Today I ran across this popular Internet image:
It is a prime example of Internet Rhetoric, and while it seems simple, it was created by a professional who knows his work. The image does many things, but its primary intention is to elicit an emotional response in the viewer to shape their thinking and direct it to a specific viewpoint. The specific viewpoint in this case is to support a raise in minimum wage from $7.25 to $11.00. This part is obvious considering the “In support of an $11 minimum wage” badge placed clearly in the right corner beneath the first line of text. Yet it is an extremely important part of the rhetoric because the creator wants the viewer to associate their emotion, their sense of sympathy and simultaneous outrage, with the creator’s wares.
In essence, it immediately promises to relieve them of their outrage and their heartbreak by delivering a solution. There is no waiting around for the viewer to think outside the emotional wave. If the viewer is allowed time, then the emotion abates and the creator loses some of his rhetorical advantage. Therein lies the goal of the salesman, the creator of this rhetoric, but how does he obtain the emotional response he needs?
First he must lay the groundwork. He must gain the viewer’s trust and he must show that the minimum wage is not high enough. The perfect way to do both is by flavoring the rhetoric with dialectic. This dialectic is confined almost solely to the statistical numbers presented in the image: 25% and 1120% respectively. But these alone are not enough… the Internet is rampant with false statistics and false stories, and most who visit the world wide web are aware of the pervasive scams located there, to the point where such numbers are disregarded almost without thought. In some ways, the Internet is a massive extension of the state of Missouri, the “Show-me state.” Words in the vein of “Pics or it didn’t happen,” or even the old joke “70% of statistics are made up” become commonplace in the comment sections. This skepticism is healthy, but it can be taken care of rather easily by citing a semi-legitimate source. In this case, the creator of the rhetoric uses CNN.com, a fairly trusted news site.
Now the creator has piggybacked on CNN’s reputation into a position of trust, rather like a virus piggybacks into a computer system on the shoulders of a downloaded file. The user gets the file they wanted, but they also get the virus. Sadly, they won’t know the virus is there until it’s too late. The viewer sees the statistics are from CNN and therefore assumes that the numbers are legitimate. What must be understood however, is that this dialectic is not being used as dialectic… it is being used as a rhetorical device. And now that it has been successfully used as such to gain the viewer’s trust, anything that follows will be taken at relative face value.
Once the salesman clearly establishes in the viewer’s head that the value of the minimum wage is going down and the cost of tuition is going up, only then does he do the rest. “Trust me,” says the salesman, “you care because the poor people earning minimum wage can’t afford an education to help them escape poverty. Isn’t that terrible? Now buy my wares–it’s the solution.”
And that’s how the salesman gets his pay. He has gotten the viewer’s trust and now he kicks them in the gut. Now they’re feeling emotion they didn’t know they had about the subject. What they don’t realize is that the emotion is manufactured and fabricated on the spot. This principle is the same for all rhetoric and good salesmanship, but in this particular case there is a master stroke.
Notice how the creator of the rhetoric uses the “Condescending Wonka” meme generally used to convey sarcasm. In this case, the carefully crafted caption Tell me more about how poverty-wage workers just need to “get an education”? gets flavored by both the quotation marks indicating someone else’s words and the sarcasm associated with the Wonka meme. The effect is threefold.
First, it establishes a link between high tuition costs and minimum wage and why the viewer should care.
Second, it uses the word “poverty” to capture an even greater measure of compassion from the viewer. They immediately think of Oliver Twist levels of poverty, sweet little orphan kids on the street working hard to survive, or some varying degree of this compassion-grabbing scenario.
Third, it instantly disqualifies the opposing viewpoint by depicting it simultaneously as uncaring, unfair, and based outside of statistical and factual evidence.
The first two are ordinary rhetoric. The third is the master stroke. If your opponent cannot argue against you, then you are the victor by default. This is why those who agree with the overall sentiment of the picture will argue almost solely with emotional subject matter using appeals to “fairness” and compassion in order to claim a moral high ground. After all, who can argue against fairness and compassion? The answer is that you can’t argue with it… at least, not by using the more rational dialectical means. The only way you can combat such rhetoric is to meet it on your own terms by refusing to concede the moral high ground, and by using rhetoric to battle rhetoric. The dialectical element will take care of itself as long as you are on the correct side of logic and reason.
That is the rhetorical analysis. Now let us analyze the nearly absent dialectical component.
Since the creator cites CNN.com as his source for the statistics, I went on a little searching spree. I didn’t have to look very hard before I found that the article cited derived some of its information from yet another source: BuzzFeed. In turn, BuzzFeed used Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower as the source for their article. I went ahead and started watching the one and a half hour long documentary, and within the first fifteen minutes the statistics in question turned up. I almost stopped right there, but it had been a decently interesting beginning and I wanted to watch the entire thing to make sure I didn’t miss anything important. Unfortunately, what ensued could reasonably be labeled a propaganda piece advocating for free education… and the statistical numbers exhibited in the first quarter of an hour were never cited.
And so I was left wondering. Where did those numbers originate? Where did Andrew Rossi discover that the cost of a college degree had risen 1120% since 1978? And wasn’t that fitting for his documentary, so dramatically convenient, that the number was so unbelievably high?
As a result of my speculation I decided to check the numbers directly and went straight to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Center for Educational Statistics to look at their figures and use their inflation calculator. Here is what I found…
From 1977-1978 and from 1978-1979 tuition for a full year of college at all institutions was an average of $2,411 and $2,587 respectively. Because a year in college typically spans two calendar years, I took the average of the two to get the tuition from 1978 alone, which is $2,499. Adjusted for inflation, the current value comes out to be $9,051. In 2012, average tuition for a full year of college at all institutions was $20,392 (also adjusted for inflation). But after calculating, this gives us only a 125% rise in tuition, 995% lower than the figure put forth in the original source, Ivory Tower. Even accounting for the two years difference between 2012 and 2014 would not give us a 1,120% rise in tuition from 1979 to 2014, as tuition only rises about $1,000 every three years. Take note as well, that the tuition I am discussing above is inclusive of room and board. In other words, there are no more fees to take into account for a student paying for college courses. The number I calculated is the number. It’s not getting any bigger.
No, I thought, it cannot be. Surely the documentary maker Andrew Rossi was a stand up guy, surely he was forthright and honest. And for all I can tell, he might be. Because what he says in his documentary is that the price of college is 1120% higher. Not the price of obtaining a college degree. Not the price of tuition. The price of college. So, while the context seemingly indicates otherwise, Andrew Rossi may be an honest man after all. I certainly don’t have all the facts necessary to say conclusively that he is dishonest. (As a side note, the curious number of 1120% is also given on affordableschools.net in an article titled “20 Tuition-Free Colleges.” No mention of this article is made on CNN.com, BuzzFeed, or the documentary. It is a bit unclear if this source is the true originator, but I have my guesses. And it can’t possibly be a coincidence that the same outrageously high number is again used in connection with free education, right?)
In 1978, minimum wage was $2.65, which adjusted for inflation is $9.60. Taking 2014’s minimum wage of $7.25 we can calculate that the value is 24.5% lower than in 1978. That’s 0.5% lower than the number on the meme, but it’s close enough, so no problem there unless you really want to be a stickler. After all, what’s a 0.5% difference compared to a 995% difference?
The tuition number is so exaggerated it’s laughable. It’s like shooting a basketball and missing by a whopping margin of eight feet (was that supposed to be a pass?) instead of scoring a basket. Yet it serves to show that the creator of this image could have put almost any number he wished as long as he pretended to cite a semi-legitimate source. This makes it clear that the salesman was not using a dialectic argument, but a purely rhetorical one.
By now it should be apparent that this Internet picture was intentionally being deceptive. Not only does it play upon the viewer’s emotions, but the information included in it is false. Even though the price has increased 125%, the reason for this is not because of minimum wage. In fact, minimum wage is irrelevant. Tuition costs have risen because of separate factors such as government subsidies, the increased availability of student loans from both federal and private sources, the massive business structure of modern day universities and colleges with all their amenities, facilities, and luxury student housing, their bloated administrative branches, and the grotesquely high salaries of their presidents and provosts—all issues which a single picture on the web cannot possibly discuss properly.
But that is the nature of rhetoric. It readily obscures truth.