Rhetoric and Politics

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.

Creative Commons / Boricuaeddie

Creative Commons / Gage Skidmore

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?

About Rosalyn

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. She served a mission in the Hungary Budapest mission. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework.

8 thoughts on “Rhetoric and Politics

  1. Thank you for writing this. I failed miserable in August to talk about my political ideals at Friday lunch out with my visiting teachers and another woman. I got incredibly defensive when asked how I could morally justify my political position. I had just vowed the day before to embrace civility when talking about political ideals. I BLEW IT! In fact, I switched over to the offense. I was an attack dog. It was nasty.

    Then I spent the next 30 minutes backpeddling and the entire weekend thinking, praying and crying about my failure to be civil. I went up to her on Sunday and apologized AGAIN. I am afraid that I have done damage to the relationship that is permanent. Stupid, stupid, stupid me.

    I spent too many years studying and practicing language in a win-win mode, so I’m really having trouble moving towards what I can see as preferred: a model you call invitational. I read books about peacemaking, go to yoga, read devotional literature, etc. I want to enter that space, but I absolutely am like a 5 year old in trying to adopt it. I fail almost every day and get super discouraged.

    Because of my repeated failures (and the fact that boundary changes moved me into a new ward in August, so I’m already a bit unsure about my church identity), I find that I am just mainly hiding from people in face-to-face venues because I’m afraid that I am going to be too aggressive if anyone brings up politics. So that’s between now and inaguration day that I’m laying low. Really? And I’mso social, but right now I’m just a bit shut down as a way to avoid conflict and a way of preventing damage to relationships.

  2. *hugs for Karen*

    I am so sorry. I think this is a rough political season for Mormons–not all of us support Romney, and, at least according to the most recent Ensign, which had a big spread on the Church’s political neutrality, that is okay. It has to be okay.

    I have sometimes found myself in the odd position of being an LDS Republican who defends LDS Democrats to my conservative friends–not because I agree fully with that point of view, but because I can’t bear to hear the condemnation that sometimes happens. I need my conservative friends to understand that my liberal friends are really great Mormons, too. And vice versa.

    I believe that people make their political choices in good faith, and ascribing sinister motives to the other side will always lead to fear, hate, and the dark side of our natures.

    Sorry if that was more political than you mean to go, Rosalyn. Thank you for this timely and important post.

  3. On another note, I am most baffled by the fact that I have yet to see ANY bumper stickers or signs on front lawns by EITHER party. NONE. In past presidential elections I would see them all over town. Not this election. Why in the world would this be the case? Anyone know? Or is this just not happening here in California?

  4. I *loved* this post. I teach rhetoric, so I’m excited about this 1) because it doesn’t blame rhetoric for all the problems of the political universe, and 2) because it examines *how* this particular rhetorical framework functions–and how it could be better.

    I especially like the link to Griffiths devotional on civility. What a powerful plea. He is, I think, my new hero.

    We need to be less concerned about being right, and more concerned about kind. When we come together in a spirit of unity, we’re much more likely to solve problems.

    Thanks for this.

  5. I think this is fabulous. Rhetoric wasn’t my primary concentration of study but I have always found it fascinating, and I hate it when people dismiss the term because they do not understand it.

    I also wish we could spend more time in Church and in our homes and schools focusing on ‘how’ we say things, not just ‘what’ to say. Most people aren’t even aware of rhetoric and the role it plays in their lives and I think the world would be a better place if we all paid more attention to that.

  6. Judge Griffith is an amazing man and really practices what he preaches. I got to take a Presidential Powers class from him in law school and I don’t know that I have ever looked forward to a class more than that one. He has given a couple of great devotionals at BYU.

    This is such an important topic. One of the biggest things that I want to teach my children, especially in our screen-based society, is that there is a human being on the other side of their interactions. They are children of God, whether or not they have different opinions than us, and in the end, that, more than anything, must dictate how we act.

  7. I really ought to read Segullah more often than I do. I love your observations here.

    My thinking on this is very shaped by the book, “The Righteous mind: why good people are divided by Politics and Religion.” The author, Jonathan Haidt, argues that we make most of our moral decisions by emotion not through logic, and most of our supposed moral reasoning is essentially us trying to justify what we feel. We respond to political candidates on a subconscious level, thus their rhetoric is intended primarily to activate the emotional centers that will identify them as part of our group and the opponent as part of the outgroup.

    It’s not the most flattering description of human nature, but it’s a good explanation for why people are so vehement in their denunciations of the other side. It’s also not an explanation that suggests we’ll see less partisan/more civil politics any time soon unless we start befriending more people of the opposite political persuasion. That’s a trickier and trickier thing to do, I’m finding, since people self-segregate in most aspects of their lives.

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