Why Rhetoric? Because Words Create Worlds.

I was very honored to write a piece for the July issue of Toledo Streets. Run by my friend Amanda Moore, Toledo Streets endeavors to “empower individuals struggling with extreme poverty to participate on a new level in the community through self-employment, job training, and contributorship” (TS mission statement). This most recent issue, titled “The Words We Use & How They Shape Our World,” attracted me because the emphasis is on the importance of language. As Amanda says in her editor’s note, “words have power.” In my little essay, I explore a bit of that power.

I’ve reprinted the essay here because I would like to share it with those of you who don’t have access to Toledo Streets. However, I would encourage you to consider a donation to this worthwhile cause. Toledo Streets helps provide dignity and a “leg up” to many who experience extreme poverty (and homelessness). Your donation can help to make a real change in an individual’s life.


Why Rhetoric? Because Words Create Worlds.
by Tana M. Schiewer

I am currently a PhD student in Rhetoric and Writing at Virginia Tech. When I tell people this, they often ask, “Rhetoric? Isn’t that just empty politician-speak? Why do you study rhetoric?”

“Rhetoric” has many definitions. At one time, Plato defined rhetoric as a tool for deception—an idea that persists today when we talk about a politician’s speech and declare it to be “mere rhetoric.” Aristotle defined rhetoric as the ability to use all available means of persuasion, and scholars since have debated on whether that ability should be accompanied by ethical training; in other words, requiring that rhetoric only be used for the common good. Though scholars today are still divided on some of these definitions, I choose to take the ethical view; I define rhetoric as the epistemic process through which we develop, communicate, and exchange ideas in pursuit of the common good.

Why the common good? Because our words have lasting effects. In her introduction to a collection of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essays titled Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Heschel’s daughter Susannah shares her father’s view on the power of words:

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. (emphases mine)

Words create worlds. Heschel warns us of 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: 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.

And, as Heschel points out, words can also be tools of death. Yes, gas chambers, tanks, and guns were the terrible weapons of the Shoah, but Hitler only gained the ability to use them through the power of his words. Through deception. Through a forked tongue sometimes covered in honey.

There’s this philosopher, David Lewis, who put forth the idea commonly referred to as “possible worlds theory.” To grossly oversimplify his theory, the basic gist is that every time you utter some sort of probable statement (a “counterfactual”), you create another world in which everything is exactly the same except for the one change you made. So, the statement “if it were raining, I would have brought my umbrella” results in the creation of another world in which everything is the same—except it is raining and you have your umbrella. Infinite utterances result in the creation of infinite possible worlds. Words create worlds.

I often think about this theory when considering the power of words. I wonder how often we live in our own versions of these possible worlds because we’ve allowed someone else’s words to shape our view (or, how often others live in those worlds because of our words). I was the victim of bullying at a young age—bullying that took the form of verbal abuse and name-calling. For a long time, I thought I was stupid. That word—repeated over and over—created another world for me, a world that I lived in that was exactly the same as the present world, except that in my world I was stupid. It’s like I lived in this little bubble through which I viewed the world, interpreting other’s actions and words through this filter of “Tana is stupid.” My actions and reactions formed in this other world, but they had real and lasting consequences in this one.

Often, I look at others and I wonder what “world” they’re living in. What words have they attached to themselves and held on to so tightly that they’ve actually created a different place that is detached from reality? So many people live somewhat separated from the beauty and uniqueness of their personhood, believing instead in a world that views them as fat, lazy, worthless, selfish, ugly…or any number of other insults hurled at them by others (or themselves). I know I have. And I’ve struggled ever so slowly to return to “the real world” . . . removing each negative label and misperception, replacing it with the power of positive words, and beginning to fully participate in a new wonderful world of possibility.

I study rhetoric because I recognize the power of words. I see it daily: the words we use and abuse and twist and turn do more than just merely enter a person’s ears. They oppress, they incite, they invigorate, they inspire. I quoted Heschel above not just because his words make sense, but also because the man himself possesses an ethos that gives them positive power. Heschel acted upon these ideas, working continually for the greater good, the most memorable action being his march against hate alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel continually acted in the interest of social justice, but always chose his words carefully when doing so. Today, his words have lasting power that I’ve seen inspire many of my friends and colleagues to do better.  To be better.

I study rhetoric because I want to discover the ways in which we can use the power of our words for good. I want my words to create positive, life changing worlds.

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