The expression is vulgar. It is rude and nasty. It is not used in polite company and censored by most media. Yet, “F-you” is now a rather common political refrain. Actor Robert de Niro stood at the Tony Awards’ podium and yelled “F*** Trump!” For well over four years, Twitter and Instagram trolls (which have their own issues) flooded the airwaves with two-word arguments “F*** You!” Likewise, a motorcade carrying President Trump passed a singular bicyclist who expressed her opinion with a one-finger salute. The media went wild. And the political left is not alone. Since President Biden was elected, stadiums of crazed fans at college football, hockey, baseball, and other venues have started chants “F*** Joe Biden.” This famously morphed into “Let’s Go Brandon” when a reporter tried to gas-light her audience by suggesting the crowd was not yelling what they were actually yelling. Since then, the controversial euphemism has been used over and over again, by pastors in the pulpit and even on a phone call to President Biden himself. One may blush or be embarrassed by the invocation of such slang, but it is making the news.
All of this unfortunate public expression is viewed as further evidence of the nation’s political and social division. Indeed, it may be. Furthermore, there is a great deal of discussion about the lack of civility. Both critiques are true on some level. They are also very historically myopic. Any superficial reading of politics reveals bitter discord and acrimony. And in terms of civility, Andrew Jackson once beat an opponent with a cane, Lincoln was called an “Ape,” Grant a “drunk,” Taft was forced to lose thirty pounds before he could even run for office, Truman threatened to punch a reporter, and Clinton staffers removed the letter “w” from all the white house keyboards after Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000. There is nothing new in the present-day tone of politics. Politicians “playing nice” are probably just “playing politics.” But there is something more striking and important about the actual expression “F*** you.” The real crisis is the rhetoric, not just the sentiment of the phrase. Worse, this “queen” of all curse words and its public acceptance reveals the failure of education and its role in public discourse.
Rhetoric is the artful display of knowledge, logic, and argument expressed in meaningful communication. It is, above all else, an art that skillfully uses various tools to arrange, construct and defend a well-reasoned thesis. Cicero succinctly made this point by saying that rhetoric should “move, instruct and delight.” This is precisely why Rhetoric school is the summation of the trivium and one of the central tenets for the liberal arts. The Christian Classical model is meant to be a solution to the pithy and unconvincing arguments of a divided and dismissive generation.
This mission is a restoration and not a novelty. Rhetoric as a core subject once stood co-equal with literature, history, and other humanities. In the 20th century, the subject was Balkanized into philosophy, sociology, communication and other disciplines and pseudo-disciplines. This unfortunate development is part of the current crisis in public discourse. Granted, there are many other factors that explain the social and political dynamics of the present age, but underlying the mentality of the “F*** you” generation is a failure to synthesize and coherently tie together a wealth of information. Worse, there is no art or delight in the process. In other words, rhetoric once taught students how to collate evidence, formulate a thesis and then present it in a winsome way. This was and is an artistic process that demonstrates respect for the subject matter and love for the audience. A good rhetorician, especially a Christian one, cares about truth to the extent that they believe truth is liberating. They view it as important enough that it is worth convincing and converting their opponents. Underlying the process is a desire to see people captivated by the same beauty, truth, and realities that the speaker knows to be true.
But it is also much more than just a degree of politeness. True Rhetoric is rooted in the love of truth and beauty that demands respect for the subject matter and, more importantly, a concern for the audience. In other words, good rhetoric is part of Jesus’ commandment to “love your enemies.” A rhetorical argument seeks the conversion of an opponent as much as it seeks to simply win the argument. Adam Ellanger makes the point:
As the earliest example of (fairly) large-scale democratic governance, rhetoric played an especially important role in the Greek political sphere. The success of a speaker engaging in public deliberation depended on his skill in the art of persuasion. If the polis was to enact the proposal he advocated, the audience had to be convinced. In other words, success sin the political sphere was bound to the practice of changing minds, an exercise that forms both etymological and conceptual basis of metanoia. – Methanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self
That final word, “metanoia” (conversion), is significant. In this case, it is political, but politics once assumed that polemical agendas depended on a change of heart. Overcoming a disagreement was not simply about getting one’s own way. Rather, the opponent repented from a previously held position. Thus, rhetoric is a form of service to those who hold disreputable or despicable ideas.
“F*** you” is the converse. There is a finality to the expression that ends discussion and rejects argument. It carries not only rejection, but a distaste and disdain for the opposition. There is no longer any effort to engage in the fair or even unfair exchange of ideas. Any and all possibility of conversion or changing a perspective is lost. And this is the real crisis of American education. The slow degradation of logic, the loss of objective truth, and the reduction of beauty to nothing more than carnality have led to the closing of discourse. Allan Bloom predicted this in the 1980s with his classic work The Closing of the American Mind:
The end result is that there can be no more truth or goodness and no need or even the ability to make tough choices. Where the purpose of higher education once was to enable the student to find truth, the modern university teaches that there is no truth only ‘lifestyle.’
Bloom was observing a process which he argued led to a closed mind. A generation or two later and the “F*** you” culture is exhibit A. The tragedy of such closed-mindedness is that it imperils the soul and leaves yet another on a road to condemnation. As much as Christian Classical schools want to be transformational, the real concern should be seeking and saving the lost. Rhetoric as a loving exercise is a necessary and valuable tool in this endeavor and should be treated as more than a ‘trick of the trade.’
The “F*** you” generation is evidence of the fact that a lack of rhetoric is also a lack of love and concern. Not only is the world full of division, it is full of hatred. Classical Schools can combat this tragedy by raising not only the tenor of the American cultural debate but by ensuring that the debate seeks the total conversion of the opposition. This includes loving the opponent to such a degree that the presentation of truth leads to a redemption of the soul.