In classical Greece, the sophists were practitioners of the art of rhetoric. They took pride in their ability to persuade audiences to embrace any position. They could, as one boasted, “make the weaker argument appear the stronger.” Ancient sophists employed their rhetorical skills to dominate others rather than lead them to truth.
Modern sophists, Hannah Arendt argued, take this a step further: “The most striking difference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality.” In other words, modern sophists are revolutionaries and not merely manipulators of language. They are not primarily seeking to win an argument through deception; instead, they are true believers seeking to dismantle the world and replace it with an artificial creation of their own.
A case in point is Black Lives Matter. The name itself is a stroke of rhetorical genius, roughly akin to the question: Have you stopped beating your wife? To answer either “yes” or “no” is perilous. So, too, with BLM. Consider the minefield implied in the question: Do you support Black Lives Matter? Any decent person will agree with the literal meaning of the phrase itself, “black lives matter” — but it takes serious and thoughtful effort to affirm that, while of course black lives matter, the organization called Black Lives Matter is a neo-Marxist movement intent on the fundamental transformation of society. The rhetorical power of the name makes such parsing difficult. It also induces an element of fear, for to oppose Black Lives Matter opens one to the criticism that he denies the truth that black lives matter. The two are emphatically not the same, but the rhetorical conflation makes separating them difficult, potentially dangerous — and absolutely necessary.
Black Lives Matter and other revolutionary groups have gained significant rhetorical advantage by claiming that racism is “systemic.” They insist that racism is embedded “in the DNA” of all American social, cultural, and political systems. If that is the case, then individuals who affirm the moral equality of all people and seek to live their lives according to that standard are nevertheless deeply entwined in racist structures. They are racists and don’t even know it. They have benefited from racist “systems” and therefore are guilty. They must be punished and re-educated. Racist systems must be destroyed. The rhetoric of “systemic” racism makes race guilt unavoidable and revolution increasingly possible. Race guilt is antithetical to reconciliation, peace, or justice. It provides a rhetorical cudgel with which to dominate opponents, and revolution is the means to destroy the current order and usher in a Marxist-utopian paradise.
The modern sophist is adept at constructing jingles and pithy phrases that take hold of the imagination and come to be seen as profound truths even if they are utter nonsense. In recent protests, the phrase “silence is violence” has been employed as a means of coercing individuals to bow to mob pressure. It sounds profound — after all, it rhymes — but it is a vacuous claim masquerading as deep truth. Its purpose is to compel an individual to join the chants of the crowd lest one be accused of condoning, or even participating in, the violence that, we are repeatedly told, is ubiquitous. There is no interest in engaging in rational debate. Modern sophists have no time for such diversions. They have no interest in the truth or in better understanding the complexities of human affairs. They are too busy dismantling the world.
In recent years, especially on college campuses, the sophists have developed a subtle technique with which to browbeat their opponents: identifying “microaggressions,” or tiny acts of “violence” that operate beneath the conscious awareness of the perpetrator. Because these acts are generally unintended by the speaker, the “violence” is defined by the private and unimpeachable subjectivity of the receiver. In other words, a speaker can be accused of a microaggression even if there was no malicious intent, and the accuser can claim harm even if there is no evidence of such. The speaker is automatically guilty, and perhaps irredeemably so, for the “aggression” was likely rooted in a character flaw that induced chronic ignorance. The receiver/accuser is automatically an innocent victim, thus acquiring, in our culture today, a seemingly limitless power over the speaker.
Modern sophists grasp something essential: words are power. Control the words, and you control the debate. If you can compel your opponents to argue using your terms, you win. If you can make your opponents fear opposing you, you win. If you can muster the social or political power to cancel all opposition, the way is cleared for a revolutionary transformation of society.
The only alternative to sophism is a commitment to the truth — which, in turn, requires a commitment to employ language as a means to describe reality. All people of goodwill must recognize language as a gift capable of drawing us up toward truth, rather than as a tool with which to make our enemies submit.