Blog Post

Where can we stand?

Some days watching the news I am outraged and ranting. Other days I am overtaken with ironies and dark laughter. Often, I am cynically analytical. Occasionally, hopeful. Some days, even poised for action. Other days I am just depressed about the future of our democracy, our country, and the planet. But whatever I feel, little comes of it, beyond cusses, jokes, or at most sending a few dollars to organizations and candidates that carry on the rearguard action to protect our future. Even the power of voting seems weak to confront the political manipulations and threats to integrity of elections. Not knowing where and how to act, I feel powerless as I spin through the kaleidoscope of spectator emotions.

I was taught that democracy is in the hands of citizens. I can’t help but want to protect this nation’s persistent though faulted progress. Is there something I should be doing which I am neglecting or missing? If our current slide into chaotic, violent, destructive authoritarianism becomes irreversible will it be in part my fault? Will I be one of those nameless Romans who let Nero fiddle? This sense of failed responsibility is stronger than my cynical laughter or uncontainable anger or saddened witness.

So we need to act…. I need to act. But how, where do I grab, how do I stand? I imagine a gesture, but it doesn’t hook onto anything, and I fall back to the spectator’s kaleidoscope.

Other posts to this blog by myself and others will talk about the manipulations, deceits, or confusions created by public figures that distract us from effective action, or, more positively, about how to create effective, purposeful, rational, and honest public discussion. But today I want to talk about the frustrated need to act in an intolerable situation. In technical terms the issue is how can I define a rhetorical situation that allows me to adopt a rhetorical stance from which I can take a rhetorical action. Lloyd Bitzer described situations as rhetorical if we perceive in them a difficulty which we can improve through our language. Identifying such a rhetorical situation engages our rhetorical impulses and directs us to rhetorical action.

Well, we are clearly in a situation with multiple difficulties to motivate us: We have a democracy to save. Our slow progress on racism, rights, peace, and planetary future is being dismantled with reckless cruelty and greed. But can words make this situation better? And if so, in what venue?

If words cannot make this better, does this mean either we must accept our fates or act in ways that give up the ideals of our democracy? Activist organizations with access to courts do have places to make arguments in specific cases. Journalists can try to uncover and share reliable facts of who is doing what, how our government is acting, and who is influencing decisions. Political organizations can attempt to influence elections and then organize policy making. I can give dollars to each and even vote, but I don’t have the talents or opportunities for personal engagement to act with my own words and resources in legal, journalistic, or governmental spheres. I have lost my voice, and without my voice I have been silenced. Despite what the Supreme Court might say, money is no equivalent to voice. That subtle silencing through keeping the kaleidoscope spinning may be the most effective political tool of a would-be authoritarian-in-chief.

I do not have a rhetorical stance, as Wayne Booth would call it, from which to create a rhetorical strategy, plan my actions, and give voice. If we as citizens are to save our country we each need to find that place to stand, the place from which to find a strategy to use our democratic words to repair our nation and act responsibly in the world. For each of us it will be different. But if we are to have a voice we need to know where we stand and who can hear us from that position.

The participants in this blog are largely academics, researchers, and teachers. We do have positions from which to speak, but not for political ends. Indeed our daily stances are explicitly non-political as we are committed to supporting students becoming articulate writers and to pursuing knowledge. So my hope is that this blog will help us discover our stances to participate in discussion about the nation’s present and future–using our professional knowledge and experiences as teachers of writing in order to unpack the deceptions and misdirections of language in the public sphere and to suggest positive means for dialogue. Perhaps then we citizens can find our place to stand, our stance, and our strategy. As we emerge from our spinning emotional kaleidoscope, our voices will gain strength and clarity.

Bitzer,  L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric 1, 1, 1-14.

Booth, W. C. (1963). The rhetorical stance. College Composition and Communication 14, 3, 139–145.

2 thoughts on “Where can we stand?”

  1. I’ve hoped for years that education is the answer. If enough students learn to think critically then they will become well-informed citizens who safeguard democracy. But listening to the Kavanaugh hearings I’ve been reminded of the literally millions of dollars that special interests are pouring into not only electing our representatives, but also into media campaigns to support judicial nominees. You rightly explain how discouraging the landscape can be.

    But thank you for this statement of hope and purpose! We can’t just lapse into despair. Citizens need to make their voices heard and I’m glad to see this blog tackle the problems of public communication.

    1. As Wayne Booth emphasizes in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric (2004), even clear and persuasive rhetorical analysis can be undermined with the response, “Oh, it’s just rhetoric.” Words don’t matter, especially politician words. What I would like to see documented on this blog is persuasive evidence that words do matter. They affect humans and effect human acts.

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