Sophists and Social Media
Gorgias, a notable sophist from ancient Greece, believed in the power of language to persuade and manipulate. Although criticized by ancient rhetoricians, his ideas on rhetoric are still relevant today, especially in the age of social media. Understanding rhetoric can help us avoid falling victim to deception online, whether it's false financial advice or unrealistic ideals projected by celebrities. It can also help us analyze the rhetoric of government officials and make informed decisions. Gorgias wanted us to recognize the power of rhetoric to distinguish between truth and deception. Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the Terministic Screen, a WSU English 401 podcast project. I am Hermie Butler, and in today's episode, I am going to discuss the topic sophistry and social media. I am going to focus especially on one of the most notable sophists, Gorgias, who is arguably the foremost pioneer of sophistry. Today, sophistry has the reputation of being just empty words, having style but no substance. So you might be wondering, what's the point of studying it? Gorgias seemed a bit crazy. How could his ideas be useful today? Well, even though Gorgias lived all the way back in the 5th century BCE, even though there are over 2,000 years between us, if we look closely, we can see that his ideas lay the groundwork for persuasive discourse today. Gorgias traveled throughout Athens, teaching students to be effective speakers so they could win court cases and be effective politicians. He was known to be able to speak at length on any topic with a flamboyant and charismatic style. Gorgias believed that language could be used to persuade anyone of anything. Bizet and Herzberg note that the power of his words was akin to magic, conjuring up convictions where no knowledge had existed before. He was immensely popular in Athens, with a huge following among the young aristocrats. He made appearances at festivals for speech-making, and I can imagine that was the Athenian version of a TED Talk appearance. He also commanded huge fees for his speaking and teaching, just like celebrities do today. Doesn't it sound familiar? Don't we all know of celebrities these days who make big money for their speeches? I read in Cosmopolitan that Prince Harry and Meghan expect to make $1 million per speech. A million dollars. Could you imagine? Today, we would applaud him for monetizing his art, but wouldn't you know, Gorgias got no respect from ancient rhetoricians. Maybe it was jealousy. After all, Gorgias grew so rich that he had a solid gold statue erected at the sacred shrine of Delphi. Which wasn't so bad. Celebrities today buy stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and everybody thinks that's great. Anyway, influential critics like Isocrates, Aristotle, and Plato, savaged him in the Greek media, so that to this day, Gorgias' name is synonymous with sophistry, with empty rhetoric. They called him a senery, accused him of being concerned only with style and not substance. Isocrates suggested that Gorgias had disgraced the teaching profession by charging his students money, and went on to denounce him for discussing subjects that could not be proven. Plato even said that Gorgias' work wasn't art, and shamed him for denying the existence of objective truth. Of course, it didn't help that Gorgias believed that it was impossible to know the absolute truth, that all we have are opinions. He would say things like this, nothing exists, or if it does exist, we cannot know it, or if we can know it, we cannot communicate our knowledge to another person. Ancient rhetoricians disagreed with Gorgias, but as writer Jarrett explains, Gorgias is simply pointing out that there exists a big difference between words and what they mean. Gorgias was simply ahead of his time, as we see today. He pioneered figures of speech such as antithesis and prosaic end rhymes. He actually believes that language is neutral, it can be used for good or for evil, and we need to recognize the power of language to influence human behavior so we can separate good ideas from bad ones. So that is why we need to study self-history. Understanding the power of rhetoric like Gorgias understood it, that language has the power to manipulate with false narratives, can help people avoid falling victim to the kinds of deception that play out on social media. Not understanding rhetoric could lead us to believe disingenuous YouTube videos or to be taken in by unscrupulous agents on TikTok claiming to be working in our best interest. In a world where 47% of the populace reads news on social media, Gorgias' opinions ring truer than ever. You see, people, especially young adults, don't realize that social media platforms might not contain absolute truth. Gorgias once said, Speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body, effects the divinest works. It can stop fear, and banish grief, and create joy, and nurture pity. However, Gorgias also recognized that language can drug and bewitch the soul with an evil kind of persuasion. So we must be able to tell the difference. We must be able to distinguish among the different types of rhetoric. For instance, not recognizing false rhetoric can separate you from your money. Scores of unqualified financial advisors dole out advice to millions of followers on Twitter, TikTok, or YouTube. They offer advice on crypto tokens and NFTs. Most of these writers know nothing about the products they sell. But because of their persuasive language and fancy technical charts, they convince countless young people to buy into easy money. Just recently, Sam Bankman-Fried, CEO of crypto company FTX, was arrested and charged with defrauding investors in a multi-billion dollar crypto scam. The charismatic Bankman-Fried was a prolific Twitter user. In fact, one of the ways he built up his reputation for financial savvy was by constant social media marketing. Days before the scandal broke, he tweeted that everything was fine. FTX is solvent. And until his arrest, millions believed him, simply because of the power of rhetoric. Thousands cry for lost fortunes. If we are not aware of the power of language on social media to deceive, we could end up victims to financial panache. More than robbing us of our money, social media rhetoric also has the power to rob us of self-esteem and give us a pessimistic outlook on life. So often we see celebrities bragging about their money, possessions, and their love life on social media. We say to ourselves, why can't I have that car or live in a mansion like theirs? Then we look at celebrity Instagram pictures and think, relationship goals. They're so happy together. She's finally found the love of her life. And we become despondent because our lives are miserable by comparison. We can never hope to have her glowing skin or her perfect figure. But what we don't know is that it's all just empty visual rhetoric. The apps that take selfies, they brush their imperfections. The products they gush about on Instagram stories are just paid product placements. They don't use them. Corgis would have told us that it's all just a diversion. Celebrities don't look like that in real life. Yet so many young girls try to emulate the impossible and lose weight or bleach their skin to live up to an ideal projected by deceptive rhetoric on social media. Then one day we hear the unbelievable news that the perfect couple is getting divorced. And that's when we realize the truth. The ugly truth. What? He beat her? She had a side piece for years? How could that be? She said on Twitter that she would ride or die. What about the romantic pictures on Instagram? If we understand the power of rhetoric, we could save ourselves time and the self-defeating agony of envy. And if we move on from celebrities and look at rhetoric as it relates to government officials, we see that social media plays a role in public rhetoric also. Sophistry was considered integral to Assenian democracy and today's government officials tweet more than ever. They appear on YouTube more than ever. They share more Instagram pictures than ever. But can we trust their rhetoric? We need to understand the impact of language, the power of rhetoric, so we can avoid being misled by those in power because their decisions can have real impact on our lives. When politicians tweet about bills claiming to be seeking the country's best interest, are they being truthful or are they trying to mislead? Public officials spend a lot of time posting videos to persuade the public to support public policy positions. An awareness of the power of rhetoric can help us recognize when they're being disingenuous. Is that consumer goods corporation hiding behind cute TikTok ads to distract us from the scientific studies showing their cosmetics as toxic? With important policies such as student loan cancellation and universal health care, understanding what public officials mean when they speak can help us make better decisions for our future. 2,000 years ago, Goggins wanted us to understand the power of rhetoric, not so that we could use it to deceive, but so that we could recognize deception when we see it. Thank you for listening. Until next time, I'm signing off.