Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rhetoric, Don't Leave Home Without It

A weeping bas-relief in Lyon's Notre-Dame-de-Fourviere

“So act in each instance as to encourage, rather than suppress, the capacity to persuade and to be persuaded . . .” – Henry Johnstone, Jr. “Toward an Ethics of Rhetoric”

     In a previous life I spent my days researching and teaching college freshmen how we reason together about disputed values.  I had earned a graduate degree in that dusty old subject of “rhetoric.”  Even after all these centuries, Aristotle still spoke to us and many modern thinkers had taken up his mantle.
     So often we wave our hand and say, “Oh that’s just mere rhetoric” when politicians speak, meaning “Oh, that’s just nonsense or blather.  They’ll say anything to get you to do what they want.  It doesn’t mean anything.”  Perhaps that’s the effect of Madison Ave. and political talking points taking over where philosophers, literary giants, and statesmen used to influence public discussions.  We seem a bit short on Thomas Jeffersons, James Madisons, and Benjamin Franklins today.
     Rhetorical theorist Wayne C. Booth dedicated his career to studying how and why words (rhetoric) stand as the thin blue line between civilization/civility and violence.  Agreement must be given willingly; it can’t be coerced.  His ideas were echoing in my head all weekend as the reports came in about the attempted assassination in Arizona of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the killing and wounding of so many other innocents.
     Already the many political groups who have spent so much energy and public discourse trying to demonize their opponents and scare American citizens about anyone who has a different world-view than they do are denying any influence they might have had on the unbalanced mind of the man who pulled the trigger and ended the life of others.  But as Booth said, ideas (and words) have consequences.
     You can’t one day use words in nonstop news cycles to convince people to vote against an opponent because he is on the verge of destroying America as we know it and then the next day deny that anything you say has influenced anything someone else has done.  Either words matter or they don’t. 
     Booth and a long line of rhetoricians back to Aristotle have argued that an ethical rhetoric is one that gains agreement and moves the world forward by emphasizing common values and cooperation rather than our greatest differences.  It seems such a straightforward and civilized approach to maintaining peace rather than promoting anarchy and violence.  It’s what created the Declaration of Independence and what guided Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
     A few weeks ago I wrote a note to a friend of mine who lives in the United Kingdom.  I asked her to explain why the student protests over tuition hikes over there had turned so violent.  “In my country,” I wrote so smugly, “if we disagree with something politicians do, we just vote them out of office next time around and change the laws they passed.”  I guess that’s just a quaint, antiquarian perspective now.
     The year we adopted our children – 1995 – was the year of the Oklahoma City bombing.  I wondered if I wanted to bring children into an America that had degenerated to this.  Now they’ve seen 9/11, the demonizing of immigrants and Muslims, politicians arguing that every teacher and student should carry guns at school, questioning of the citizenship of their president, and now murder and mayhem by people posting government conspiracy theories on a mySpace page.
     I hope some public leader will step forward and make the argument for my children and their generation that it is still possible to reason together about values, that words can still have good consequences.  I know that I’ll continue in my imperfect way to seek understanding and agreement rather than emphasize division.  I still believe an ethical rhetoric has more power than a gun.  I’ll continue to believe, like Kenneth Burke, that “[y]ou persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.”

Graveside "memoires"at le Cimetière de Pejoces outside Dijon

Comments on the weekend events or your own strivings for cooperation and identification are welcome here.


Lynn at Southern Fried French said...

Julie, This is so beautifully written and timely. It should be required reading for all Americans these days. Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

Tele said...

Mmmmmm. *happy hum*

I'm glad that you've joined SheWrites, Julie, so that I could discover your blog and this post. I'm going to enjoy following your thoughts out here!

Welcome to SheWrites, and be well -

Julie Farrar said...

Ah, Lynn. Je suis desolée I missed your comment earlier. Thank you for reading.

And Tele -- I'm glad to be on SheWrites so I can learn from a motivated group of women.

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