In 2017, as we see increased popular distrust toward expertise of all kinds, and as we struggle to parse an overwhelming quantity of information in this age of social media, data leaks, and “fake news,” thoroughly researched, peer-reviewed, and accessible university press scholarship is more important than ever. Utah State University Press’s composition and rhetoric titles offer a particularly crucial contribution, providing methods for detecting rhetorical guile in the battery of headlines, opinions, statistics, references, and 140-character policy statements we’re subjected to daily. These books give us strategies for recognizing the difference between sound studies and propaganda, between well-reasoned arguments and hyperbolic appeals to emotion, between facts and “alternative facts.”
In his pithy Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition, publishing this month, writing professor Bruce McComiskey defines and explains the many forms of unethical rhetoric we have seen in the last year. Framing the concept of “post-truth” within rhetorical theory (the classic triad of logos, ethos, and pathos), McComiskey shows how America’s loss of grounding in logos—the realm of fact, logic, truth, and valid reasoning—has exposed us to an increased risk of violence, unchecked libel, and tainted elections. As a consequence of our departure from logic, we have allowed ourselves to be swayed by charismatic personalities and emotional appeals, by hyperbole and other forms of post-truth rhetoric. As McComiskey puts it, “In this post-truth world (without truth or lies), language becomes purely strategic, without reference to anything other than itself . . . a public description of sexual assault becomes ‘locker room talk’ because that is what a powerful person calls it; a public expression of xenophobia becomes ‘telling it like it is’ because ideologies dominated by fear suddenly find a voice."¹ It is only by learning to recognize post-truth rhetoric that we can establish a standard of truth and reason against which to measure it.
Also forthcoming (in fall 2018) is reading researcher Ellen C. Carillo's Teaching Readers in Post-Truth America, which will offer useful pedagogical strategies concerning “interpretive reading”—the process through which readers construct meaning from texts. Carillo will show how postsecondary instructors’ increased focus on teaching interpretive reading can enable students to navigate the vagaries of public discourse.
Books like Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition and Teaching Readers in Post-Truth America offer much-needed roadmaps for survival in our post-truth world, and they are a critical part of our advocacy as a university press for a healthy and informed skepticism: one that enables readers to recognize and seek out true expertise, to assess carefully how information is used and interpreted (or misinterpreted), and to perceive the difference between demagoguery and “telling it like it is.”
1. Bruce McComiskey, Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2017), 8. (Return to text.)