Monday, September 10, 2012

In Defense of Rhetoric (no, really)

The French are not shy about stating their opinion wherever it's convenient

Hey ho!  This blog has had a long drought.  It’s suffered along with the grass in my back yard and all of my trees from a combination of unbearable heat (global warming? what global warming?) and end-of-summer doldrums.  After getting home from France I lost my mojo amidst the almost two months of mail piled up, family obligations, and assorted physical maladies (my sister says it’s age, but I know it’s worse than that).  After spending two weeks obsessed with political convention-watching, though, I’m revved up and ready to move forward again.

Yes, I’m a political discourse junkie and every four years I gorge myself on the good, the bad, and the ugly of campaign rhetoric. I’m like a dog ecstatically rolling and wriggling in the back yard on the decaying remnants of a dead bird or rabbit poop or any other disgusting thing that the rest of you have enough sense to avoid.  I’m in hog heaven.  You see, in a previous life I was a rhetorical theorist.  I’m being literal here.  Analyzing public discourse, teaching its fine art, delving into its history was as natural as blinking or breathing.  I have an actual Ph.d in Rhetoric (or, as my husband once said “a doctorate in arguing).

Now, I’m talking rhetoric with a capital “R.”  Aristotle.  Plato.  Martin Luther King.  Not rhetoric as “that speech was mere rhetoric – all hot air and Madison Avenue fluff.”  I researched such topics as “ethical rhetoric” and “ethical audiences” (yes, the audience has as many obligations as the speaker).  I delved deeply into how communities reason together about conflicting values, using words rather than violence to move forward together and make changes for the better.


The college freshmen I taught came of age in a growing atmosphere of cynicism, though.  Frequently, the “arguments” my students wrote were just opinion papers.  “Try again,” I’d say.  “You’re preaching to the converted and not considering the concerns of those who actually don’t agree with you.”  This brought the same response every time:  “Why?  Everybody has their own opinion and you can’t change it.”   This meant that not only did they not think their readers would ever change, they were also certain that they themselves would never be of another mind.

Their perception that you can’t change anyone’s opinion – as if we’re born thinking a certain way that can’t be altered just like we’re born with a certain eye color – made me want to cry.  “How would we have had a Declaration of Independence?” I would ask.  “How would women and blacks have gotten the vote?  How do people live in harmony if it’s not possible to find common ground?  How do we ever avoid war?”

During their short lifetime, all they saw from leaders was a growing incivility in public discourse and increasing partisanship.  It’s what language scholar Deborah Tannen christened “The Argument Culture.”  In her book of the same name, she shows how we’ve come to view all issues from a non-constructive, polarized perspective where we’re not trying to understand the other person but simply win the argument.  Instead of making an argument, we’re having an argument or fight.

So ends this intro lesson on the history of rhetoric.  I just wanted to remind you that it is possible to have political discourse that is healing and effective.  Not all rhetoric is evil or the product of professional spinmeisters.  You’ll find no cynicism or point-scoring in Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”  Blogging whiz and high school English teacher extraordinaire Laura Sauer makes my point a little more succinctly in her recent blog post about Facebook and politics.  She reminds us that listening is as important as speaking in that popular digital marketplace of ideas.  Really, you should go here and see what set her to riffin’ in her very modern style on theories of classical rhetoric (whether she meant to or not).  She’s very good at making an argument.

And I’m sure she’d agree with me that now is the time to check your voting registration status.  Remember – if you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to complain.

I’m sure we could all give a million examples of recent political discourse that sent us running for the hills, that made us want to hide from the present political scene altogether.  What examples can you share in the comments box of language used to bring sides closer together rather than treat some particular group as the enemy?  Do you think public discourse has gone downhill?  Why?   Or, you can simply tell me what you did on your summer vacation.  We have some catching up to do.

This photo has nothing to do with my post, but we've had some rain here in the Midwest lately, so I dream that my Droughtland is soon going to be as green as the Scottish Highlands


Nadine Feldman said...

Hey, Julie! Glad you're back! I'm still on my summer vacation -- soon I plan to post some photos, which will explain my absence in stunning detail. :)

I used to work with a woman who was an evangelical conservative Christian. We disagreed on everything -- and yet it was a pleasure to argue with her. Our discussions were passionate but thoughtful. I'm also remembering a guy at the last company I worked for. He was also my political opposite, and yet he was my most trusted mentor.

When I see rhetoric replaced by screaming, manipulating, and lies, I get discouraged. We are better when we can challenge each other without getting so polarized. I think we need two strong political parties (at least) and our Constitutional checks and balances so that the country never gets too extreme. However, I don't think we return to that until we do something about Citizens United.

Patricia Caviglia said...

My astrologer says that what happens on a global level happens on a national level, which happens on a local level, which happens on a personal level. Until we change the way we argue at home, we won't be able to change the way we argue in public.

Julie Farrar said...

Yes, Nadine. I love to engage in arguments with people who are open to having their mind changed. Can't wait for the photos!

And Patricia, I've never thought of it like that. Maybe I'll open my ears to what I'm hearing around me on a local level. I have to admit that on a personal level I don't always practice what I preach.

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