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The Word of the Year Is: Sophistry
Well, it deserves to be anyway
Dictionary editors love picking the word of the year. It can’t be just any word, but must be something emblematic of the era. That’s how we got words of the year like binge-watch (2015) or vape (2014) or tweet (2009) or subprime (2007).
Just using those words brings a pleasant shiver down the spine. You feel like you are happening now, and not yesterday’s news (both of which were probably words of the year back in the 1960s).
There are at least a half dozen different organizations that pick a word of the year. But I want to join their ranks. Because I have a better word of the year than any of them
My word of the year is: sophistry.
Hey, don’t look at me like that. What’s that you’re saying? You never hear anyone talk about sophistry, so how can it be the word of the year?
That’s technically true. If I look at the use of the word ‘sophistry’ over time, I find that it reached its peak around the year 1800.
But don’t be misled by how seldom the word is actually spoken—because sophistry is a lot like Fight Club. The first rule of any sophist is not mentioning that they are a sophist.
In truth, sophists are everywhere—although they don’t wear a badge proclaiming the fact. But they do tend to hang together in groups, which is one telltale sign. Almost instinctively, sophists tend to seek out other sophists as part of their daily routine.
But what are they, really?
We need to go back to the ancient Greeks to come up with a working definition of sophistry. And as soon as I start describing it, you will nod your head in agreement. You will realize that sophistry really must be word of the year—because it’s even more popular than binge-watching and selfie sticks put together.
I know that this way of spinning and twisting words is part of everyday political discourse. But the first time I saw it in music criticism, I was dumbfounded.
And it’s not surprising that sophists should be so active nowadays. The history of sophistry reveals that it is closely aligned with the rise of democracy, especially unruly and disordered democracy. Thus the Sophists exerted enormous influence in ancient Greece during the late fifth century BC, when they played decisive roles in many settings, especially legal proceedings and political gatherings.
Below is a definition of the sophist, drawn mostly from Plato and Aristotle—who feared the tremendous influence of these public figures.
The sophists, unlike philosophers, do not pursue the truth, but only master the art of persuasion.
In a very real sense, talking is their vocation, although you might guess otherwise from their rhetoric, which invariably promises more than any sophist will ever deliver.
Despite the shallowness of their thinking, sophists have far more influence than honest and serious thinkers, especially in matters of politics and policy. This is because the sophist’s rhetoric is always shaped by what their audience wants to hear.
For that same reason, sophists will avoid painful truths that run counter to popular demand. Addressing hard truths is bad for their business.
Sophists are frequently deceivers and sometimes outright charlatans, whose goal is to make people believe whatever they want—and thus, according to Plato and Aristotle, they are responsible for a large portion of the public holding false beliefs.
If necessary, a sophist can actually argue both sides of any issue—and thus has the skill to make the bad seem good, or evil look like justice.
They are often aligned with the rich and powerful, and have a knack for making money from their abilities.
In the words of one classicist, the end result is a powerful group of influencers (as we would call them today) who are “crudely self-serving” and “frivolously manipulative.”
Yet the sophists remain popular despite all these obvious warning signs. That’s no coincidence, because the sophists practice a vocation that deliberately aims at enriching and empowering the possessor of sophistical skills.
You are all nodding your heads now. So you’ve met some sophists too?
How could you not, they do more talking than anyone else in society. That’s one of the fastest ways to identify them. Just measure who talks the most and does the least, and you’re already on their scent.
Even more to the point, they can train young people to do the same. Their rhetorical tricks aren’t very hard to learn (although using them slickly and convincingly takes a while to master). Thus the ancient sophists were in great demand in Athens as teachers for the children of the wealthy.
And this makes perfect sense, if you think about it. Many important jobs require skills in sophistry. So don’t complain if students are learning it in school—it’s actually a marketable credential.
The only reason it’s not mentioned specifically on the CV is that first rule of sophistry club.
I’m not naïve. Even if I’m not really happening now, I have been around the block a few times—so I know that this way of spinning and twisting words is part of everyday political discourse. It’s so prevalent you can’t conduct a public discussion on politics without encountering it within minutes.
But I didn’t expect to see sophistic techniques spread to every other sphere of society—including my own. Yet it has.
The first time I saw it in music criticism, I was dumbfounded.
This happened eight years ago. I had written a hard-hitting article about our music culture—and readers loved it, but some people with institutional affiliations felt threatened by my comments. So they responded.
But how they responded was new to me. I’m used to disagreement, but in this instance my sly critics avoided any direct response to what I’d written. They wouldn’t even quote what I said. In fact, they scrupulously avoided quoting my article. Instead they distorted and spun my words like I was a candidate for office and they were a squad of rival political operatives. By the time they were done they had attributed ridiculous, idiotic opinions to me—views with no resemblance in the least to what I had written or believe.
And at this juncture I was genuinely naïve. I assumed I could clear things up by pointing to what I’d actually written in my article. But, as I soon learned, this had no effect whatsoever—these institutional parrots, as they soon made clear, had no interest in responding to my actual views. They wanted to take me down, and could only pull this off by constructing a crude and ridiculous parody of my position.
I’m still dumbfounded by all this. I can understand spinning and distorting when actual power and prerogative is at stake. I don’t condone it, but I grasp why it is happening. But why would anyone do this when discussing songs?
This is like telling a lie about the ingredients in a casserole. Or pretending that your losing team won the World Series. Or insisting that night is day.
But in the current sophistic environment, people are prepared to do just that.
I remember someone advising me on social media to avoid engaging a certain person in dialogue. My friend told me: “Beware of [name omitted], because once he gets started he will insist that water isn’t wet.”
I laughed at that description. Can you really do that? Hey, once you learn a few sophistic rules, it’s easy.
Stop acting like a dimwit, Ted. You certainly know that at certain temperatures, water achieves a solidity in which all moisture is absent. So when you claim that water is wet, you’re the one who’s all wet. Conversely, at higher temperatures, the water enters a gaseous state. So if you persist in denying that, Ted, you’re full of gas yourself. Etc. etc. etc.
Voilá—water isn’t wet.
You’re nodding your heads again. So you’ve met people like that too?
Of course you have. They’re everywhere. They take showers in the morning and don’t even need to towel off, because their water isn’t wet.
In all fairness to my critics, I don’t think they were deliberately trying to mislead. The fact that they were practicing these rhetorical tricks—which we call sophistry—was simply due to the fact that this is how all disagreements are handled nowadays.
I fear it’s so pervasive that no sphere of society is unaffected. Even married couples probably practice sophistry in their household arguments.
And this is sad, because this style of discourse makes everyone angrier and angrier. No one likes criticism, but how much worse when the attacks aren’t even focused on reality, but rely on the most blatant manipulation of words?
At that juncture, genuine communication becomes impossible. I’m not even referring to finding agreement or reaching a compromise—which don’t even figure as goals anymore. Just having an honest dialogue has disappeared, because both parties prefer a sophistic monologue.
While researching this article, I reviewed the academic literature on sophistry. What I found surprised me, but really shouldn’t have.
The sophists are having a revival.
The experts are defending them—and in particular giving them credit for anticipating the linguistic turn in contemporary thinking. Even better, the ancient sophists are the original source for the key tenets of postmodern philosophy. It’s their critics who are all wet and full of gas. The sophists are happening now, at least judging by peer-reviewed papers.
The sophists were apparently the first to grasp (long before Derrida) that truth doesn’t exist, and that everything boils down to linguistic games. And they also understood (long before Foucault), that the goal of manipulating words is to assert dominance and power.
You might even say that the sophists were laying the groundwork for our post-truth society. And they were doing it 2,500 years ago.
And that’s why Plato spends so much energy in his dialogue Sophist on a bizarre argument. The main focus of this text is to prove that false beliefs exist.
When I first read Sophist, I was bored to tears by this. What a waste of time, I thought. It’s obvious that false beliefs exist. If I say Santa Claus lives at the North Pole or that Steve Buscemi is heavyweight champion of the world, I am clearly stating a false belief.
Why was Plato so concerned with proving something so obvious?
But now I understand exactly why Plato was focused on this. He was engaged in fierce debate with sophists, who controlled many positions of power in his society, but they were so slippery that he couldn’t even get into genuine discussion over the rightness or wrongness of their views. The sophists simply refused to acknowledge those categories. Instead, they operated beyond the dictates of truth and falsity—where nobody could refute their rhetorical arguments.
There was a time when I would have laughed at the notion of people debating issues without caring about right or wrong—merely using words to assert domination and control power. Maybe that happens in a tyranny, but you would never find that strange practice in a democracy.
Or would you?
But I’ve learned better. Sophistry is not only thriving in our democracy, but it has become the actual engine driving the system. And it can’t be a coincidence that the sophists gained influence at the very birth of Western democracy. Don’t get me wrong—I support rule by the people, but this insinuation of manipulative rhetoric into every sphere of public life must be seen as a flaw in the system.
The end result is a sophistic mindset so pervasive that it even impacts how we talk about music and movies and everything else—probably even the most intimate matters on the home front.
Yes, you can even be a sophist in the bedroom.
I don’t like it. Not one bit. I’d love to see our smartest people go after sophistry, the way Plato and Aristotle did back in ancient Greece.
But I will make one concession. Yes, sophistry is divisive. It’s ugly. It promotes muddled thinking and close-minded ways. But it absolutely deserves to be word of the year.
Let’s get rid of it, and next year we can go back to selfie sticks and binge-watching. Or, if that’s too much to hope for, let’s at least start talking honestly about this matter—ignoring that first rule of sophistry club, a group that thrives on not calling things by their true names. Because even that small step toward honest dialogue can be a role model and powerful corrective.