I recently reviewed a book that I believe failed to argue well. I think that it is indicative of a recent loss of argument and logic noted by two glaring problems: the fade of language and the resurfacing of pictorial presentations.
The Fade of Language and Discourse
I don’t think it will take much to convince you of this fade. Just consider for example all of the fragment sentences you read that begin with “That moment when…” Or consider the common attention span when it comes to reading something: novels are relegated to the ‘nerds’ while memoirs and essays are saved for the ‘intellectuals’ alone. Not only does the average Caucasian and African American in the US speak only one language (as opposed to two like our Spanish, Mexican, Asian, and Middle-Eastern counterparts), but even the language of English is fading. Need proof? Open up Facebook and scroll through your News Feed—how many tri-syllable words can you count? How many incorrect uses of homophones (their/there/they’re) can you count? Our language is being shortened… legitimately (or as is common: ‘legitly’)—and yet even that word doesn’t mean “actually” or “really” even though I just used it that way. Legitimately means ‘with due reason.’
I understand that a living language is constantly in flux, that economy and efficiency is necessary in dialogue; I understand that those fragment ‘moments’ are relying on your experience to convey information, and that fragments are valid when employed properly: “Learn the rules like a professional, so you can break them like an artist,” but at the same time language is not only utilitarian. Language can be beautiful, and affective, not only effective. In fact, if iPhone’s autocorrect didn’t place apostrophes in words like “I’m”, then I’m pretty sure they’d be absent already; you’d think it was the symbol for making a smile cry. In fact, if you look upon your keyboard symbols, of which usages are you aware?
Did you know that Jonathan Edwards wrote and presented his high school Valedictorian speech in Latin? Certainly, Jonathan Edwards was more intelligent than most any of us, acclaimed as the greatest American mind we’ve raised up. But Greek and Latin were taught to all teenagers only three hundred years ago. Now you’d be lucky to know that those fraternity symbols can form words, and that much of our English language is built upon them. “We’ve gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching remedial English in college,” one meme states.
Language is only one part of the problem though. We’re also losing the ability to argue. To debate. To state a belief and defend it. I remember hearing several of my classmates in middle school state their desire even ability to be a lawyer when they grew up: “I’m great at arguing!” False. They were great at becoming heated and denying the claims of another. In college, I heard countless people brag about their ability to “say nothing” but fill pages with text. Really? Is that admirable? To meet the requirements for a class paper, 2 pages long, but not accomplishing anything with it? That sounds like a colossal waste of time, and an unworthy use of your Creator’s graces to you. Do you realize that the Creator is also Judge?
My friend Alex Hannis (A.M. Hannis), has stated, "If every political argument could be reduced to a meme, then there wouldn't be an argument!" Argument is an art, not founded upon emotional fervor, but founded upon thought and connection. We could learn something from our two year old children who ask, “Why? Why? Why?” Maybe you should take a moment to actually answer ‘why” until they are satisfied. Can you do it? We have gone from presenting a belief and supporting it with evidence, addressing counterarguments and questioning presuppositions to stating something as a matter of fact, and leaving it as skywriting in the atmosphere to be either believed or disbelieved; accepted or rejected—whichever happens is not my prerogative but your own.
The Resurfacing of Pictorial Presentations
Memes, Buzzfeed and HuffPost slideshows, Screenshots of Flappy Bird—the word has been once again replaced by the picture. The picture is an excellent conveyer of meaning, but the “thousand words” it gives aren’t all unified and consistent. My friend Jessi once said, “I feel like it’s watching a movie with the volume down.” You can gather a general idea, but without words you miss a major part of the story. Else we would be reverting to silent films—but the most recent one, The Artist, has words to explain it! Vimeo offers a safe sphere for experimenting and influencing, but you would never be able to evaluate what you see (even in your own mind) without words to do so. Attempt. Attempt to consider something beautiful or fearful… then think about it without words for 30 seconds.
[[Your failure to actually experiment with what I’ve argued (by considering something beautiful or fearful, etc.) reveals further the absence of desire to understand and confront the argument (see section 1).]]
The picture is king. But that is extremely unfortunate for us. The picture has been king before in ancient and medieval worlds. And when the picture is king, when language becomes the possession of the privileged, we submit ourselves to become slaves of culture. For many years, the Roman Church commenced mass in Latin, once the vulgar tongue (common), eventually it became lost to the masses. People became prisoners to the religious and social elite. Certainly! There were pictures of the gospel upon the walls, but without the words to accompany them, the individuals were left writhing in their own sin, speaking another language than the nurses.
Pictures are beautiful and helpful. And valuable for both in their own right. But the picture is not total, and it has never been. But if we can get a laugh or a wow from one perfectly timed, we think our job done—your job, believer is not to humor or amaze, but to be an agent of reconciliation showing forth the beauty of the world and using it to point to the God who speaks—the Word become flesh.
Choose your source(s) and build.
Revelation. Tradition. Logic. Experience.
P.S. "Meme" is a word that signifies a cultural package that easily moves among the people.