, and so many others. New and powerful rhetoric helped to bring the United States into world prominence.

But now it seems that this prominence in communication is losing itself in American culture. We no longer debate, because we no longer need to speak with people who disagree with us. Reading is limited to social media and lists on Buzzfeed. We get our news through satire. When tragedies occur, we choose sides and quarrel, never really looking to learn or to change minds, but only to win. Communication is still all around us, more now than ever before, but it has lost its meaning, and I fear the impact it will have on our society.

The demise of quality communication in the United States mirrors that of other great nations and civilizations, and shows us the direction our nation is headed. Like sophists we have taken our powers of communication and turned them into tools for personal gain. Let us not come to the same end as those before us. Our great civilization is built upon meaningful speech; let us not waste it.

1 Comment

  1. Alissa

    My academic past compels me to argue that “rhetoric” does not apply merely to the great orators of yesteryear, but also very much to Twitter, memes, and all digital communications. Powerful empires still have powerful rhetors, it’s just that a lot of them now know way more about coding and design than I ever will. And debate may have gotten a lot less civil, but I see it every time I make the terrible, terrible mistake of reading the comments (I say, in my comment). Don’t get me wrong—I think there are places we still need to speak (e.g., the speech act of my marriage vows would have been lessened if Josh and I were texting them). I’m also in seminary and slated to take homiletics courses and spend a pretty good chunk of my time speaking to an ideally not-super-tiny group of people. So, there’s that. But I don’t think communication has lost its meaning. If anything, it’s gotten away from and ahead of us a bit, and we should be making an effort to catch up.


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