Rhetoric 101: Clickbait

It's a funny thing about writing. Everyone wants to take it literally. And not just those Bible-thumping rednecks (a.k.a. Presbyterians) everyone loves to hate.

Even colleagues in my academic department struggle with this problem, as witnessed at the panel that they participated in two weeks ago on "Understanding the Trump Phenomenon," when one of the graduate students stumped them with the question, "What news sources can we trust?" As I have argued, this is one of those questions to which the only answer is "None!" But my colleagues struggled with it nevertheless, suggesting by their very struggle that there should be some source that one could refer to without having to question its authority. Like, for example, the Bible.

But of course there isn't. Not even--as medieval commentators on the Scriptures knew all too well but modern historical-critical interpreters seem to have forgotten in their on-going search for the literal meaning of Scripture--the Scriptures. Not because the authors of the Scriptures or any other text necessarily set out to deceive, but because every text, like every use of language ever, is designed as a rhetorical act, that is, an exercise in persuasion.

Do you doubt me? Do you notice what I did right there? I used a question to get your attention. Now why would I do that? Because without your attention there is nothing I can do with my words. That's right. Nothing.

(Which, by the by, is why cyber-bullying really can't be a thing, as Milo likes to say. It only works if you give the bullies your attention, which you can always refuse by not opening their messages. Curious how hard it is not to, isn't it? And, yes, I was bullied as a child; I know what it feels like to be physically threatened by my peers. Back in my day, bullies used written notes shoved under the front door to the house. Which I always opened, don't ask me why.)

So if I want to get your attention without having to hit you, what can I do? First rule of rhetoric: capture the audience's attention. There are a number of ways you can do this. Robert Cialdini calls them techniques of "pre-suasion," but in rhetorical terms they are as old as time, or at the very least, Cicero.

Sex and violence are two of the most familiar. A beautiful woman, a handsome man, a threat to one's personal safety. Others are more subtle: a change in the environment or some other contrast with the usual. Others work even when we are aware of them, almost in spite of ourselves.

Remember those notes that the bullies gave me? Why did I read them? Because they were addressed to me. As Cialdini puts it: "There is no question that information about the self is an exceedingly powerful magnet of attention." Even painful information. Even information that one knows is coming from a hostile source.

A pause. "Unfinished tasks are the more memorable, hoarding attention so they can be performed and dispatched successfully." They are, if you will, questions, openings, mysteries to be solved. Leave them hanging...and they will hang on your every word.

Stories do this particularly well, posing a problem for the characters to resolve. Good teachers know this, as does Donald Trump. Cialdini focuses on mystery stories, stories beginning with a puzzle to solve. Equally gripping are stories that set up some kind of conflict or tension. "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...  It is a period of civil war."

In Cicero's words: "We shall have attentive hearers by promising to discuss important, new, and unusual matters, or such as appertain to the commonwealth, or to the hearers themselves, or to the worship of the immortal gods." The gods, you will recall, were always fighting, fucking, or threatening to curse their worshippers. Sex and violence were gripping even in Cicero's day.

Do you still doubt me? Prove me wrong. Find me a headline that you clicked on that did not employ one or another of these devices. Find me a novel that you kept reading after the first sentence that did not set up a mystery or conflict. Find me an academic article that you read just because you wanted to that did not begin with a question, stated or implied.

Conversely, think of a speaker whose words you did not hang on. Who put you to sleep rather than engaging your interest. Who left you feeling that you had heard it all before, that it had nothing to do with you; who raised no questions, said nothing memorable; who failed utterly to capture your attention.

Now think about what it is like when an author or speaker gains your trust and attention. What has he or she done? In academic speak, we talk about making our arguments relevant, which is just a fancy way of saying, getting our readers involved. We promise novelties ("ground-breaking research"), make threats ("lack of understanding"), set up conflicts with our fellow scholars (a.k.a. those who misunderstood) or sometimes the culture at large (everybody else who misunderstands).

We kid ourselves, that is, whenever we claim to be speaking "neutrally" or, worse, "objectively," as if we have no stake in whether our audience pays attention to us.

Thus, arguably, the appeal of the themes to which it seems like my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences cannot help but be drawn: sex, violence, the Self. Not to mention the enduring appeal of race, class, and gender as the moral equivalents of civil war.

We do not read the news because we already know it. We read it because, as its name implies, it is new. The problem is, we wouldn't read it at all if it had not somehow captured our attention. We read it because it has posed some kind of question or made us aware of some kind of threat. We read it because in some way we take it personally as affecting ourselves.

We read it, in other words, because the author has persuaded us that it is somehow about us, even when the events or people it describes live hundreds or thousands of miles away, perhaps even in a different country. Thus, arguably, the anguish in the student's question: "What news sources can we trust?" If we are reading the news at all, we have already been sucked into the story, convinced that the conflict is real, that the stakes are mortal and the battle begun.

And yet, as the medieval commentators on the Scriptures knew, the stakes are mortal and the battle began long before we were born.

"Eat," the serpent promised. "And you shall become like gods, knowing good and evil." And the man and woman ate, and knew they were naked. And they were greatly ashamed.

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