Rhetoric and the truth claims of documentaries

Rhetoric is the art of organizing words in such a way that they have an effect. At times, this effect can be to achieve a certain outcome, i.e. to persuade someone of a course of action. At other times, it can be to make someone come around to a point of view. Most of the time, it is merely to achieve clarity where there previously was none. Clarity is an underappreciated effect to achieve, and more often than not simply being able to boil down a message to its most basic and easily understood form can rescue a situation from much untold strife. Getting everyone on the same page, even if only so they can disagree more constructively, is a superpower in disguise.

The organizing of words is not contained to writing or a speech, however. It does not even begin there. It begins in one’s head, as a method of making sense of things. It is a function of paying attention to how things fit together, and how they can be made to relate to one another. Everything is related to everything else, and every connexion is a potential line of argument. Most relations are tenuous or non-intuitive, and can be safely put aside in search of better ones. Eventually, after having looked at enough possible connexions and discarding enough bad ones, what remains is a few potential ways of organizing the words such that they can be understood. What follows from this process is a lot of bad ways to put something, and a few good ones. The key is to select something from the good category.

This organization of thought and narrowing down of possible alternatives to a few good ones is often pitted against a natural, intuitive way of going about figuring out what to say. Rhetoric is the art of lying, it is often said, and a person’s true thoughts & feelings are expressed spontaneously, without prompt or preamble. Indeed, it is maintained, the more one thinks about something the less truthful it becomes. At length, this line of argument ends up saying that the process of choosing one’s words cannot but end up in dishonesty; whatever truth was to be found in spontaneity is lost once the moment has passed, leaving only the malingering specter of doubt. It is a line of thinking as silly as it is wide-spread.

The thing of it is, it is seldom clear what the most effective, truthful or proper way of saying something is. If someone asks for direction to a place, is it best to describe the route by means of street names, landmarks or numbers of turns left/right? All three options lead to the destination, and it is unclear whether one is more truthful than the other. The criterion of spontaneous honesty does not give us any guidance as to which to choose, and would only serve to induce anxiety in those who are not able to make a choice right there on the spot. If we allow ourselves to ponder whether the asker is familiar with the local street names, can remember an abstract list of left/right turns, or would be best served by the most concrete visual input the city has to offer – then we are in a better position to pick the most appropriate option.

From this, we can gather that rhetoric is the art of figuring out what is useful to say. What flows from the heart is not always the most informative of thoughts, and saying it reflexively might at times lead to confusion. By organizing one’s thoughts in relation to the overall situation, it becomes possible to be a more constructive participant in the conversation. It streamlines the process, as it were.

This brings us to documentaries, who – much like spontaneous honesty – are assumed to be bearers of unmediated truth. If something is presented in the form of a documentary, then it is generally assumed to be the true story. This follows both from convention, and from the fact that many generations of film making has established the genre as an effective vehicle for conveying information. Form and function go together, leading to a very persuasive mode of presentation.

However, just as in the above example of asking directions, there are always multiple ways of arriving at a certain truth. Documentaries do not spring fully formed out of nothing; they are structured around an organizing principle which puts things in relation to one another. The organizing principle was chosen at some point during production, and then executed in the form of the finished product. Whatever the choice, there were always other ways of presenting the information that were not chosen. And, conversely, if one of those other options were picked, then we would end up not picking the first option. Neither of them are false, but at the same time are neither of them the whole truth. They are equally and both at once, choices. (Here, Booth would make an amused aside about the need for an infinite number of documentaries, to cover all bases.)

This places us in a tricky spot when it comes to evaluating the truth claims of documentaries. Or, rather, it makes the truth somewhat orthogonal to the choice of organizing principle. Any given choice is bound to have advantages over another, with corresponding disadvantages. The difference is one of emphasis rather than of veracity, which is an important difference, but – and this is the point of this text – we can not arrive at a constructive criticism the significance of this difference if we talk about it in terms of true and/or false. Truth is not the issue; the mode of presentation is.

The purpose of rhetoric is to organize words so as to arrive at clarity. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for documentaries. As a critical reader and/or viewer, your task is to evaluate the organizing principle to see where it places its emphasis. Should you find that there is an alternate organizing principle, then you are richer for knowing it, and can proceed to compare & contrast until interesting nuggets of insight emerge. These nuggs will, no doubt, be useful in your upcoming attempts to find something useful to say. –

Rhetoric and the truth claims of documentaries