Before you roll your eyes and click on to the next item in your reading list, let me reassure you that I’m not about to talk about my political beliefs. (Or yours. Or anyone else’s).
Rather, I’d like to talk briefly about the rhetorical culture that surrounds politics, a culture that I find increasingly disturbing. And by rhetoric, I don’t mean (just) the empty speech of politicians. Put simply, rhetoric is about the purposeful use of language (words and images). All of us use rhetoric—to persuade, cajole, move, witness, exhort, bless—all of the time. We rely on rhetoric to get things done in society.
But so much of the rhetoric that surrounds politics is about winning. In classical Greek culture, the term for the public space for political debates was the “agon,” a root that persists today in words like antagonistic. It’s a word that connotes opposition, even fighting, and we see this legacy reinforced in political debates and negative political ad campaigns that focus solely on attacking the opposition. Given the nature of the electoral process, where someone has to “win” the election, this antagonistic climate isn’t surprising, though it is often disheartening.
The problem, though, with a rhetoric focused on “winning” is that too many of us lose by this preposition.
Kenneth Burke, a twentieth-century rhetorician (whose daughter-in-law was a former Mormon from Southern Utah), famously argued that “you persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, IDENTIFYING your ways with his.” In other words, the work of persuasion (a work central to rhetoric) only works when two parties recognize some common ground between them.
My concern about the political climate is that so many people, in both of the major political parties, are so concerned with identifying with each other (other Republicans, other Democrats) in opposition to a shared “enemy” that they forget to allocate any common or neutral ground. This kind of political climate is represented, at its worst, by the comments that New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof describes here. In the absence of common ground, the social work of rhetoric simply cannot happen. When we fail to recognize this common ground, we lose both civilityand compassion.
Twentieth-century feminists and rhetoricians who were deeply concerned by the antagonistic nature of contemporary rhetoric offered an alternative approach that they called “invitational rhetoric.” The purpose of this rhetoric was to understand, not to win (hence the “invitation” to understand). While this approach is not (yet) popular in political circles, it’s one that I endorse in the three weeks remaining before the U.S. elections. Imagine how different political debates (and ad campaigns) would be if those running were more concerned with helping us understand their position than in vilifying their opponent! A girl can dream, right?
I’d love to hear your take on the role of rhetoric in politics. Do you enjoy the debate? Why? What would you like to see changed if you had the power to do so?