Every once in a while I need to remind myself of the impetus behind the research that has been featured in this blog, and behind the blog itself. The choice of interviewing political speechwriters and then graduates of programs that emphasized the development of writing was motivated to a significant degree by a desire to determine how undergraduate writing curriculum was influencing or could influence public discourse. That is why I cannot let the wide-ranging discussion of the nature of that discourse that has taken place in this country over the past week to occur without comment.
In general my own conclusions concerning how a college curriculum might contribute to the effective functioning of American democracy involve the expansion and intensification of students’ rhetorical education. The governing idea is that knowledge and awareness of how humans seek to persuade each other would help students reject jejune, fallacious, and egregiously manipulative arguments while attending closely, and employing themselves, those modes of argument and rules of evidence that might help the polity at least approach truth and discover the most appropriate policy choices. Such an idea is admittedly an “ideal,” something to continuously reach for without fully grasping. What is most interesting to me about the past week is that the horrific events of last Saturday in Tucson have probably driven home to Americans the idea’s value and relevance in a far more intense and extensive manner than could ever happen through the efforts of I and my colleagues in higher education.
At first the discussion featured the predictable position-taking of folks on one end of the political spectrum denouncing words and images that employ gun and war metaphors, and folks on the other end of the spectrum critiquing the evidence (or lack of evidence) that would allow their opponents to make connections they considered dubious. This debate had a value of its own, as it forced participants to consider the challenges involved in establishing cause, or even the mere correlations that may exist between the criticized rhetoric and the actions of the shooter.
But what may be even more valuable about the past week’s discussion is that, even while the argument about the possible links between violence-tinged political rhetoric and the shooting of a Democratic congresswoman and a Republican-appointed federal judge began to recede, the discussion of how best to argue about policy differences did not. Both Democrats and Republicans seemed to want to talk about the “tone” of political debate, about how differences in opinion should be explained and employed, and about how the participants in political discussion should be characterized and addressed.
I have my own ideas about why this discussion about public discourse quickly and decisively moved beyond the usual posturing. Here are a few:
· President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Senator McCain didn’t get to where they are in politics without possessing antennae highly sensitized to the shifts in mood among people who are not members of their core constituencies. Their public statements of the last several days denote an awareness of what people who are not avid followers of the partisan avatars of Fox News and MSNBC are currently thinking. I am always suspicious of both pundits and politicians who claim to speak for the “public mood.” But I also have a fair amount of faith in the well-honed instincts of “career” politicians like Obama, Boehner, and McCain. As Aristotle recommends, they know how to carefully and accurately assess just where the emotions of their audiences reside.
· Death and grave injury do have a way of making conversation more somber and reflective. The victims ranged from an elementary-school student to a youthful aide to elderly couples. Their characteristics don’t fit easily into radically bifurcated political arguments. Neither Judge Roll nor Representative Giffords are easily demonized by those who may not like their judicial or policy decisions. The shooting of these people forces onlookers to view them as complex individuals, not as constructs within feverishly imagined, and sometimes entertainingly fantastical, apocalyptic battles. By the same token, President Obama in elegiac mode doesn’t align with the idea of him as Kenyan interloper or Marxian acolyte.
· We are in a different political moment than that of six months ago. Republicans were so thoroughly vanquished two years ago that they had nothing to lose when it came to how opposition to the Democrats and to Democratic initiatives might be expressed. But now a great many of the citizens who voted for a Republican in November expect that person to govern, not simply to oppose. On the other hand, Democrats can no longer ignore Republicans or their proposals, or characterize those proposals as the reality-challenged spouting of certifiable whack jobs. (The face of a potentially certifiable whack job has been splattered all over the media for the past week.)
Well, we could go on. And it isn’t being overly cynical to recognize that harshness, demonization, and mischaracterization will return to our political discourse quite soon. Still, my own sense is that the value of a different kind of political argument has been imprinted onto much of the public by the week’s ongoing discussion. Each time a politician returns to atavistic tribal language, someone else with prominence in the public sphere is going to recall what was said by politicians across the spectrum this week. For academic rhetoricians like myself, it is important to articulate even more than before what we want our students to take away from our classes. It is not, as Obama put it Wednesday evening, that “a lack of civility caused this tragedy,” but that “a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.”