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Let’s approach from the outside-in, being as we are part of the existing, enveloping context – that is, we all comprise, together, and contribute to the context in which we exist. Believing that we’re spectators observing from Row 12 is delusional, as if observing the Earth’s sphere while standing on it were possible, as compared to some other vantage. Even so, sometimes I’ve found the biggest hurdle to overcome is the belief that I’m watching a movie or wearing a virtual reality visor, observing the various goings-on in day-to-day life as opposed to being a contributor. So, to begin as far as rhetoric is concerned, context is everything because it comprises everyone.
That said, though, every one of us exists rather oddly in precisely the same way as every other one of us: individually, subjectively. Biased. It’s inescapable, a condition we’re obliged to accept, so crucially, each of us must not simply acknowledge and account for our bias but welcome and, more importantly, control it. For that reason, I don’t speak of bias pejoratively but rather as a descriptive trait, one that changes as we age and learn, even if “change” is just to lean more in the same direction.
Given our context – everyone enveloped by contributing mutual influences of all kinds – we’re constantly assessing and learning and facing decisions, and for that reason, I believe bias is best considered dynamic, changing not only over time but fluctuating, buffering, and whispering continually in our ears, a potent energy, our source of passion and opinion and vision. Our perspective. So, as I say, it must be controlled, preferably in a culture of respect for other people, because bias marshalled by responsible morality can actually enrich our collective experience.
Now, where my sense of bias connotes a sense of learned, dynamic belief as compared to innate individual awareness, I’ve long opted to distinguish between the former as biased and the latter as selfish, by which I mean, literally, of oneself. Here we go again… as with bias, I don’t mean selfish pejoratively (as in “you can’t have my ice cream!”) but rather more literally as you are you, yourself, something no one else could ever be, just as I am me, myself, something no one else could ever be. For each person, there’s me, all that’s internal and within, selfish, and there’s not me, all that’s external and without, which I call selfless (although that word, too, connotes something altruistic and unnecessary for this particular discussion).
Such punctilious distinctions! but at least we have a frame-of-reference. Bottom line: context is no simple, singular, static thing. Context is everything. Still, it’s apparently just concise enough to decorate a t-shirt.
What is static is a given text. By “text,” I include everything from writing and speech and body language to visual art and music and physical performance to architecture and manufactured goods and engineering, and so to encompass every creative human endeavour – if people have said it, done it, designed it, built it, heard it, consumed it, used it, or otherwise been enabled because of prior human efforts or intentions of one kind or another, then I call that medium a text. With students, to stress the point simply, I put it this way: “If it’s people, it’s rhetoric.” Yet our creations, interactions, and responses, our texts, are each one snapshot-moment. The words in a book, now published and resting on the shelf, cannot be changed. A hot meal, served and placed before us, is already cooling by the time it’s devoured. A coffee shop conversation, cheerful and relaxed, is soon another good memory. A suspension bridge, crowded with traffic as rush hour inches across, stands as erected for decades, undergoing maintenance but otherwise durable, fixed, and unchanging. All our texts, for their reality in-the-moment and their on-going permanence, are still static moments circumscribed by space or time. What changes over time is us. Again, if you’ll forgive the simplification: texts denote; it’s people that connote.
It’s a good place to halt this look at context and narrow the focus slightly by considering the three constituents in the rhetorical relationship: the author, the text, and the audience.