Plato believed writing and rhetoric would degrade our thinking and ethics. We weren’t around in his day, so we can’t compare his baseline to today’s new normal, but we should be able to make some assertions about the ways thinking, ethics, writing, and rhetoric each influence the others. Bear in mind, though, that your lived experience and perspective affect how you will perceive and articulate those relationships, and doing so of course requires you to use language, which we each do in different ways. Plato’s question, then, asks us to look at what influences the other—does writing degrade our thinking? Does thinking enable our writing? Does rhetoric allow us to control our ethics, or do ethics constrain our use of rhetoric? Plato’s values are evident in his complaint, and both are clearly a product of his time. But have we lost things by ignoring his warning?
Furthermore, how can we reach consensus on the effects writing and rhetoric have on thinking and ethics? Can they be sufficiently untangled for us to keep one static while allowing flexibility in the others? For example, can we write one thing that we all agree to but that we all have different thoughts about?
One of the threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2005) of the writing studies discipline is that “writing is embodied cognition.” Composition scholars assert that it’s impossible to separate any writing from the thinking that led to it, and that when we say things like, “put your thoughts on paper,” we’re being more literal than we might realize. The act of writing forces us to arrange our thoughts in a linear structure build around vocabulary we have learned from others. That limits what we can say as well as what we can think. For that matter, the language we use affects our perception of the world around us, so our writing literally shapes our thinking—and vice versa.
Consider communication in modern times. Abraham Lincoln is featured in a popular meme crediting him with warning us not to believe everything we read on the Internet. We know Honest Abe was right, but why? How can we trust him? And for that matter, was Plato right, and how can he be trusted?
These questions ask us to untangle thought from expression. In the case of memes, is that even possible? Are the two sufficiently different that we can consider them separately? For this assignment, let’s test these theories. Let’s use modern tools to discuss modern tools, defending our cultural practices against the accusations of dead white men from 2½ millennia ago. For this assignment, create your own meme to make a claim about modern perceptions of rhetoric. Use that meme in a blog post in which you discuss your thoughts and how they are expressed through the meme you create. Be prepared to share your meme with the class and be able to support the claim you (and your meme) assert.
While your goal is to explain your perspective about writing and thinking to your colleagues using the medium of memes, you have the opportunity to be lighthearted and playful. Can memes show thought? Mood? Shared experience? The more you understand and use the power of your medium, the more effective and interesting you will be.
But then think of how memes don’t work. Recall a time when you saw one but didn’t understand it. Think of the layers of explanation it took for you to feel informed. Consider what KnowYourMeme tells about the origins of what you choose to share—how much shared background in the audience is necessary for the meme to do whatever it is that memes are supposed to do? You might need to explain that to our class, considering the diversity of its members.