Friday, May 25, 2007

The All-Spin Zone

--by Stanley Fish

When Aristotle comes to the topic of style and persuasion in Book 3 of his “Rhetoric,” he draws back in distaste from a subject he considers “vulgar” and “unworthy.” The only reason I am talking about this stuff, he says, is because men are so susceptible to artfully devised appearances. In the best of all possible worlds we would “fight our case with no help beyond the bare facts,” for after all, “nothing should matter except the proof of those facts.”

Unfortunately, Aristotle laments, both our political institutions and the citizens who populate them are “corrupted” by passion and partisan zeal, with the result that the manner of delivery counts more than the thought that is being delivered. It is therefore necessary to catalog the devices by means of which audiences are “charmed” rather than truly enlightened. We must know these base arts, Aristotle asserts, so that we will not be defenseless against those who deploy them in an effort to deceive us and turn us away from the truth.

Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” may be the first, but is certainly not the last treatise that performs the double task of instructing us in the ways of deception and explaining (regretfully) why such instruction is necessary. The Romans Cicero and Quintilian took up the same task, and they were followed by countless manuals of rhetoric produced in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 18th and 19th centuries and down to the present day. A short version of the genre – George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” – has been particularly influential and is still often cited 60 years after its publication.

And now in 2007 comes “unSpun,” by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. The book’s subtitle tells it all: “Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation.” Once again (for the umpteen-thousandth time) we are given a report on the sorry state of things linguistic – “We live in a world of spin” – and a promise that help is on the way, in this case in the form of a few brief precepts employed as section headings: “Check Primary Sources,” “Know What Counts,” “Know Who’s Talking,” “Cross-check Everything That Matters,” “Be Skeptical, But Not Cynical.” The idea is that while “we humans aren’t wired to think very rationally” and are prone to “letting language do our thinking for us,” we can nevertheless become “more aware of how and when language is steering us toward a conclusion.” In this way, Brooks and Jamieson promise, we can learn “how to avoid the psychological pitfalls that lead us to ignore facts or believe bad information.


Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mr. Fish has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books.