In his Oscar winning An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President Al Gore has presented an impassioned appeal to inform and change public opinion on global warming. The film is essentially a speech given with the assistance of visual slides, or oral rhetoric combined with visual rhetoric. In studying Sophist rhetoric, I find that many ideas that were conceived thousands of years ago are relevant today, and can be illuminated by using a contemporary example: the greatest use of Power Point, ever.
In his essay “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric,” John Poulakos calls rhetoric “the art which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible” (26). In other words, rhetoric concerns itself with the how, the when, and the what of expression and understands the why of purpose. In the case of An Inconvenient Truth, the how is a cinematic version of Al Gore’s slide show concerning global warming filmed in front of a live audience. It also concerns the way in which the information, the what, is arranged and presented. The when is now, or more specifically 2006, and the why is obvious to anybody who knows much about Al Gore and/or global warming: to raise awareness of a growing problem and incite viewers to make changes that will help remedy the problem.
Many have argued that there is often an emphasis in Sophist rhetoric on the how over the what, that can signal misplaced values. In other words, style becomes more than substance and therefore sometimes people can be persuaded by smooth rhetoric into doing something that may not be in their best interests. (Thomas Frank wrote a very interesting book on this topic called What’s the Matter With Kansas? in 2004.) In the case of Gore’s movie, it has been argued that he misleadingly presents the facts to promote a conclusion that isn’t based on the evidence.
Poulakos later asserts that if “it is agreed that what is said must be said somehow, and that the how is a matter of the speaker’s choice, then style betrays the speaker’s unique grasp of language and becomes the peculiar expression of his personality” (27). This is obvious when watching the film, seeing Al Gore relaxed and funny as he talks about the defining issue of his career. It is hard to reconcile his previous characterization as a cardboard, monotonous drone with the relaxed, self-confident man who has connected with so many people over this issue. The style of this film, this speech, really does represent the ‘peculiar expression’ of Gore’s personality.
Sophists also felt that the use of rhetoric implied a temporal choice. The fact that a person is speaking now, versus some other time because he has chosen this moment over another, reminds the listener that the situation is “ephemeral, urgent, and, by implication, significant” (28). They felt that the notion of kairos points out that timeliness can be the crux on whether an argument is good or bad. In the Dissoi Logoi, the author states that “all things are seemly when done at the right moment, but shameful when done at the wrong moment” (50). For An Inconvenient Truth to have been so effective, Al Gore has obviously used timeliness to his advantage. The world is now more aware of the effects of global warming than at any other, and there is an audience already amenable to hearing his message. However, the notion of kairos would also include Gore himself, noticing that he waited six years after the contentious 2000 election to stand at the forefront again. As time had passed, he had done little things to remain in the public consciousness, but he picked the correct moment to give his message on the big stage. Imagine, for instance, the response to this movie had it been made in the summer of 2001. The American public would not have given Gore the time to speak to them, despite the fact that most of his information was available at that time. The message was presented at the right time and the presenter picked the right time to reemerge into the greater public discourse.
In conjunction with kairos, Sophists also had the concept of prepon, or the appropriate, which meant that what is said must conform to both audience and occasion. While the two are closely related, they are different. Was Gore doing presenting any different information during his time in the Senate when he grilled officials in hearings? Perhaps not, but it wasn’t directed to an audience that was amenable to what he was saying, and it wasn’t at a time when he could be heard by the people who could make a difference. It might seem counterintuitive to think that members of the Senate couldn’t make a difference, but as they were unwilling to hear, they were unable to act. Gore was able to tailor his message to the average person in the movie, creating a discourse that operated on a level that was easily accessible to everyone. The audience was willing to listen, evidenced by the very fact that they spent their money on tickets.
By forcing his audience to see what the world will be like in fifty years if global warming isn’t contained, Gore allows one to imagine what the world could be like if things change. As Poulakos writes, it intensifies in the viewer “the awareness that actuality is hostile to what he wishes and, as such, denies its existence” (30). To envision that a change is possible and preferable is only the first step, Sophists would claim. Good rhetoric would refine the viewer’s wishes and show him how to apply them, what to ask, and whom to reach. This is where there is a weakness in An Inconvenient Truth. So much time is spent diagnosing the problem and giving credentials to that argument that the call to action is almost an afterthought. Ideas for things a viewer could do to help prevent further global warming are presented in conjunction with the movie’s credits. There is also the obligatory official website that viewers are urged to visit. I believe that Sophists would call his argument less than perfect due to this fact.
However, Gore does succeed, in my opinion, in “asking the audience to discover at least one reason why the conclusion suggested should not be the case” (32). Even if viewers ultimately reject the argument, An Inconvenient Truth has still forced them to consider the question and ultimately moved them from accepting actuality uncritically. They have been forced to examine the evidence, as Gore presents it.
While this is far from an exhaustive Sophist examination of the movie, using such a case study can be beneficial to understanding the more abstract ideas we are examining. All citations are from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, except for the Dissoi Logoi, which is contained in The Rhetorical Tradition.