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Rank Rhetoric

By Susan Dumais
February 23, 2011

Eloquence—the art of persuasive discourse—has always been an important dimension of American citizenship. So says James Farrell, professor of communication. Integral to persuasive discourse is a concern for ethics: arguing through means and for ends that advance truth and the good of the community. In the context of the recent national debate about the tone of political discourse, which followed the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, Farrell offers a way to think about political rhetoric at this moment in our nation’s history.

 While Farrell is loathe to draw any direct connections between the Tucson shootings and uncivil political discourse, he nonetheless sees the moment as an opportunity to examine how we talk about one another in politics and to ask ourselves: is this the best that we can do?

 The answer for Farrell is “no.” In fact, he considers much of current political discourse unethical. His gold standard for ethical discourse was developed in the fourth century B.C.E. by Aristotle in his treatise Rhetoric in conjunction with Ethics and Politics, two of his other seminal works. Twentieth century thinkers in the field of propaganda such as Stanley Cunningham built upon Aristotelian ideas to define ethical discourse as that which not only promotes truth and the public good, but also acknowledges the dignity of human beings. Discourse that demeans another or attacks the person rather than the idea is unethical. Using this standard, we can begin to see how current American political discourse might be deemed unethical, and on both sides of the political spectrum.

 Farrell considers the much-discussed example of Sarah Palin’s use of gun-sight visuals and martial language to reference her political opponents.

 “What is the purpose of using a message like that?” asks Farrell. “The purpose is not to promote what is true or what is necessarily good for the community. Although I would imagine that Sarah Palin thinks that the policies she is recommending ultimately would be good for the community. But using a message like that trivializes politics and suggests that the American public is unwilling to engage in a kind of rational assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of competing policies. It says, OK, here’s a symbol that should tell you all you need to know about who to vote for and what to think.”
 But Palin’s rhetoric in this example ultimately fails the human dignity standard.

 “What may be even more damaging is that the use of symbolic politics diminishes the value of a human being,” says Farrell. “I’m not saying that I think Sarah Palin was literally aiming for or gunning for Gabrielle Giffords, but I think we have to be careful about the messages that we send and what they say about those who disagree with us. This is a kind of epidemic in our political culture—we tend to characterize our political opponents in a way that diminishes their value and their dignity. And that to me is unethical. Any time you use language to assault the value of another person—even if it is a person who disagrees with you; even if it is a person whose positions you find abhorrent—you’ve stepped over the line of ethics, of the right use of political speech.”

 Farrell is quick to point out that this kind of rhetoric can be found across the political spectrum. President Obama, for example, has used rhetoric that is ethically problematic.

 “When President Obama referred to Republicans as enemies, that was a dangerous way to talk about political opponents in America” Farrell contends. “You can have political adversaries or people in the other party, but when you refer to someone as an enemy—well, what have we done to our enemies throughout history? We kill our enemies. We wipe out our enemies. Most people aren’t going to pick up a gun and shoot a Republican because the president referred to Republicans as enemies. But we’re not worried about most people. We’re worried about people on the fringe who take these as calls to arms.”

 One way to raise the tenor of political discourse in the future is to educate those who will walk in the halls of power in the next generation: our current university students. Farrell and his colleagues in the department of communication have educated thousands of students in the tradition and art of rhetoric. From introductory courses such as Propaganda and Persuasion to higher-level courses in rhetorical criticism, students analyze examples of public discourse in order to evaluate rhetoric in an historical context and from an ethical viewpoint. They learn to recognize when ethical lines have been crossed.

 Rhetoric was, in fact, the standard fare of a college education for much of the history of higher education in the west. It wasn’t until the middle of the last century that rhetoric became only one of a number of subjects that students could choose to pursue as part of a broad liberal arts education. Rhetoric’s diminished standing may represent a significant loss for our public discourse, perhaps begging the question: is our rhetoric worse now than in the past? While it may be negative, history shows that the tone of discourse has, in fact, risen and fallen repeatedly over time, and there have always been those who have taken the low road.

 What of our current crop of politicians and chances for moderating the rank tone of public discourse? The ongoing public discussion about our political rhetoric can only be helpful. But Farrell is skeptical about any lasting impact.

 “I don’t honestly think much is going to change,” says Farrell. “You can go back not very long ago to periods in New Hampshire politics when rhetoric was as bad as or even worse than it is now. Or even to more remote periods of history when the same kind of rhetoric has occurred. Where there’s an occasion to win an election or gain political power at the advantage of other people—even at the advantage of the weakest or least powerful people, like immigrants, for example—when that’s easy to do, it’s going to continue.”

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