Socially Determined Meaning

Who determined that the fire extinguisher belonged here? Why?

When you know something, how is that knowledge determined? In other words, how do you know that you know something? As you might expect, I assert that rhetoric plays a large role in the process of meaning creation and negotiation. I want to walk you through how it all works. But first, let’s see the process of meaning-creation in action.

Rhetoric in Action

Imagine you’re in a crowded theater, settling in for a good show. Imagine it’s a few decades ago, when smoking in public venues was generally legal and socially acceptable. Someone, somewhere in the theater, strikes a match to light a cigarette. Some nearby glances over, sees the flame, flinches, and over-reacts. They start shouting “fire!”. They actually see a fire, though we both know it’s a small one. Perhaps the person’s vantage point made it look like a chair or pillar were on fire, rather than a match. Who knows. But they shout “fire”. A bunch. People panic. People stampede. Some folks get knocked around and injured. One person dies of a heart attack in the ensuing chaos.

We now have several questions to answer. What happened? Whose fault was it? Was the death a homicide? The only way to answer those questions is through the use of forensic rhetoric. Our conclusions tell us about the nature of knowledge and constructed reality versus objective reality.

Determined to Learn

In our last class, we had some significant differences of perspective. We never resolved—or even fully addressed—those differences before we moved on to other work. Returning to those unsettled issues will help us think through the role of rhetoric in our society, the importance of its study, and even the nature of truth itself. I’m going to walk you through the issues under contention. I will show how a rhetorical approach to each issue helps resolve the disputes we faced. I’ll also show how rhetoric helps us better understand where the disputes came from. That way, you’ll see how to address disputes in the future.

Overall, I want to show you how rhetoric is a social determinant—a force that codifies and reifies ideas. To get there, I’ll have to talk more about deliberative, epideictic, and forensic rhetoric. Each one plays a specific role in helping us understand the world around us. Along the way, I’ll also point out what makes things observationally, mathematically, or socially determined. Differences among those forms of determination shape both what we know and why we know it. (Or at least why we think we do.)


First, I want to list a few key terms we’ll be discussing. This way you know to look out for them. Be sure and get a clear sense of what they mean and how they apply in today’s world. Among the important vocabulary words I’ll use here are:

  • persuasive, deliberative, epideictic, and forensic rhetorics
  • social determinant
  • freedom v. right (as in, a freedom from something versus a right to something)
  • dogwhistle politics
  • fact v belief
  • prove v. support v. argue
  • Occam’s razor

What We Know and What We Believe

We all know that gravity exists. We don’t believe in gravity; we accept its reality. That is because we have observable, demonstrable evidence that gravity is really a thing. However, we don’t understand why gravity works. Scientists have theories, but nobody has mathematically deduced gravity’s source. Therefore, we have a theory of gravity. It’s silly because we all know it’s there, but science is left theorizing how it happens.

This creates opportunities for people who like to challenge or doubt science. Folks who like to act skeptical when it suits them will point to scientific theories—Evolution is a common target—and ask why they’re only theories. Germ theory is also “just” a theory, yet we have ample evidence how germs work and how to prevent them from causing problems. Wash yer damn hands, everyone. While we’re on the subject, though both germs and Evolution are theories (like gravity), you need a new flu shot each year because the influenza virus evolves into a new variant every year. And that means viruses are alive. More on that in a bit.

Belief means accepting something in the absence of proof. Children believe Santa Claus gives them gifts each year because they have no observable proof that he’s responsible. Adults accept that Santa Claus exists because we have direct, observable evidence. His existence is socially determined. We have collectively agreed that he is a real character. We accept that the character of Santa Claus can be embodied in a number of ways. There are important differences in the nature of our knowledge of Santa Claus and a child’s belief in Santa Claus. But each of us accepts our understanding as a product of constructed reality.

The Matters of Life and Death

Defining “Alive”

When I was in 7th-grade science class, we learned about the requirements for considering something to be “alive”. Bear in mind this was in FL in the Stone Age. Here in the 21st century and in the nation’s #1 education system, you might have that conversation in pre-K. But I digress. We learned what it takes to count as “alive” because that helped us understand the scientific thought process. We learned how scientists make these determinations. Specifically, we learned that scientists socially determine whether something counts as “alive”. We have, through a long process of discursive agreement, created a standard for how something does and doesn’t meet the standards.

Viruses presented an interesting case because they don’t seem to meet many of the requirements…until you look at their effects. The little viruses themselves hardly count, but what they do sure makes them seem alive. And you don’t have to take my word for this being problematic. There’s still a section of the Wikipedia article on viruses that directly addresses how viruses don’t exactly meet all the requirements for life, but that many scientists figure it’s close enough.

You might think that debating whether a virus is alive seems silly. It’s just applying a term to a thing, anyway, right? But a virus is just a simple example of a much bigger, more common, more significant issue.

Defining Birth

Let’s say someone goes into labor and gives birth to a baby. Most of the time, that happens after 40 weeks of gestation. Forty weeks gives the baby plenty of time to develop and be able to support itself. That’s how it’s supposed to happen. But what if, for whatever reason, the person goes into labor at only 20 weeks of gestation. At that point, the baby is almost literally half-baked. The baby isn’t ready to face the world yet. If a baby delivers at 20 weeks, doctors generally considered it a miscarriage. There’s really no way for a half-developed fetus to survive, no matter what we do. If the pregnancy lasts until 25 weeks, doctors almost always consider the pregnancy viable. They will generally work hard to save the baby if troubles arise.

Before 20 weeks, it’s a miscarriage, and the fetus is lost. After 25 weeks, it’s a birth, and the baby will usually survive. Between 20 and 25? That’s a grey area, and anything can happen. There’s no clear determination about whether it’s a successful birth. A lot depends on the hospital, on the available equipment, on the skill and attentions of the practitioners, etc. Whether a fetus is viable depends on a lot of external factors. But Roe v. Wade uses viability as a standard. Back in 1973, viability was generally at 24 weeks.


Nowadays, we have more advanced tools at our disposal to help give babies a better chance of survival. So now, viability might happen earlier. A great story from Radiolab and a reporter from the Tampa Bay Times called “23 Weeks 6 Days” takes a deep dive into the complications and nuances of defining when a baby is considered alive. This is an example of deliberative rhetoric that determines the meaning of a word. From that definition, we change the way we behave. Because we define viability at 24 weeks, we’ll work to save a fetus in week 24 in ways we won’t do for one at 20 weeks. More importantly, we create laws that apply after 24 weeks that don’t before that time. All because we defined the term “viable” to mean 24 weeks. Our rhetoric shapes the experience of pregnancy.

In that Radiolab episode we hear from the father of a baby born at 23 Weeks 6 Days. He describes reading stories to his daughter while she was in the incubator. According to him, when he started reading stories, the baby’s oxygen saturation (O₂ Sat) numbers would immediately jump. There would be a greater saturation of oxygen in her blood when her father read to her. He used that O₂ Sat number—something that appears objective, observable, and measurable—as an indication of response. Is that the right measure to use? Says who?

Racist Medical Measures

For the past three years, Apple has claimed that O₂ Sat provides “insights into your overall wellness.” Why? Because Apple said so—they marketed that as a new feature of Series 6 watches. Is it an indicator of your health? Persuasive rhetoric, in the form of advertisements and product documentation, would have you believe it is. So measuring it is a good idea, right? And we get a number that reports factually what our O₂ Sat is, right? That’s objective, observable, and measurable. Thus it’s something we can trust because we can look at it and measure it ourselves, right?

But there’s another twist: Pulse oximeters are racist. Black patients are three times more likely to get inaccurate readings on oximeters than their white counterparts. Up to one in ten readings with dark-skinned people can be incorrect, reporting a higher blood-oxygen saturation than actually exists. Such errors can lead Black people to think they are healthier than they really are. That can mean problems might go unnoticed or untreated. This can have serious consequences with respiratory conditions like COVID. It can also exacerbate the fact that statistically, doctors are less likely to believe Black patients than white ones.

We now face a situation where Black patients get worse healthcare and are mislead into believing their devices report factual, unassailable data.

Defining Death

Let’s go back to the idea of life-and-death definitions. We looked at how tricky it is to define life at birth. Now let’s look at how complicated it can be to define death. In class last week, we heard the argument that if someone murders someone, it’s just a fact, and no amount of rhetoric can change that.

Except, as you now expect me to say, it’s not that easy.

New Jersey abolished capital punishment in 2007. Prior to that, the state was responsible for the execution of at least 361 people. Please notice two things about the phrasing of what I just said. First, that “the state was responsible” and second, that those people were “executed”. In each case of capital punishment, one person performs the action that leads to death. But we credit the state with the action. In NJ prior to 1906, the lethal action was releasing the trap of a hanging gallows. From 1906 to 1963, it was flipping a switch for electrocution. One person takes these actions.

According to the argument we heard last week, in these cases, one person murders another person. But because capital punishment is the result of a legal process, we ascribe the action to the generic state. We choose not to identify the person performing the action. I suspect you can’t find the name of the last person to flip the electrocution switch in New Jersey. We socially agree to that person did not do anything wrong. We also refer to it as “execution”, which sounds more harmless and blameless than “murder”. Though in a practical sense, it’s the same thing.

Why, then, do we not prosecute the executioner? They murdered someone. People in the Judeo-Christian religious persuasion should say that violates the fifth or sixth commandment. Yet we don’t say that because we rhetorically position the action as blameless. The action isn’t murder only because we say so. Between the executioner and executed, there’s no difference. But to the rest of society, there’s a huge difference, built only with words.

The First Amendment

Speaking of lists of rules and things made only with words, let’s talk for a while about the First Amendment. In our discussion last week someone asserted that when Twitter bans someone from the platform, it violates the user’s First Amendment rights. In fact, when Twitter bans someone, no such violation took place. The First Amendment does not apply to Twitter directly. I’ll come back to a couple interesting exceptions in a minute. First let’s look at what the amendment says and what it actually protects. Here’s the full text of the amendment, with the relevant parts highlighted:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That’s it. The amendment limits the laws that congress can create. It asserts that Americans have the right to speak out against our government. The amendment limits government and protects citizens. It has nothing to do with corporations or their actions.

What It Protects

By design, the Bill of Rights, which includes the First Amendment, protects against government overreach several rights of American citizens. These protections are specifically related to what the government cannot do. It’s a codified list of restrictions that our government created as part of its structure. I believe our nation was the first to do such a thing. I think it was the first to explicitly limit its powers in deference to its citizens. But don’t quote me on that.

The First Amendment protects the right of people to speak out against the government. We can say we disagree with the government. We can protest. And we can openly object to the way things work without fear of reprisal or punishment. If you lived in China, Singapore, or Russia right now (among other places), speaking publicly against the government would make you liable for punishment, incarceration, social ostracism, or death. In America, the First Amendment ensures that you’re able to speak out against the government without fear.

How This Plays Out

Things get interesting when you consider how big our government is. State schools (like Kean) cannot restrict someone’s freedom of speech because we are an extension of the government. The school would violate the U.S. Constitution if it tried to silence someone—specifically because the school is a government agency. That caused real problems for Indiana University Bloomington, another state school. One of their professors got in seriously hot water for tweeting out racist, misogynist, and homophobic views. IUB couldn’t fire him because that would be restricting his right to speech. But the school’s provost used that same right to publicly label his comments as “vile and stupid”.

Let’s look at an interesting example of how the First Amendment can affect Twitter (but not directly). Specifically, let’s talk about a case heard by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan back in July of 2019. In that case, judges found that the previous president could not block Twitter users from an account used for official business. They said that account creates a public forum, and people can’t lose access to it. If a president blocks someone from accessing his account, he’s limiting that person’s First Amendment rights. Please note, however, this decision was against the president, not against Twitter. There’s a fine but important line there.

Dog Whistles and Insurrections

Let’s look at another issue regarding the previous president’s use of language. A point of contention in last week’s discussion related to the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan 6, 2021. One position stated in class asserted that the former president incited a riot. A rebuttal asserted that claim was “just rhetoric” and that he’s not actually responsible for the insurrection.

First, I want to make one thing crystal clear. In a class about rhetoric—one that has reviewed the ways rhetoric has been studied for thousands of years, one that asks you to apply rhetoric to modern life—in such a class, asserting that something is “just rhetoric” misses the point. The point of the class, the point of rhetoric, and the point of strategically using language to influence thinking. The phrase “just rhetoric” implies that rhetoric alone is insufficient to constitute anything meaningful. I have already shown how rhetoric is responsible for matters of life and death. Rhetoric is also at the heart of the first item in our nation’s Bill of Rights. Rhetoric is, as I said last week citing Vico, the very foundation of society. Humans cannot work together but through the use of rhetoric.

People can also use rhetoric—persuasive rhetoric—to move people to action. Sometimes that’s blatant and obvious. For instance, someone moving through a crowd says “excuse me” to get folks to move out of the way. But sometimes it’s more veiled than that. Sometimes rhetors don’t have to actually say a thing for an audience to hear a thing.

On Neighborhoods and Whiteness

If you’ve ever heard white people talk about where they want to live or move in a city, you’ve heard coded language. We (speaking as a white person) casually mention “the sketchy part of town” versus places “safe for kids” or other such phrases. Whether they admit it or not, when white people talk about “the nice part of town,” they mean places white people live. The places where white people live are generally considered the “nice parts of town.” That’s because white people in this country have historically wielded political power and made sure goverment addressed their needs. Thus, they used government resources to properly support and maintain their property.

By contrast, people of color had no political power and no recourse to access infrastructure or community resources. Racist policies like redlining (1935 to 1975), gerrymandering (1812 to the present), and down-zoning (present day) work to create environments where white people secure access and improve the value of their investments while simultaneously blocking access for minorities and destroying Black and brown family wealth.

But that’s a lot to face when talking about neighborhoods. For white people, it’s just easier to talk about “the good part of town.” When I say “the nice part of town” I don’t use explicitly racist language. However, my meaning has racism encoded in it. That’s called coded language—it holds special meaning for people in the know without revealing that meaning at face value. People everywhere use this kind of language. Disney employees in certain circumstances might tell certain visitors to “have a Disney day,” which sounds nice to outsiders but conveys vital information to other employees. If you’ve ever been around a pet dog and talked about going for a W-A-L-K, it’s really the same thing. You say something that your intended audience properly interprets, but eavesdroppers don’t catch wise.

Origins of the Approach

When politicians use coded language heard by one group and not by another, we call it “dog-whistle politics“. That’s because a dog whistle can only be heard by a select audience. When politicians in the south mention “heritage”, they’re actually talking about white supremacy. And when conservative politicians mention “family values”, they’re actually talking about Christian patriarchy. Owing to Nixon’s Southern Strategy, when Republicans talk about “states rights”, they mean legalized racism. When they talk about “law and order”, they mean an enhanced police state that disproportionally targets Black people.

This approach to coded language implying racist political approaches continued with Reagan. He used the “welfare queen” trope to make people think of Black women abusing the welfare system. Our previous U.S. president took things a step further. He directly named the groups he was targeting, then let sentences trail off with phrases like, “well, you know.” This tactic allows his audience to fill in what they think he’s suggesting. Those assumptions can be far more awful than anything a politician could get away with saying directly.

Plausible Deniability

Some people defend or deny dog-whistle politics by saying it’s “just words”. They claim we can’t read racism into something when it’s not explicitly stated. That’s the exact line of defense coded language permits a speaker to use. By prompting an audience to hear what they don’t explicitly say, dog-whistlers can spur actions and perpetuate biases. They can then claim ignorance by asserting that they didn’t actually say bad things. Former president Nixon often gets credit for institutionalizing dog-whistle politics. He openly approached efforts to get more white voters using that technique. Years after his presidency, strategists opened up about their approach and intentions. They usually did so only when they thought they were off the record.

“You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.”

— Nixon’s Chief of Staff on the Southern Strategy

Other members of the Republican party elaborated on the strategy using more direct language:

Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

— Lee Atwater, Republican Strategist, in a 1981 interview

Modern Dog Whistles

Politicians don’t have to say what they mean in order for their supporters to hear what they mean. In early 2021, the previous U.S. president drafted a tweet preparing for January 6. “I will be making a big speech at 10 a.m. on January 6th at the Ellipse. Massive crowds expected. March to Capitol after. Stop the Steal.” The author of that tweet still claims that he didn’t incite a riot.

Yet one of the insurrectionists who pled guilty to criminal charges from his involvement tells a different story. Stephen Ayres testified that the rally crowd was just following what the previous president had said. Ayres and the crowd heard the dog whistle. Whether we recognize the coded language is up to us. But calling it out when it happens is not, as some have claimed, “just rhetoric”. Calling out a dog whistle recognizes rhetoric and its effects when we see it used around us.

Proving Things

As we have seen, audience knowledge is important. In order to understand political rhetoric, we need to know something about the speaker and the audience alike. We need to look for clues that others would catch, and we need to understand language’s coded meanings. Basically, any time humans take action, we interpret the meaning of those actions. Using forensic rhetoric helps us uncover the meaning behind human actions.

But what about things that are open for observation? Here we get to last week’s point about why people accept that Earth is spherical or choose to believe, erroneously, that it’s flat. To be clear, I’m hardly concerned here about the argument itself. I’m far more worried about why we do or don’t accept information, claims, and evidence about the argument. Put differently, I’m not worried about proving to people that Earth is a sphere; that’s not my job. I am worried about helping people understand why they believe one take or the other; that’s very much my job. People can use persuasive rhetoric to convince others to believe whatever they want. But when those claims are about observable reality, we should be comfortable verifying claims ourselves.

Yet no one in our class last week admitted to ever finding a way to verify the shape of Earth. Why? Everyone in class simply accepted what we’ve been told. Why?

The have several ways of knowing things in our lives:

  • Some things are objectively determined: Things we can directly observe, such as whether it’s snowing outside right now.
  • Some things are mathematically determined: Things we can deduce starting from observations, such as the circumference of Earth.
  • Some things are socially determined: Things we must reach agreement about, such as whether someone is guilty of shouting fire in a crowded theater. (The guilt here is the point, not whether they shouted—that’s objectively determined.)
  • And some things are conspiratorially determined: Things believed based only on someone else’s word, separate from evidence, such as claims that the 2020 election was stolen/rigged/etc.

Round v. Flat Earth

Here’s how these forms of knowing apply to the matter of the Earth’s shape.

You can directly observe evidence of the objective fact of Earth’s spherical shape. Perhaps you haven’t done any of these things. But you can do them, and I encourage you to sometime, just to confidently observe something first-hand. You’ll have objective proof.

  • Go down the shore and use binoculars to watch a tall sailboat head off over the horizon. The bottom of the boat will disappear behind the waves while the top remains visible. That’s because it’s traveling over the curve of the Earth, and part of the planet gets between you and the ship.
  • Go down to Florida and watch a rocket launch, something I have done countless times. You’ll see the flame of the engine go way up…then appear to go back down again. But it doesn’t accelerate madly back down as if pulled lower by gravity; it continues at the normal pace of a climb. What you see is the trajectory’s curve as the rocket follows the shape of the planet.
  • Watch the next lunar eclipse. In these events, the Earth moves between the sun and the moon. No matter where you are to watch, the Earth’s shadow will always be circular. The only shape that always casts a circular shadow no matter the direction of the light source or the observer is a sphere.

Determined by Calculation

Let’s go a step further—observing the Earth’s curve is simple. But with ingenuity and a little calculation, you can mathematically determine how much it’s curved. From there, you can calculate the circumference of the planet. A Greek mathematician by the name of Eratosthenes did just that 2200 years ago. He heard reports of a tall obelisk in Alexandria, Egypt, casting a long shadow at noon on the solstice. Other reports said an identical obelisk in Syene, Egypt, cast no shadow at the same moment.

The shadow’s length in Alexandria let him calculate that obelisk was at a 7º angle to the sun. At the same moment (noon on the solstice), the obelisk in Syene pointed directly at the sun. Because 7º is roughly 1/50 of 360º, Eratosthenes mathematically deduced that if he learned the distance between Syene and Alexandria, then multiplied it by 50, he’d get the circumference of Earth.

So Eratosthenes paid a professional to pace out the distance between the two cities. Feel bad for that guy because it’s 800 Km (~500 mi). But he found the relevant observable data. And 800 × 50 = 40,000 Km (~25,000 mi), which is the correct measurement of the polar circumference of Earth. Well, he was off by 7 Km. But all he used were feet, eyes, brains, and two tall obelisks on a summer day. I dare you to do better.

Just Add People

So that’s how observable and mathematically determined knowledge works. What about socially or conspiratorially determined things? What happens when we add people? We need to know how to distinguish between those last two types of knowledge creation. One of them (conspiracies) involve claims and evidence that is fake, distorted, or nonexistent. The other (socially determined realities) involve reason and deliberative rhetoric built upon accepted reality. Telling the difference between the two requires critical evaluation of evidence and bias. It also has real implications on our lives.

When trying to determine whether a scenario or explanation is likely, you might want a tool to help you decide. One such tool is Occam’s razor. This tool slices off possibilities and narrows your focus to the most likely explanations for a situation. The original tool uses this wording: “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” Said differently, simpler is better. When it comes to understanding how things work—on deducing reality from observation—opt for simpler explanations. That’s better because less can go wrong with your thinking. In other words, “simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they tend to be more testable.”


For example, last week I mentioned #pizzagate, the conspiracy theory linking online pizza sales with human trafficking. I told you that a man showed up with a gun at a D.C. pizza shop and demanded to see the human trafficking operation in the shop’s basement. There was no trafficking operation. There wasn’t even a basement. The man had to choose between two explanations. One explanation stated online pizza sales are part of a system that facilitates ordering and delivering food. The other explanation stated online pizza sales are part of a vast network of operatives featuring Hillary Clinton that facilitates human trafficking across North America. He chose the more complex, convoluted, and irrational scenario.

If he applied Occam’s razor to start, he would have approached the matter differently. He would start by assuming that pizza ordering is just pizza ordering. He would then apply his skepticism to challenge that premise. Instead, he used his skepticism to seek support for the complex, conspiratorial premise. He showed up with a gun and demanded objective evidence to support the conspiracy. As a result, he was arrested. I can’t imagine what the shop’s employees had to go through.

The Power of Rhetoric

Think back to that person shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. They actually saw a fire, and they responded as they deemed appropriate, and their words created a stampede. That commotion, caused by the words, scared someone, and that someone had a heart attack. Did the “fire” shouter kill the scared person? What objectively happened is far less important than the social determination. If a woman lives in Texas, and her pregnancy miscarries at week 23, she’s in trouble. She will be subject to far more scrutiny and legal challenges than if the misscarriage happened at week 20. Deliberative rhetoric in Texas made restrictive laws that govern women’s bodies in unprecedented ways. There, the state defines abortion and complicity very broadly. The legal rhetoric of Texas makes material differences in people’s lives in that state.

Rhetoric in/of Education

Much of the motivation behind today’s talk comes from what I see as deficits in the discourse surrounding rhetorical education. In our discussion last week, I asked about ways to influence the social discourse on important issues. I expected us to discuss news sources like the New York Times or thought-provoking periodicals such as The Atlantic. Instead, I saw shrugs and heard one suggestion: infiltrate school boards.

In the moment, I lauded that suggestion for its subversive approach. It was more creative and direct than simply trying to generate discussion. But on further reflection after class, I thought about the consequences of using school boards to shape social discourse. School boards create one-way discussion—from the board, to the teachers, to the students, who themselves have no ability to shape the dialogue or decrees of the board. School boards also have a broader obligation to strengthen our culture, working toward social justice, social equity, and social mobility. We cannot see school boards as beholden to our specific interests. Especially if those interests are self-serving, we risk abusing the the education system’s power, potentially destroying it altogether. A couple examples show this strategy can work against the public interest.

Respecting an Establishment of Religion

Remember that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that congress cannot make laws establishing a religion. Put another way, the government cannot impose religion on the people. Even so, in 1987 Louisiana said science classes studying Evolution must also study creationism. Allegedly, it was under the guise of “balance” and “critical thinking”. However, only one of those theories is based on scientific deduction from observable evidence. Only one of those theories is appropriate for instruction in a science classroom.

Justice Antonin Scalia penned a dissent to the ruling in which he asserted the Louisiana law served secular purpose—to protect academic freedom. Please remember the distinction between belief and knowledge discussed previously. Schools should not be in the business of teaching religions because their purposes and epistemologies are at cross purposes.

The Politics of Secretary of Education

Let’s look at another illustrative example of the problems that arise when using school boards as battlegrounds. This time, it comes from the appointment of Betsy DeVos as the U.S. Secretary of Education by our previous president. DeVos’s key platforms were school choice, school vouchers, and charter schools. The details of those programs are beyond the scope of this discussion, but in short, each has the following effects:

  • They weaken public schools by diverting resources to private schools.
  • They directly benefit the wealthy by allowing those with means (particularly households with a non-working parent and reliable transportation) easier access to the schools they wish to attend while leaving less-affluent people stuck at defunded public schools.
  • They allow government funds to directly support religious organizations instead of public institutions, violating the separation of church and state.
  • They disproportionately harm minorities by draining resources from already-underfunded inner-city schools while leaving successful, well-supported suburban schools largely unaffected.
  • They fuel charter schools, which, like for-profit colleges, make paid education systems sound better than their results justify and target minority students in marketing, making their already precarious situations worse.

DeVos, I should note, is part of the 88th wealthiest family in America. Her husband is the former CEO of Amway, a private multi-level marketing corporation. Her children never went to public schools. In short, the previous president appointed a Secretary of Education whose stated objectives were antithetical to public education. She reduced the efficacy of the very public schools she ran. And she worked to siphon government funds into the coffers of private, often religious, schools. Those same schools primarily serve affluent white people. She is the result of efforts to use school boards and the U.S. Department of Education not to generate public discourse but to restrict opportunities and divert resources from marginalized people to the elite.

As you might imagine, she is unpopular among minority students attending historically Black colleges and universities. Betsy DeVos gave a commencement address at the HBCU Bethune-Cookman University in 2017. One on-stage dignitary walked off during her speech, and many students booed and turned their backs on her.


As we have seen, rhetoric gives us the power to shape reality, to influence others’ conclusions, and to shape others’ beliefs. We need to understand it, harness it, and use it with care. That requires intention, deliberation, and critical thought. Classes on the nature and applications of rhetoric can help protect civil discourse, social cohesion, and reasoned debate. But for all this to work, we must explain and understand distinctions among what is observationally, mathematically, and socially determined. Students need to learn which determination type applies in any given situation. They should also learn to critique relevant sources when skepticism is justified.

1 Response
  1. […] the fashion industry has not already provided as a choice. Our self-expression through clothing is socially determined, yet we still use clothing to make rhetorical statements. The relationship between rhetoric and […]