Through
the series of the telling and retelling of an incident that supposedly occurred
on January 30, 2003, Brian Williams constructed a story that plagued national
headlines on multiple occasions. On several accounts, Williams described a
tense situation during a journalism tour of Iraq as the anchor and managing
editor of MSNBC news, each time seeming to the paint the picture more and more
colorfully than the last. Looking back, it’s evident that facts changed and the
story grew more dramatic with each reciting. The explanation in 2013 was that
he was the passenger of a United States military helicopter, Chinook, that had
“been forced down after being hit by a Rocket-propelled grenade.” He
continued to explain that “Our traveling NBC team was rescued, surrounded and
kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd
Infantry” (Barajas, 2015). It wasn’t until February 5, 2015 that Lance
Reynolds, the flight engineer onboard Chinook when it was shot down in 2003,
posted on Facebook,

“Sorry
dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up
about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened. Then I remember
you guys taking back off in a different flight of Chinooks from another unit
and heading to Kuwait to report your ‘war story’ to the Nightly News. The whole
time we were still stuck in Iraq to repair the aircraft and pulling our own
Security” (Barajas, 2015).

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If Plato were alive today to witness the
unraveling of these events, he certainly would use the characters of Phaedrus and Gorgias to enlighten readers about the uses and misuses of
rhetoric, specifically Socrates and Gorgias. Plato would use these works and the mentioned characters to make
this point because it would highlight the juxtaposition between a variety of
rhetorical views—despite his “art” being philosophy and not rhetoric. It would
begin with Socrates scoffing at Gorgias and would use William’s
“misremembering” as evidence against him in their argument about the
consequences of rhetoric.

First, it is important to note that Plato
painted Socrates as one who strongly believed that oratory rhetoric is trivial—an
opinion Plate would strongly agree with. He claimed that simply relying on
verbal language to persuade an audience and to build emotion without
philosophical backing and sub sequential truth and knowledge, is superficial.

In other words, there is little skill, pride, or virtue in intentionally (or
not) misguiding an audience in their understanding of a “truth” with no other
backing besides confidence, especially for the sake of imposing power over the
listeners—as we have seen the character, Gorgias, accomplish in other works by
Plato. Immediately, he would point out the corrupt use of “rhetoric” that
Williams took part in. He would say that the misrepresentation of the reported
“facts” was irresponsible and not virtuous.

During the dialog between Socrates and
Gorgias, as dictated by Plato, they would come to an agreement that there are
two types of persuasion: one that ‘provides belief without knowing,’ while the
other actually provides knowledge. This means that the first form of persuasion
is based on the audience’s blind following of false (as mentioned above) or
actual “beliefs,” while the latter extends the understanding of truth and
knowledge to the audience. “Knowledge is better than true belief, which is
better than false belief, and more knowledge is better than less knowledge” (Chadwick,
2014).

Plato’s Gorgias confesses, that rhetoric
can then only produces true belief and false belief, and not knowledge; meaning
that rhetoric can only be that of the first type of persuasion. This equates to
the understanding that rhetoric is powerless to imposing knowledge on
listeners, but consequentially has the ability to impose false belief instead.

Gorgias’s statement concludes that Plato believes knowledge is only attainable,
then through indisputable facts.

This was the case in the Brian Williams’
scandal. Through the delivery of his rhetoric, which we now know to contain untruthful
utterance, the audience absorbed the false beliefs of his story. It likely
stems from his role as a trusted news anchor in the eyes of the American people
and would suggest an understanding to why falsehoods can easily be misunderstood
as fact and knowledge. The scenario highlights the ‘evil’ in rhetoric.

Gorgias, according to Plato, would say
his use of rhetoric, even for ‘evil,’ was effective until the falsehood of the
beliefs he publicized where exposed by knowledge—undisputable accuracy with
physical and sufficient evidence.

Meanwhile, Socrates would defend the
people who were mislead by William’s lies and stand up for the soldiers who
were affected by the incident.  As previously
mentioned, Plato is very much apposed to false rhetoric and using the art to
negatively impact the hearer. He would say that this instance is a perfect
example for why we must protect our own from the evil consequences of rhetoric,
especially injustice, through means of education.

At this point, Plato would confirm his
personal beliefs on the proper use of rhetoric through the words of Socrates,
reiterating that un-evil (good) rhetoric is instilled through knowledge, and
virtue—which he correlates with knowledge.  Plato claims that since sophists “appeal only
to what seems probable, they are not advancing their students and audiences,
but simply flattering them which that they want to hear” (Chadwick, 2014).

Again, this perfectly associates with
William’s story. Though he claims to have genuinely misremembered the events
from such a traumatic experience, it is more likely that he fell victim to the
convenience of evil rhetoric. In his public apology, Williams said, “I don’t
know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft in
another” (McCarthy, 2015). Though it is speculation, it would not be
far fetched to assume he got caught up in his own story and the act of telling
it. It is human nature to juice up our stories when sharing them with others,
adding dramatic pauses and changing minor details. We learned fro the reactions
of our audience and make “corrections” to our story telling for future
reference. The process of reshaping and supplementing story details is not
always a conscious decision either. When Williams said that he doesn’t know
what caused him to change up his story, it may actually have been the truth. It
is possible that subconsciously gave the audience what he they wanted to hear
and unintentionally reaped the benefits. The benefits consisted of a responsive
and interested audience, honor and a successful story to tell. With little
known reason to doubt the, twenty-third-most-trusted man in American (Steel
& Somaiya, 2015) at the time, many viewers were sitting at the edge of
their seats scarfing down every last bit of false belief Plato would use
Gorgias to highlight this argument. It is evidence that, perhaps, rhetoric—even
when categorized as evil—is not always with harmful intentions.

If Plato were to use this instance as an
example of the damaging effects of rhetoric, especially with the intent to
deceive an audience, his argument would be very effective. Additionally, it would
be strengthen by a backbone of knowledge, which he would no doubtingly riddle
the argument with. Socrates would do the work to prove his point with facts, statistics and reliable source to make
his point, while further discrediting ‘rhetoric’ as an art.

However, from a holistic point of view,
his argument would be a ‘Texas sharpshooter’ logical fallacy, in which he
essentially cherry picking instance to further prove his case. The Brian
Williams controversy is a great example of how rhetoric can be used negatively
and the consequences of such, but that doesn’t equate to all rhetoric being
bad.

However, many rhetoricians would claim
that rhetoric could convey knowledge. It would be much easier to argue from
Locke’s perspective and claim the authentic truth can never be fully
communicated through speech because of the fundamental flaws in the uses of
perception (Locke). He states that the use to record our own thought is perfect because it’s shaped by our
individual and deeply personal. While using words to communicate thoughts to
others is imperfect, since different
words have different imbedded meaning in every individual. From my perspective,
even this theory can only extend to error in communicating the non-physical.

Meaning, that one could perfectly describe
the reasoning for two plus two equaling four, or other indisputable facts,
using science and rhetoric. That knowledge
would be understood by the audience from the same perspective as the
rhetorician explaining the math equation.

To conclude, while Socrates’ effort to
provide the consequences of rhetoric are commendable, and in the instance
provided, accurate, his theory is only applicable in specific situations. His
community-oriented consideration is commendable, and should be followed as a
model for using rhetoric positively. Meaning that, from a citizen’s
perspective, Socrates is trying to prevent a rhetorician from tainting the sense
of “knowledge” and “belief” with false pretenses, especially if it’s being done
with intent.

As a philosopher, Plato’s opinions of the
damaging affects of rhetoric are apparent in his past works, including Phaedrus and Gorgias. His opinion whould not sway when analyzing the actions of
Brian Williams when he “misremembered” events that occurred while reporting in
Iraq. His distaste for rhetoric is relevant throughout his works, for example,
in Phaedrus, Socrates asks,

“And
when the orator instead of putting an ass in the place of a horse, puts good
for evil, being himself as ignorant of their true nature as the city on which
he imposes is ignorant; and having studied the notions of the multitude,
falsely persuades them not about ‘the shadow of an ass,’ which he confounds
with a horse, but about good which he confounds with evil,—what will be the
harvest which rhetoric will be likely to gather after the sowing of that seed?”
(Pheadrus).

 

Plato
would use Brian Williams as a prime example of evil rhetoric and the
consequences when arguing against Gorgias. He would state that rhetoric cannot
provide knowledge and has the negative ability to soil an audience with false
beliefs.