The dangers of being disagreeable
Whether Jared Lee Loughner targeted Congresswoman Giffords after listening to extreme right wing or extreme left wing rhetoric seems beside the point — the truth is that, like all of us, he’s likely been exposed to a full helping of both.
And although we may find that one fanatic group or the other bears a lion’s share of the blame for this particular tragedy, there’s enough incendiary talk burning up our public dialogue that any one (or combination) of them could be responsible.
A more useful thing might be to consider how the ways that we talk about our disagreements not only hinder meaningful problem solving but also, in the worst cases, facilitate violence.
Rhetorician Elizabeth Ervin uses the term discursive entrenchment to describe when:
“participants in a debate intellectually and rhetorically dig in their heels, refusing to consider alternative positions and thus aggravating existing tensions.”
We can find many examples of discursive entrenchment in our society.
For example, consider many of the comments following articles on this site where commentators talk past each other, insisting on seemingly willful misunderstandings of opposing points of view, and resorting to name calling rather than civil discussion. Interactions like these promote discursive entrenchment and, as Ervin argues, are capable of “aggravating existing tensions.”
We’ve seen this sort of rhetorical brinksmanship playing itself out in the public sphere, with conservatives calling President Obama a socialist, or, even stranger, someone who displays “Kenyan, anti-colonial” behavior. In turn, President Obama recently accused Republicans of being “hostage-takers” when they didn’t act as he wanted them too. It’s easy to see how this sort of talk, from both sides, exemplifies discursive entrenchment and moves the country further from solutions rather than closer.
Both parties have dug in their heels, both refuse to consider alternate viewpoints, and both are aggravating existing tensions.
Political scholar Morgan Marietta uses the term sacred rhetoric to describe rhetoric that is:
“unconflicted, extreme, and strident, taking positions that ignore compromise or negotiation, upholding the inviolability of a favored set of values while dismissing others.”
President George W. Bush used sacred rhetoric when he argued after the 9/11 attacks that “you’re either with us or against us.” In this case, President Bush brooked no room for discussion or deliberation among “us.” Talk like this limited the scope of how we might have addressed the 9/11 attacks, effectively moving the public dialogue past deliberation to passionate engagement (or alienation, in some cases).
Sacred rhetoric is contrasted with what Marietta calls consequentialism, a rhetorical mode where discussion centers around how the activity or policy in question would impact the public welfare. A consequentialist discussion of 9/11, for example, would debate the practical effects and real world consequences of various military and diplomatic options rather than proselytize about the morality of them, as both sides (and I too) have done.
Marietta’s research indicates that our brains process sacred rhetoric differently than consequentialist rhetoric.
Here are her findings:
- Exposure to sacred rhetoric (as opposed to consequentialist rhetoric) decreases deliberation and increases what she calls “absolutist reasoning.” In other words, people who hear sacred rhetoric think less carefully about that facts about the issue at hand and rely more on the norms and values of their friends and families to guide their actions.
- Sacred rhetoric “encourages political intensity and engagement.” It’s little surprise to learn that invoking deeply-held values and convictions gets people fired up and engaged in the issue (although not, it’s important to note, intellectually engaged).
Marrieta’s findings highlight an awkward conundrum for public discourse: The use of sacred rhetoric decreases our tendency to deliberate carefully about policies, while at the same time it increases not only our involvement but also the intensity with which we engage the issue.
The question she raises — but leaves us to answer — is whether we’d prefer consequentualist rhetoric, which encourages deliberation at the expense of passionate participation, or whether we’d prefer sacred rhetoric, which encourages passionate participation at the expense of careful deliberation.
I prefer consequentialist rhetoric that — although a bit wonky and dry — encourages careful deliberation and serious discussion of the real-world consequences of our decisions. The other option looks too much like mob rule to me.
What can we do?
If you agree with me that using consequentialist rhetoric that increases our public deliberation is a better way to discuss public policy options, then the question becomes how we could encourage it. The fact that many of our most successful media outlets have become rich and powerful through their intentional use of sacred rhetoric complicates the matter. Sacred rhetoric engages people passionately. That’s good for ratings. But this is another dangerous example of our most powerful corporations privatizing profits while socializing their risks.
This weekend — even as people like Glen Beck, Keith Olbermann and Rush Limbaugh have become rich by calling their political opponents names — we all saw the real human cost of allowing the irresponsible use of sacred rhetoric. Ironically, the images and accounts of what has happened are delivered to us by many of the same media personalities who have profited (and continue to do so) from the sacred rhetoric that can lead to violence.
I understand that there will always be people like Jared Lee Loughner who are susceptible to extreme ideas and who are capable of violence. And I understand that sacred rhetoric is just another term to describe the practice of manipulating people with language, which has been with us since antiquity. In the western tradition, this long conversation started with Plato and the sophists and now includes pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Many smart, well-meaning people throughout history have wrestled with this same problem and come away with only a limp to show for their troubles.
Furthermore, we the people can’t ignore our own culpability in all this. We not only allow but celebrate the people who use the most extreme rhetoric. One of the challenges of writing these blogs is resisting the temptation to be provocative. This would surely attract a broader readership, but not really advance how we think about these important issues. I trust you all to tell me when I’ve failed to promote deliberation.
To be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be passionate. However, all of us — both in our public and private roles — might endeavor to talk more rationally, and more carefully, about the issues we care about. Always attempting to discuss them in ways that encourage rather than quiet careful deliberation.
All of my specific ideas to fix the larger problems in our public discourse — like, for example, forming a regulatory board that assesses the toxicity of the rhetoric that travels across our public airwaves and the internet — seem naïve and politically impossible (and perhaps, in the case of the Internet, literally impossible). Besides, the line between free speech and toxic speech can seem pretty darn thin, depending on how we each feel about the person doing the talking.
At the local level, my students and I work together in our composition classroom to become more critical consumers and more ethical creators of the various forms of rhetoric. This is satisfying and important work but it’s a slow way to foster a healthy public debate. We learn to use Donald Davidson’s principle of charity, which requires that we not only assume that the people we disagree with are rational but also we consider the opposing argument in its strongest form, even building it up if need be.
This is not only a good exercise for developing critical thinking, it also helps us understand where those we disagree with are coming from. Rather than being merely an enemy whose ideas we must defeat, those we disagree with become fellow humans with real and legitimate motives,even if we do not, in the end, agree. Our understanding of the world becomes richer and more complex, rather than simplified and monochromatic.
While we look for bigger antidotes for what ails our toxic public dialogue, each of us can hold ourselves and those we can influence to a higher standard of public discourse than we have before. Accepting dangerous rhetoric has become too costly.
18 comments so far. Scroll down to submit your own comment.
Leave a response
You must be logged in to post a comment.