July 06, 2018

Reading for the Wrong Audience

Am I speaking to the right audience?
Of the courses I took in college, the ones I enjoyed the most were public speaking and persuasive writing, and among the most important lessons I took away from those courses is not only the importance of understanding to a select audience, but also of understanding when another presenter is speaking for a specific audience (and whether or not I'm a member of that audience.) My choice of vocabulary, the way that I frame an subject, and how I position myself will change radically depending on whether I'm speaking for a general or specific audience. If I'm speaking or writing for a general audience, then I'll use high-frequency words or concepts, assume the audience has little to no prior knowledge of the subject, and avoid niche terminology. Conversely, if I'm speaking to a select audience that's familiar with the subject, then I can move deeper into a niche, use terminology known to the audience to save time, and use particular concepts or phrases which hold special meaning.

A perfect example of this is a real gem of an essay written by Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz in which he's speaking to a Jewish audience and warning them against practicing Tarot which has recently gained in popularity. Now, when I call this essay a "gem" it's not because it's simply marvelous, but because it's like the perfect storm of bad jokes: "Did you hear the one about a rabbi, conspiracy theorist, and idiot who walked into a bar? He hit his head." This essay is just delightful because Adam manages to not only demonstrate how to speak to a select audience, but while doing so he also manages to invoke I think every stereotype about Tarot and Tarot readers that I can name.

Adam's essay opens with an appeal to authority by citing Leviticus 19:26, and you might be uncertain whether he thinks that this prohibition against fortune-telling applies only to people who care about Hebraic law, but his opening paragraph makes it pretty clear that he thinks it's a universal law for all people everywhere because it's part of "setting the stage for the Messianic showdown [between] Good and Evil [which are] clearly defined." Right off the bat, Adam's drawing lines in the sand and wants you to know that he's only speaking to the better half... which of course is also his half.

Another way that Adam shows he's speaking to a select audience is in his explanation for why fortune-telling is evil: the Torah says so. Do you get the circular reasoning of his primary argument? Fortune-telling is evil because the Torah says that fortune-telling is evil because the Torah says that fortune-telling is evil. Boy, it's tiresome running around in circles like this, but it's an instructive exercise if only because it reveals that Adam is speaking to people who respond to appeals to authority -- an argumentative fallacy, but why let logic get in the way?

When Adam can bother to stretch for a better explanation about why fortune-telling is evil, he pulls out that old chestnut about how fortune-telling is "anti-divine" and is presumed to side-step the will of God. Now, let it be said that fortune-telling need not be "anti-divine" so long as the practitioner doesn't attempt to question or interrogate God (that privilege is given to another.) If the practitioner wants to ask about mundane stuff, go ahead!, but piercing the veil and trying to claim supreme knowledge? That's so Satanic, don'ch'know. But then, if Adam is that kind of Jew who believes that attempting to gain any knowledge before God sees damned well fit to reveal it to you -- or to do anything at all that side-steps the authority of the priesthood (or denies them their Godly subscription fees) -- well, I guess there's no getting around that now, is there? Apparently, fortune-telling's is perceived as a threat by entrenched priesthoods who fear that a deck of cards would supplant their divine authority, and is for this reason "considered one of the more egregious forms of evil," although I could think of one worse

This bit of hand-wringing leads into a whingey bit of pearl-clutching about how fortune-tellers -- who of course must also be witches, though I've met several witches who had no interest in fortune-telling -- are replacing God with "self" -- a sentiment with which I can agree, but which is not shared among all fortune-tellers (some of whom are devotional polytheists) -- and jumping from A to C without any mention of B this consequently equates to idolatry, because... of course it does?

See, this is something that just seems silly to anybody outside of Adam's intended audience, but to people inside his audience it's understood that anybody or anything which diminishes reverence for God (plus His priesthood, of course) is identical to idolatry because it lessens "value" given to God and increases "value" given to somebody or something else. Incidentally, this is the same line of reasoning when (usually) teenagers are accused of idolatry for plastering their bedroom walls with posters of Justin Bieber (peace be upon him, amirite?) The trouble with this line of reasoning, though, is that if taking pleasure from anything worldly equates idolatry, then absolutely anything "worldly" -- food, clothing, music, money, sexual desire, absolutely anything at all -- is a pathway to idolatry, godlessness, atheism, and Satanism...

... yes, Satanism. Of course Adam went there, because in his mind and apparently in the mind of his audience which he wants to agree with him, questioning God is a slippery slope that leads to atheism, and anything outside the God-box must by default by the Satan-box because as he stated at the opening of his essay, "Good and Evil" are "clearly defined." Adam might find this difficult to believe, but there are a lot of atheists who think that atheistic Satanism is dumber than a box of rocks, atheistic Satanists who think that humanistic atheism doesn't go far enough, and Satanists who do in fact believe in a literal Satan. But then, these are nuances which don't matter to Adam because he's not speaking to a general audience that has no vested interest in the authority of the Torah, but a select audience of Jews who evidently need to be told that they're still not allowed to play cards in their free time. 

Adam apparently isn't one to slide half-way down a slippery slope when he can dive straight to the bottom, so naturally he followed his downward trajectory into predictions of immanent anarchy, the plot of the "Avengers: Infinity War", the danger of women governing their own bodily functions, and the despair of "non-productive relationships," all of which sound like unfounded fears to me, but again, Adam isn't speaking to me: he's speaking to an audience of culturally and politically conservative Jews -- hence all the references to Donald Trump -- who care about the perpetuating authority, strictly enforcing civil law to keep nations in their place, strictly enforcing religious law to keep marriages in their place, and strictly enforcing cultural mores to ensure that fucking is only done by married people and only for the purpose of producing more children who will follow the rules... because, authority.

I'm going to gloss over his implied assertion that without strict laws people would just be wild, murderous, rapey assholes -- because as all good religionists know, it's impossible to be good without God! -- because one way or another, the primary argument to which Adam keeps returning is that individual people can't be trusted with the authority to manage their own lives. This argument is emphasized when Adam quotes a Rabbi who says that "Satanism --" remember, kids: for Adam's audience, anything outside the God-box must by default be inside the Satan-box -- "is explicitly a power struggle." So naturally, if Satan and all the people inside the Satan-box are pulling one side of the rope, then of course Adam and all the other true believers in the God-box are pulling the other side of the rope. See how that works? Adam's just a big flatterer who likes giving ego-strokes to his audience. I mean, he has to give them ego-strokes because by this point he's taken away everything else including their choice to enjoy worldly pleasures and even manage their own bodily functions.

You'd think that Adam's fantastical claims about the return of the messiah, the clear differences between Good and Evil, the dangers of idolatry, and the New World Order -- because of course he had to throw a bone to his conspiracy-minded readers -- would have evolved since the early 90's, but he seems to have maintained his own private supply of Satanic Panic-era Kool Aid. The final third of his essay predictably devolves into calling former US President Obama a tool of the Devil and current US President Donald Trump a messenger of God, because these days it's not enough for opposing politicians to be just be wrong -- instead, they've got to be an a fatal enemy deserving of death and eternal damnation.

And while I think that kind of Us-vs-Them, Good-vs-Evil, Life-or-Death struggles as hyperbole unfit for rational discussion, Adam's not talking to me. No, you see: Adam is speaking either to an audience that lives within his cultural or religious paradigm and whom he thinks need to be reminded about the way things really are, or an audience who believes as does Adam and wants to reminded not only that they're not alone but also that their contempt for people who feel differently is fully justified. 

But you know what else is justified? Sharing a message with my audience that you'll understand but he won't:

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