At the beginning of my classes, I ask students to define rhetoric. I teach one of two classes—Rhetoric & Writing and Rhetoric & Narrative. And even students who have taken one of these can’t voice a handy definition for the term in the title of their class.
They’re not alone. This is not an exercise in student-bashing. The thing is, we use rhetoric all day, every day, but who besides English professors keeps a tidy definition in their pocket? And why should they?
Let’s start with my definition. I tell my students that rhetoric is communication designed for a particular audience, context, and purpose. Some may argue whether rhetoric is deliberate—or just the spontaneous effects that our audience, situation, and purpose have on how we communicate—but I think it’s deliberate. Sure, there are factors in our personal communication styles that we can’t consciously control—how we learned to read, write, speak—but we can call on specific resources to get a particular message to a distinct group of listeners, viewers, or readers.
Intent vs. Interpretation
Why should we know what rhetoric is? Because so often, we set out to say one thing and end up saying another. For example, someone means to pay me a compliment, so she says, “Oh honey, you look really good today! Who helped you with your makeup?” This utterance has two levels: the message and the metamessage. The message is literally what’s on the screen, but the metamessage is the subtext, the tone, the “between the lines” meaning.
The person offering me this compliment thinks she is sending a message of affirmation. But because she asks who helped with my makeup, she’s conveying this metamessage: You need help to look good. If I say, “No one helped me, I did it myself” she will be appropriately surprised. “Wow, really?” Again, a metamessage: blind people can’t do makeup, so Emily is an exception.
This is a snapshot of why disabled people rarely bask in the lavish compliments of others. So often they contain a subtext that says, “I never expected you to be able to do that, so good for you!” We’d rather have the belief than the astonishment.
If you find yourself in a sea of communication mishaps, they’re likely the result of a conflict between your intended message and the metamessage that you inserted—or someone else interpreted. Really, it’s a miracle that language works as well as it does!
What frustrates me the most is when someone sends out a message of encouragement, solidarity, or affirmation with a metamessage that undercuts the good vibes…and it’s all to do with their logic and grammar!
“I’m the Exception!”
Lately I’ve seen a lot of social media posts that are trying to be disability-positive, trying to send a powerful thrust of “Disabled people are awesome” out into cyberspace. But I don’t share them on my page because these messages don’t work. Sometimes it’s a disabled person promoting herself or her services:
“Martha doesn’t let blindness keep her from being stylish!”
“Though he’s a paraplegic, Reggie is so in tune with his body!”
Another meme I did not pass along used the line “This is what blindness looks like,” and presumably showed several diverse, stylish people. The person who shared it (not actually a friend of mine, phew!) said that she and her other blind acquaintances were super awesome because “we don’t look like the stereotypical blind person.”
What is “the stereotypical blind person”? A person with a cane, dog, or dark glasses? Or do they mean someone who is stumbling, lost, confused, or poorly dressed? Either way, the stereotype, not the exception, wins, because it is still being used as a piece of logic rather than a convenient half-truth.
A Fallacy for Any Occasion
Do any of these statements rub you the wrong way? If they do, it’s because you’re tuning into a fallacy—a faulty line of reasoning, or a leap that doesn’t quite make sense. Fallacies come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be emotional, logical, or ethical. Scare tactics are a fallacy. Hyperbole is a fallacy.
So let’s spell out the fallacies being invoked in these seemingly positive statements. First of all, exceptionalism in marketing yourself isn’t a bad thing. If I’m trying to get published or hired, you can be sure I’m going to say, “Hey I’m a fabulous teacher, and I have a superb and unique grasp of grammar. Hire me!” But in this self-exceptionalism, I’m pitting myself against colleagues, discussing comparisons that are actually relevant.
The exceptional fallacy that’s happening in the above statements on disability, however, is invoking disability as a relevant trait when it’s not really relevant.
If Martha says, “Hey I don’t let blindness cramp my style,” I and many other blind people feel compelled to respond, “And why should it?” If Reggie says, “I’m a paraplegic who can still appreciate my body,” we say, “Duh—why shouldn’t you?” When disabled people use exceptionalism to say, “I’m way cooler than those other disabled people,” it’s a slap in the face—not a gesture of solidarity.
And here’s how I see it. The ADA, passed in 1990, allowed me to be mainstreamed throughout my fantastic education, got me the services I needed—but that’s not legislation I fought for. I wasn’t crawling up the steps of government buildings; I did not picket in those early days before disabled people had their civil rights. Others fought for me to have the access I currently enjoy. I don’t believe I have the right to promote myself using the same stereotypes that my colleagues and cohorts have been fighting since before I was born.
Perhaps these statements are logical fallacies, but I also see them as ethical fallacies. Relying on the common stereotype of disability as incompetence: that’s an unethical choice for a disabled person to make. None of us invented the world we work in, so let’s use language to build more empathy and respect.