Friday, November 5, 2010

Rhetoric as an end to warfare

Kenneth Burke considers finding common ground among people -- along the lines of consubstantiality, or identification -- as the only answer to our most pressing problem as humans, which is the alienation, or division, we feel from others.
In "A Rhetoric of Motives," per James Herrick, Burke writes: "If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity. If men were wholly and truly of one substance, absolute communication would be of man's very essence."
As I am still feeling the bruises of yet another civil war-like political season, I wonder if Americans now have passed the point of no return in terms of consubstantiality. I don't feel hopeful at all that we can reach a period again in which we debate political issues together as Americans, trying to create the best country in the world, as opposed to Party A or Party B grasping for power and trying to dictate the ways in which the people in the other party live, which they really don't want to do.
It seems so long ago, in 2000, when a legitimate case could have been made that Republicans and Democrats were pretty much in the same place on many issues, arguing positions at least in the vicinity of each other. Ralph Nader made the case that the two parties were inseparable in ideas on the table, which was considered a bad thing. Of course, both parties at the time were concerned with a lot of negative matter, such as maintaining power and the two-party system, and feeding their corporate lamprey, and giving breaks to the rich, and a host of other slimy situations. But today, after about a decade of dramatically divisive rhetoric -- at first meant to separate the parties, but then manipulated as power grabs -- what are we left with in the ruins?
As Burke imagined, warfare! ... The bloody, bitter, hostile, horrible, hate-filled discourse of division. Unfortunately, mud-slinging, hate and character-assassination wins elections, and as long as it does, I suppose, politicians will go that route (they are, after all, politicians). But what do we as Americans get left with? Does anyone really feel good about the state of America right now? Does anyone feel like we are in this big community together?
Or do we feel divided? West Coasters versus East Coasters? City folk versus country folk? The intellectual elite versus the real people (who, apparently, are the ones you would want to sit down and drink a beer with)? War mongers / pacifists, who need to "man up." Capitalists / Socialists. Etc. Where is this getting us? Maybe instead we should be returning to Burke's suggestion of trying to find common ground, not as a form of pacifying "the enemy," which is us, by the way, but as a form realizing we are all working toward similar goals of creating a dynamic and fascinating place to live, where we can raise healthy and intelligent and happy children, and pursue what we want, when we want and how we want, and spend our lives enjoying each other, not dreading or hating each other. We don't live in two Americas. We aren't as different as we might feel that we are. We have differences, of course, but what would be the alternative, pure conformity? We all want a great country and great people and happiness. I think everyone should demand a resurgence of a rhetoric of unity from our leaders, not division. And vote out those who just continually tear us apart. That doesn't mean we eliminate debates, or differences of opinion, but we focus on the ground we share. We focus on rhetoric that brings us together. We don't focus on gaining power and leverage to boss others around. We focus on wielding words that unite us, and we return to Burke's noble effort "toward the elimination of warfare."


Rich said...

Cicero's belief in the power of stasis is important to mention here. The benefit of agreeing to disagree, or respecting others' right to disagree, is crucial in positive growth between societies. Rhetoric, as one of its most important tenants, ultimately says there are no always already correct answers. It's a matter of perspective, and of pluralistic admonishing.

blank said...

i'm with you on Burke's noble effort on the elimination of "warfare." in fact, after reading your blog, i stopped my blog response short b/c you covered pretty much everything i wanted to say.

it's a very depressing view of life, isn't it? that we have to constantly struggle just to manage some semblance of a fragile co-existence. even when you talk about trying to convince people to work together, you end up being tagged as an outsider; "tree-hugger," "hippie," "marxist," "communist," "fascist," etc. functional political rhetoric has effectively been reduced to name-calling and blame. and invention? find a new way to name-call and blame. who was the genius that decided to attack a birth certificate? they must have realized that the public has little regard for memory, since somebody else was born in did ad hominem manage such prominence?

this rant can go on and on, but in trying to keep to the class objectives, i think rhetorical pursuits are only meaningful when an audience understands what the rules are. if today's political rhetoric boils down to two sides, which are constantly seen as antagonizing each other, then the public is likely to follow. from that point, it's just downhill as valid counterarguments can only be perceived as personal attacks, followed by counter attacks. perhaps we should read Burke not as a way to "eliminate warfare," but to reinvent contemporary rules of engagement...


Debbie Davy said...

Hi, Brett...

Burke's views regarding striving for peace are certainly noble, but I don't think they work in real life. And they don't take into account the benefits that do come from strife. Consider where we'd be without the trillions spent on the defense industry, and the resulting trickle-down effect on other industries.

Rhetoric is a tool that is used for war,,,and peace. It is easy to use rhetoric for peace when we are far away from the ravages of war. Yet, we should consider how successful is rhetoric for peace at the front lines? My thoughts go to Germany and Chamberlain in the 1930's...Chamberlain used the rhetoric of peace over and over again until Germany marched into Poland. The rhetoric of peace is being used in the Middle East, but unless everyone is willing to use it, it is doomed to failure. And if you want another example, look at the current situation with North Korea. Many times have there been overtures of peace, only to have the North Koreans walk away or threaten destruction.

I am not saying that rhetoric shouldn't be used for peace, however there are times when rhetoric for war is necessary. Its critical that we consider the audience (perhaps even a universal audience)...and recognize that rhetoric on an audience that doesn't want to hear about peace is not rhetoric used well.

Sometimes the stick works better than the carrot.

Brett Oppegaard said...

I think the previous post confuses rhetoric with power. If someone has way more power than someone else, of course the bully can push that person around, and say or do whatever is desired. But if the power levels are equal, or near equal, then the situation gets much more interesting for everyone involved. And what is a primary tool of gaining or losing power? Rhetoric! ... I also find it ironic to see an argument about the "benefits" of strife, and the suggestion to contemplate "where would we be?" without the trillions of dollars being poured into our war machine. Yes, that is a great question! Where would we be?

Ben said...

Common ground does seem to be quite important--especially in terms of the greater audience. If we think of a recent debate where two political figures were disagreeing on issues, I bet issues of ethos would surface more quickly than disagreements on anything else. Ethos seems quite important today to politicians and voters today. How do we manage to find a common ground among character flaws? Dr. Rice is right about Cicero, but can we agree to disagree about issues of character? Or do we use debates to build issues into the conversation?