what is rhetoric?

After reading several days worth of articles about the Arizona shootings today, I’ve come to the conclusion that rhetoric doesn’t mean what most people think it does. This is particularly apparent when looking at arguments that purport to be balanced by looking at “both sides.”

First of all, let’s look at what rhetoric actually is. It was defined by Aristotle in 350 BCE, and a translation of his treatise can be found here: Rhetoric. A perhaps more readable, modern explanation can be found on Wikipedia: Rhetoric.

The main point of rhetoric is to move audiences to action with arguments. But here’s what I find key in considering that:

Aristotle both redeemed rhetoric from his teacher and narrowed its focus by defining three genres of rhetoric—deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Aristotle extended the definition of rhetoric to the ability to identify the appropriate means of persuasion in a given situation, making rhetoric applicable in all fields, not just politics. Yet, he also outlined generic constraints that focused the art squarely within the domain of public political practice. He restricted rhetoric to the domain of the contingent or probable: those matters that admit multiple legitimate opinions or arguments.

The contemporary neo-Aristotelian and neo-Sophistic positions on rhetoric mirror the division between the Sophists and Aristotle. Neo-Aristotelians generally study rhetoric as political discourse, while the neo-Sophistic view contends that rhetoric cannot be so limited. Rhetorical scholar Michael Leff characterizes the conflict between these positions as viewing rhetoric as a “thing contained” versus a “container.” The neo-Aristotelian view threatens the study of rhetoric by restraining it to such a limited field, ignoring many critical applications of rhetorical theory, criticism, and practice. Simultaneously, the neo-Sophists threaten to expand rhetoric beyond a point of coherent theoretical value.

Over the past century, people studying rhetoric have tended to enlarge its object domain beyond speech texts. Kenneth Burke asserted humans use rhetoric to resolve conflicts by identifying shared characteristics and interests in symbols. By nature, humans engage in identification, either to identify themselves or another individual with a group. This definition of rhetoric as identification broadened the scope from strategic and overt political persuasion to the more implicit tactics of identification found in an immense range of sources.

The key elements here are identifying the best means of persuasion for a given audience.

So in describing something as “rhetoric,” you first need to identify the intended audience. Then you need to identify its general persuasions (an audience of cat lovers, for example, will have a different set of common motivators than an audience of business entrepreneurs). Then you use that knowledge to construct a persuasive argument to your audience in order to bring them into action. You might focus on the dangers and deprivations to feral cat populations to the first group in order to persuade them to agree to fund a public measure of a spay and neuter policy. (For another group, you might focus on the environmental damage those pesky feral cats inflict to argue that public spaying and neutering of them would be a good thing, and so on.)

So how does this relate back to current events? In describing Palin’s “Take Back The Twenty” as violent rhetoric, the main points are these: The intended audience is a center-right to right audience, who is generally conservative, favors war as a solution, opposes most if not all forms of gun control and so on. Then, the imagination of this audience is engaged with assorted symbols including a crosshairs target (which is specific to gun and rifle scopes). The references to shooting things, to such an audience, is therefore fairly construed as violent rhetoric.

When the audience is left and liberal, and generally opposed to war, opposed to guns, opposed to torture, false imprisonment and so on, the sort of rhetoric to employ to motivate this audience to action will not be including references to violence. That won’t be persuasive. I am actually at kind of a loss to come up with legitimate examples of left wing rhetoric (of any kind; violent or otherwise). What actions are liberals being exhorted to do (and actually doing)? We seem to be fully engaged in reacting to current right wing excesses. The best I can come up with is the It Gets Better project, which is argubly using rhetoric to motivate sympathetic individuals to create videos and propose and support anti bullying legislation in order to reduce the incidence of teen suicide. Interestingly, not one call for kneecapping a bully has come about, as far as I can tell…

Now, there has certainly been left wing violent rhetoric: a well known example would be the Weather Underground (1969). There’s rhetoric for everything. But violent rhetoric hasn’t been successful in rousing the left on a sustained or widespread basis especially in the last thirty years or so. You can certainly come up with individual examples, even recent ones. Let’s take Kilborn in 2000, for example: Kilborn, CBS Target Bush. And note the framing of this description. It is described as a “dumb segment” that CBS clearly wouldn’t be proud of re-displaying; and indeed both CBS and Kilgore apologized for the video clip. And no one was inspired to any sort of violent action as a result of the clip. In contrast, not only is there no apology or quiet shelving of the “Take Back The Twenty,” not only is there an actual example of violent action taken later, but the scale and magnitude of such rhetoric coming from the right is far greater than any similar rhetoric to Kilborn’s in 2000. This is the kind of false equivalence I find infuriating when Weather Underground and Kilborn are dragged out to “counter” or “balance” the right wing excesses. This is like pulling out a pebble to counter the Rock of Gibraltar. Yes, they’re both rocks… which is pretty much as far as it goes. In any case the presence of historical left wing violent rhetoric (and the possibility of a similar scale of left wing violent rhetoric in the future) is not a reason to ignore or downplay the real dangers of the present existing right wing rhetoric.

Now finally, I need to point out rhetoric is only part of the picture. For example, despite the language and imagery Palin’s Take Back the Twenty employs, the action being called for is to vote out the Democratic politicians in these particular areas, to replace with Republican ones. At this point, this is where the consequences of words comes into play. To come back to the events in Arizona, it’s quite clear that Loughner appears to be mentally unstable and did not have a clear agenda as did, say, Scott Roeder who murdered medical doctor George Tiller in 2009. But equally, Loughner’s actions did not happen in a vaccum. He did not blow up his neighbors, who would have been nearer and more accessible. He did not walk to the nearest mall, theater, or other public place with a crowd and begin firing. He did not even simply fire into the crowd of people around Giffords: he walked up to her and shot her first before unloading around everyone else. We may never know exactly why he picked on this, but he clearly latched onto a ready made script, a script made possible by the widespread use and acceptance of violent rhetoric on the part of the right wing in this country, a script that somehow legitimized whatever was going on in his head.

You don’t think that the political discourse has been full of violent metaphors? Here’s a list: Before Shooting, A Campaign Season Rife With Gun Rhetoric. Taken all together, it’s really quite appalling.

I want to make it clear that I am not calling for some type of legislation addressing this kind of speech (although there are already laws against incitement to murder and that sort of thing). What I am talking about is how appalled I am about how little we pay attention to the present nature of public discourse in this country, how no one engaging in this sort of violent rhetoric seems to stop, appalled at the results, regardless of their actual original intentions (I do not believe, for example, that Sarah Palin actually intended or planned for her words to have the effect they have had). Why do they not do so? If it is because no one seems to speak up about it, that is why I am speaking up. Our country was founded on far different ideals and I would like to see those emphasized once more. I am publically calling people to task for what they have said.

Others doing the same:
Let’s Get This Straight
Editorial: We can’t say we weren’t warned about shooting
Who’s afraid of Frances Fox Piven?

An excellent point being lost in the “mentally ill” framing beginning around Loughner: ‘Mental illness’ not an explanation for violence.

And now a very important description of why such violent rhetoric, repeatedly and widely broadcast is so dangerous: Stochastic Terrorism: Triggering the shooters.

The stochastic terrorist is the person who uses mass media to broadcast memes that incite unstable people to commit violent acts.

One or more unstable people responds to the incitement by becoming a lone wolf and committing a violent act. While their action may have been statistically predictable (e.g. “given the provocation, someone will probably do such-and-such”), the specific person and the specific act are not predictable (yet).

The stochastic terrorist then has plausible deniability: “Oh, it was just a lone nut, nobody could have predicted he would do that, and I’m not responsible for what people in my audience do.”

The lone wolf who was the “missile” gets captured and sentenced to life in prison, while the stochastic terrorist keeps his prime time slot and goes on to incite more lone wolves.

Further, the stochastic terrorist may be acting either negligently or deliberately, or may be in complete denial of their impact, just like a drunk driver who runs over a pedestrian without even realizing it.

Finally, there is no conspiracy here: merely the twisted acts of individuals who are promoting extremism, who get access to national media in which to do it, and the rest follows naturally just as an increase in violent storms follows from an increase in average global temperature.

(these last five links h/t to moominmuppet)

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