The twenty-first century has, to date, presided over a period of rapid development in the capabilities of digital software. There have been a variety of social, political, and cultural repercussions derived from the vast network of communication services provided by social media and its facilitating role in the creation of niche Internet subcultures. Most notably however, is the substantial alteration of the art of political rhetoric and the popularisation of political ideas amongst the Internet user-base.
To understand the lack of precedent for the sudden creation of an international popular culture, a brief review of today’s major social media outlets and the years in which they were launched provides ample contextualisation.
The list of landmark digital networking services ranges from the launch of Facebook in 2004, Reddit and YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010, Snapchat and Twitch in 2011, and finally TikTok in 2017, thereby demonstrating the startlingly recent origins of social media in the past twenty years.
The communication of a common or popular culture has occurred throughout human history in many different forms, conditional to the methodologies available in each epoch, whether it be through religious scripture and folklore; or the printing press and regional commercial links, the correspondence between local communities regardless of geographic constraints is a constant theme throughout human history.
Yet through the immense social networks available via contemporary Internet services, the natural aspects of cross-population communication have been extrapolated to the globe and consequently metamorphosed the thematic concerns of political discourse. The woesome excess of social and cultural discourse on the international level that is provided by social media has fostered a new, delirious form of mass political rhetoric, of which we have yet to experience the fallout.
It is stated in many situations that communication is key, and this is certainly most true in the realms of culture and politics. However, the liberal predispositions of the establishment political classes have largely been to the detriment of the analytical depth and systematisation of sociological observations, thereby instantiating a perilous sophistry within an even further regulated marketplace of ideas – gamifying politics. It is then prudent that we understand how the modern theory of knowledge and its communication via rhetoric has been substantially altered from the analyses of ancient philosophers.
Both Plato and Aristotle, as the intellectual bedrock of Western civilisation, have to this day maintained substantial relevance in the fields of political science, philosophy, history, and sociology. It is from these philosophers which much of our civilisation’s political and philosophical analysis implicitly addresses and continually references by direct consequence of the continuity between Classical philosophy and the Western Canon.
In the Age of Information, a comparison between ancient political concepts and their modern equivalents best demonstrates both the continued relevance of antiquity to contemporary political observations, and further demonstrates how far Western civilisation has deviated from its progenitor.
In the opening passage to his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distils the aims of all political conduct into the simple dictum that “every skill and every inquiry, and similarly every action and rational choice, is thought to aim at some good; and so the good has been aptly described as that at which everything aims.”
From here Aristotle creates a distinction between the differing final aims of human action, that “some ends are activities, while others are products which are additional to the activities.” That is to say that the intent of an activity can either be focused on the results it may generate or that the goal may be the process of the activity in of itself.
Activities which seek to achieve a tangible goal are representative of most political movements throughout history, and yet the neo-liberal idealisation of progress has to date instantiated the opposite – liberal values are upheld for a doctrine of progressivism which has no end in sight, as it is from the continuous emancipation of the repressed by which liberal society maintains its legitimacy.
However, in this concern for individualism, there is no recognition of collective identities such as nationhood, statehood or communal ethnic solidarity, the liberal worldview is one fundamentally concerned with the doctrine of individual freedoms with a blatant disregard for the community at large.
Aristotle depicts political motivations as the governance process by which the ruler deliberates legislation and civic rulings for the good for society – suggesting this assumption to be an unchanging component of socio-political governance is most reasonable and remains true today, no matter how malicious or anti-national our political leaders are, they are (for the most part) genuine in their beliefs. It is the popularisation and institutionalisation of nation dissolving notions of multiculturalism and progressivism amongst these classes that has contributed to the longevity of such ideas.
The Means of Persuasion
“Let us take rhetoric, then, to be the ability to see, in any given case, the possible means of persuasion. No other at has this function, because while every other art instructs and persuades in its own subject… rhetoric seems to be the ability to discern the means of persuasion for whatever subject it is, so to speak, presented with.
– Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric.
Here Aristotle clearly defines the concept of rhetoric as the means by which an audience is persuaded, mostly this would involve rhetoric of a political kind, yet it may also take on a recreational or informative character. Rhetoric is unique in that it is a concept without a discipline of study of its own, it is the name given to the processes and activities used by a speaker when aiming to convince his audience. The component of the audience is key, as Aristotle writes, “in political rhetoric the judge is considering matters that concern him personally” and consequently duty is on the speaker to demonstrate the truth, or more likely, the illusion of truth.
However, Aristotle’s systematisation of political rhetoric presupposes a stable society participating with a kind of democratic political system, which is quite different from his Greek predecessors. Plato hated the Sophists on the grounds that they used rhetorical devices to persuade the masses for worse ends, becoming far more cynical on his outlook towards the role of political rhetoric in society. Owing to Aristotle’s perception of Athenian democracy and the stringent restrictions on who was permitted to participate, he believed rhetoric to be purely an artistic device that was conducive to political outcomes, both good and bad depending on the speaker’s intent.
The Sophists were a controversial group of rhetoricians who used rhetorical devices and techniques in civic institutions to persuade the masses into challenging traditional customs and beliefs. Some Sophists denounced traditional ethical and religious beliefs, advocating in place for relativism and egoism in association with their religious scepticism.
The use of rhetoric for the sophists was specifically for one’s personal benefit, with their interpretation of rhetorical politics arguing that the effectivity of persuasion was independent from the moral character of the argument being made – a kind of emphasis on theatrical political displays, as opposed to the content or reliability of the claims being made.
“It should also be clear that recognising what is persuasive and recognising what is apparently persuasive are functions of one and the same art, just as in the case of dialectic its function is to recognise true and apparently true deductions. Sophistry, after all, is a matter of intention, not skill.”
– Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric.
Due to his anti-democratic sentiments and the abuses carried out by the Sophists in exploiting the mass component of ancient electoral political systems to their benefit, Plato remained critical of the Sophists and their use of political rhetoric to persuade the weak-minded masses. It was “either demagoguery or flattery” and incapable of producing any good.
Aristotle’s objection to the Sophists was one in which their subversive use of rhetoric is the point of concern, whilst rhetoric in of itself is not necessarily harmful to a society with democratic institutions but rather the intent is the concern. For Aristotle, it was a deceptive practice that by nature was designed to abuse the emotional sympathies of the masses, persuading them via emotional means and using distracting, oftentimes detailed or dramatic language – specifically as to maintain the speaker’s rapport with the audience.
Aristotle divides the concept of rhetoric into three distinct forms of rhetorical technique and communication in civil society.
The role of charisma is essential to the propagation of all manners of rhetoric, as “there is no more authoritative proof than character.” The first kind, deliberative rhetoric is manifested through adversarial debates and predicated on the persuasion of the audience to judge and vote on a particular point of discussion. Arguments are phrased in terms of exhortation and dissuasion – whether proposed legislation or discussion topics are expedient or harmful to society.
The second kind, judicial rhetoric, is also adversarial in nature, as employed by judicial court systems – the requirements are to persuade the judge or jury to vote on an accusation which is either rejected or affirmed by different parties. The determination of the audience is focused as to whether the actions of the individual or circumstances in question are just or unjust.
The third kind, Epideictic rhetoric comes in various forms of communication, generally it is more official and formal, used at funerals, festivals, political inaugurations, and oaths, read from pre-written speeches. The audience is to observe and judge passively in this case, whereas other forms of rhetoric require civic intervention and deliberation, epideictic rhetoric is a wholly one-sided communication.
For judicial rhetoric the objective is to “bring the audience over to one’s side because their decision concerns matters that are foreign to them,” Meaning that as the “judges focus on their own interests and listen with partiality, they defer to the litigants rather than truly judge the matter.” Now, understanding modern political discourse and its ardent defence of establishment political failures, Aristotle describes contemporary political dialogue, in which the illusion of truth is provided with authority and legitimacy by way of personal appeals to individuals demographically predisposed to the appeal of certain ideas.
Judgement is the key component of political discussion. In a democratic society in which freedom of speech and expression are permitted, Aristotle systematised the process of rhetorical communication, its aims and the charismatic or intellectual mannerisms or arguments that can be made to enhance the speaker’s claims.
Aristotle’s concept of rhetoric differs from that of Plato, who thought political rhetoric was a negative trait within a society given its falsifying and obfuscating uses by the Sophists. Aristotle argues rhetoric not just to be an art in of itself, but also the art by which other arts are communicated. Given his sympathies for Athenian democracy, Aristotle did not have the same belief as Plato that democracy was corrosive to society, but rather that political participation must be qualified and restricted in accordance with the principles of societal order.
Rhetoric has no subject matter of its own. It is a technique used to persuade an audience by implementing different styles of language to convey evidence and information in persuasive manners. Different kinds of evidence and discussion require different rhetorical techniques and skills to maximise persuasion, for instance, the different standards of argument credibility in the scientific versus the historiographical realms of study.
Digital Rhetoric, Indulgence & Complacency
“For people seem, not unreasonably, to base their conception of the good – happiness, that is – on their own lives. The masses, the coarsest people, see it as pleasure, and so they like the life of enjoyment. There are three especially prominent types of life: that just mentioned, the life of politics, and thirdly the life of contemplation. The masses appear quite slavish by rationally choosing a life only for cattle; but they are worthy of consideration because many of those in power feel the same as Sardanapallus.”
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.
At present, if we aim to understand the mass appeal of social media, we must discuss its relation to Aristotelian observations. Popular culture had already existed through the likes of media entertainment television and radio programmes, however the prominence of social media in modern society adds far greater variance to the cultural niches of the time and their receptibility to certain ideas. The distinction between political rhetoric and realities in the Information Age has been obfuscated by the large volume of information available, and therefore the semblance of truth has become more important than the truth itself.
By creating the distinction between the passive interests of the masses and the active interests of the ruling political class in achieving their definition of a good life, Aristotle describes a dichotomy that has remained constant throughout human history between an aristocratic class of rulers and the general populace. If Aristotle’s illustration of the favoured route to happiness by the masses is to be agreed upon, then the argument could be made that the ease by which people have been convinced by liberal political ideas is in part due to the prominence in modern society of a superficial interpretation of what it means to be happy.
While justice may be the specified aim of the political process, honour and virtue are inevitable products of individual participation, as well as status symbols which may influence its progress. The desire or intent of the individual is a key component of the political functions of a society, and when political rhetoric is understood to be the means by which the masses are persuaded, its significance in the digital world cannot be understated.
Not only is information with the advent of social media now easily disseminated, but the access to digital technology by younger generations, including negligent forms of iPad parenting which have facilitated the normalisation of mass culture and accessibility to niche ideas by the youth. Political awareness has reached a peak amongst the general public, and yet the characterisation of events and narratives imposed are adopted on the basis of the perceived social authority of legacy media.
The Internet in practise functions as a digital manifestation of the marketplace of ideas, regulated by a gay mafia using all tools available to increase the social prominence of subversive left-wing ideas. Within this primacy of leftist thought, the individuals best known for its propagation on digital media websites are sufficiently knowledgeable on the rhetorical devices best used for dramatic effect, maintaining influence over their audience of news-cycle dopamine junkies.
Online debating for example is the epitome of this narcissistic manner of neo-sophistry in which both sides will claim victory for their debate performance upon the grounds that their opponent failed to engage with their arguments. The construction of independent narratives and the refusal to engage with those of the opponent is constant throughout the digital space, as is the discrediting of authoritative evidence without reading it, solely on the grounds that it supports a particular argument.
The idol worship of peer reviewed essays exemplifies the illusion of truth that has come to dominate the online debating sphere, in which there is a refusal to recognise the academic institutional biases amongst peers which discredit the supposed validity of a peer review system. Online debating culture is an activity in of itself, its end aim is the activity itself and the illusion of victory, fame, and egoism. The Sophists of the 4th and 5th centuries BC in many ways exemplify the mannerisms of minor digital rhetoricians of the 21st century.
Whether it be through racist meme compilations on YouTube or some variation of the alt-right pipeline, social media has also contributed to the platforming of rightist thought, however recent corporate censorship campaigns have arrested the development and flourishing of right-wing culture and doubled-down on their leftist biases – fostering the creation of right-wing digital ghettos plagued by federal observation.
The significant censorship of dissident right-wing content across mainstream social media platforms in recent years is alone demonstrative of the daunting adversary that right-wing political movements are faced against – a liberal institutional elite that refuse to relinquish power over the most effective apparatus for mobilising the masses in support of specific political causes.
The challenge in overcoming this is the cultivation of an authentic right-wing sub-culture, one that is specific to national identities and political movements – one that breaks from the globalised American centric popular Internet culture.
Aesthetics is paramount to attracting digital user-bases and can easily be seen in the attraction of individuals to either the online right or online left – the determining factor is not just which offers the most appealing world-view and aesthetic lifestyle, but the psychological predispositions of the individuals attracted to each.
The political appeal of the left ranges from an unironic defence of neo-liberalism to communist utopian rhetoric in a manner that affirms the hedonism and procrastination so prevalent in modern society – the individual and their unwillingness to fulfil societal obligations are condoned because the structure of the leftist political system emphasises the obligation of society to the individual. In uncertain economic times, the appeal of such a doctrine is unmistakable to the masses.
As the inextricable foundation of right-wing political beliefs is the supremacy of social norms and traditional morality, such a sub-culture demands far more political fidelity from the individuals it attracts. With the socially left political beliefs of many youths today it is an impossible task to engage in political discourse with such individuals. The conversion of early 20th century Marxists and Socialists to various hard-right political movements cannot be replicated in the 21st century, if only for the reason that the gulf of social policy has become too wide specifically because of the social revolution introduced by the European New Left.
The observations of Aristotle’s systematisation of rhetoric have radically changed within the past twenty years, as newly created forms of entertainment media are utilised to convey social and moral values counteractive to a civilisation’s stability. Aristotle explicates the behaviours and charisma needed for success, providing detailed instructions on the actions and behaviours best conducive to persuasive argumentation.
The writings of Aristotle are central to western political thought. Yet his emphasis upon communality of politics has been neglected. No longer is the political good of the community the concern, but that of the individual. This cult of the individual has been further exacerbated in the 21st century by the atomisation of society which the Internet has accelerated via the transmission of deviant subcultures.
From such a sudden innovation in social media services, the last two decades have consequently opened a pandora’s box of mental illness, addiction, moral degradation, and political indoctrination upon the youth.
There are deviant subcultures and productive ones which are respectively stagnating or constructive to a society. The success of deviant identities in displacing traditional ones is in part a consequence of their exploitation of a human desire for resignation and unwillingness to work in an already culturally exhausted society.
Rightist presence on social media is imperative for popularising our beliefs – but it must be understood as not just a political movement – it must be a social and cultural advertisement that is enticing enough that those to whom it appeals will deviate from the over-reliance on digital media and popular meme culture and promote the rejuvenation of their own national identities, for this not only is the use of persuasive rhetoric essential but a selective decision as to which demographics should be appealed to.