News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Don't call it rhetoric, Shirley.

In the furor over whether the toxic verbal atmosphere of contemporary politics inspired the attempted assassination and mass shooting in Tucson, the term "rhetoric" keeps getting used.  Rhetoric is generally defined as the art of using language effectively and persuasively, but those who study and use the art of rhetoric have a more specific definition.   Rhetoric is the art of refining knowledge and using fact and reasoning as the basis for making arguments.  One of the textbooks on the theory and practice of rhetoric I used a few years ago defined rhetoric as the making of knowledge.  The kind of discourse we have witnessed coming into prominence is the unmaking of knowledge.  It is the use of words as weapons, not as vehicles of knowledge and understanding. 

Popular usage has devolved into using the term rhetoric to describe any kind of utterance in a political context.  And so, people confuse non-rhetoric with rhetoric, and while we are currently seeing attempts to upgrade the study of math and science in our schools, the study of language as the primary vehicle of learning is rare,  although it thrives in some places. Propaganda is confused with rhetoric, and fewer and fewer people understand the difference between the two. 

A part of the study of language that is largely neglected is, at the least, an overview of the basic principles of semantics.  Semantics is the science of meaning in language and it analyzes how words derive and convey their meanings.  The study of semantics is often divided into two branches:  objective semantics, which examines what words refer to in a general culture and how they obtain specific meanings;  and subjective semantics, which examines how individuals receive and respond to words.  A more common way to divide these branches is to refer to the language of reports,  objective words which refer to the hard facts apparent to conscious humans; and the language of judgments, which are subjective, the language of what people think and feel, even if what they think and feel has little relevance or relationship to what the language of reports conveys.  The crucial semantic distinction is when judgments are formed on an apprehension of the facts or when they are based upon predetermined attitudes and conditioned verbal responses. 

The language of reports registers the observations of people as they witness the universe.  The language of judgments registers the prejudices, personal preferences, and the mental distortions and hatreds that have developed in a personality. The language of reports provides us a map of the universe.  The language of judgments provides us with a map of the mind of the speaker.  When judgments are based on reports and some rigorous reasoning, they provide valuable perspectives worthy of consideration.  When judgments are merely the uttering of postures and prejudices, they give us views of failures of intellect and  of the human mentality at its meanest.  


Most political discourse is the language of judgments--judgments arising from prejudices, calcified mindsets, and that region of human personality rooted in power and dominance, not in ideas of equality, freedom, and justice.  Political discourse of recent times has been dominated by the propaganda of war.  And I'm  not talking about propaganda to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or on the Mexican border.  I refer to the propaganda of war engaged in by groups of Americans who would like to see other groups of Americans vanquished.

After the shootings in Tucson, Sheriff Dupnik said, "People who are mentally unstable are susceptible to the rhetoric going on in this country."  He said in an interview,“The kind of rhetoric that flows from people like Rush Limbaugh, in my judgment he is irresponsible, uses partial information, sometimes wrong information... he attacks people, angers them against government, angers them against elected officials and that kind of behavior in my opinion is not without consequences.”

Aside from the use of the term rhetoric instead of propaganda, Sheriff Dupnik's assertions about language are supported by the science of semantics and psycholinguistics and how language works on the minds of people.  So is accused shooter Jarod Loughner's contention that language can be used to control minds.  He also indicated his sense of dislocation through language when he asked a friend, if you can't trust language, what good is government?   What is missing from the all the talk about language is how it can be used to free and empower minds.

The denial that what people say in political comments and how they say it does not create a climate which induces violence is like denying the law of gravity.  Language is the medium of culture.   It registers the mindsets of the culture and is integrally involved in shaping them.  When the language of a culture centers on hostilities and hatreds, the culture is forming the conditions for violence.  Propaganda that incites contempt, anger, and hatred has the intention of doing verbal violence on people.  Physical violence is a natural consequence.  The words announce the intention.


 The Nazi propaganda campaigns had a marked effect on the teaching of rhetoric in high schools and colleges.  For a couple of decades after World War II, every freshman composition course in colleges had a component that dealt with the study of propaganda, how it is recognized, and why it is false discourse.   An often cited quotation about the Holocaust was "how could this happen in the land of Bach, Beethoven, and Goethe?"  The answer was that the people fell under the spell of a massive propaganda campaign that exploited their sense of humiliation from the loss of World War I.  Hitler and Goebbels were shrewd enough to understand that people need someone to blame for their misfortunes and their failures.  The Reich mounted a propaganda campaign centered on The Big Lie, which Hitler explained in Mein Kampf  as a lie so "colossal" that people could not believe anyone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously." The Big Lie promoted by Hitler was that Jews were responsible for all the ills of Germany and the world because they are a nefarious and inferior group.  He and Goebbels used The Big  Lie as the central idea in the propaganda campaign that motivated the war and the Holocaust.  Hitler explained his propaganda strategy:

The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another.
The purpose of propaganda in this context is to incite anger and hatred and to direct these elicited responses to the destruction of a designated group of people. People so aroused by the propaganda can be offered a chance to express their raging anger and hatred through violence that seems to have the sanction of their peers.  The destructive energy of that "vacillating crowd of human children" can be directed and controlled by those who devise the propaganda.  Goebbels did this by orchestrating the infamous Krystal Nacht, when German people went on rampage burning synagogues and attacking Jews.  He then claimed it was a spontaneous act of the people, although the propaganda was massive and Nazi agitators and organizers were involved in abundance.  But the main incitement was the propaganda campaign.

An important signal that distinguishes propaganda from legitimate rhetoric is the presence of the ad hominem attack, the assault of a person.  Citing factual and proven faults of a person is a legitimate consideration in evaluating a person's credibility and trustworthiness.  Defaming  a person, however, with falsehoods, false accusations, and derogatory labels and identifications is a signal that malice is in control.  When people defame another person with slander and libel, they intend to inflict harm; they are acting out their ill will.  They are laying down the foundation for violence.


What many students of propaganda point out, but seldom gets mentioned in the popular media, is that Rush Limbaugh's propaganda campaign against liberals parallels the campaign against Jews preceding and during World War II.  His Big Lie is that liberals are the cause of all the ill in the U.S. and the world, and his method is to constantly make personal attacks against individuals and groups.  Limbaugh claims he is primarily an entertainer, but the entertainment offered consists of maligning, defaming, insulting, and otherwise abusing liberals and anyone else who Limbaugh wishes to attack.  It is entertainment of the kind enjoyed by that "vacillating crowd of children" on the playground who line up behind the bullies, shouting their taunts, insults, and threats.  Playground bully sessions often go from the verbal to the physical.  As Sheriff Dupnik contends, Limbaugh attacks people and creates anger among his audience against them and the government.  However, Hitler and Goebbels openly admitted the purpose and effects of their attacks against Jewish individuals and people to be oppression and extermination.  Limbaugh and his followers deny the consequence of their words, even thought the very purpose of defamation is to inflict harm.  Only the most uneducated can regard the constant flow of ad hominen attacks as "vigorous debate."  Defamation is not debating; it is the infliction of harm.  


However, Limbaugh is a symptom of a larger intellectual failure within the American psyche.  Certainly, there are those from the left who are guilty of the tactic of defamation.  The right is louder at this time.  But the media is in full complicity.  Cable news, talk radio, and Internet blogs thrive on conflict.  And no conflict is easier to exploit than that raised by false accusations and defamation.  The media amplify petty examples of stupid malice into major talking points.  The media may know the difference between rhetoric and propaganda, but it thinks that the generation of a huge audience rests upon the debasing conflict of defamation, not the rational discussion of real issues.

In the history of the world, hate-inspiring propaganda has always laid the foundation for violence and atrocities.  It has displaced reasoned discourse as the mode of political discussion in the U.S.  It creates the climate in which the disaffected and mentally unstable form their plots of action.  And that action tends toward violence, not vigorous debate.  The mass killers nearly always act in a political context, expressing alienation in violence against what they regard as political enemies.  


So what is the solution?  New York Times columnist Bob Herbert says we have to face some harsh facts about our country first: 

If we want to reverse the flood tide of killing in this country, we’ll have to do a hell of a lot more than bad-mouth a few sorry politicians and lame-brained talking heads. We need to face up to the fact that this is an insanely violent society. The vitriol that has become an integral part of our political rhetoric, most egregiously from the right, is just one of the myriad contributing factors in a society saturated in blood.


Native American columnist Mark Trahant, who asks "Are we a nation doomed to be violent?", cites specific examples of violence-inducing propaganda:

Just Google the words “Democrats are …” Some 6 million entries pop up filling in that last word as being Marxists or a willingness “to rob us of our freedoms.” These words go beyond a simple political disagreement: We on the other side are wrong or evil. We listen to calls for us to be exorcised from the nation’s discourse.


Both Herbert and Trahant suggest that America's violent tradition has to be faced as we make careful distinctions between honest dissent and hate propaganda.  In this the media has failed.    The Columbia Journalism Review makes a specific diagnosis:



Too many reporters hack their way past policy debates by simply quoting political actors on each side, without making an effort to track down the facts, examine the logic, and flesh out the context. A twisted idea of fairness, combined with simple laziness, ends up obscuring issues, making them boring and complicated rather than big and vital. 
One wonders if the press can take up its responsibility for freeing the language from its use as a weapon and restore its integrity as a device of communication as long as the press is controlled by audience ratings and advertising sales.  If bloggers ever fulfill their claim that they can supply what the press cannot, they will have to learn that distinction between rhetoric and propaganda and emphasize it.  Up to this time bloggers have been more attracted by the wiles of defamation than the thoughtful plodding of real rhetoric. 

The future depends on language.  And how it is used.  

1 comment:

Michael Henderson said...

This is a great post and one that should go viral. I've given this some thought and I wish it were possible that propaganda could be legislated as illegal. After all, propaganda is in some form, fraud, verbal assault, bullying, and an intentional act to influence others to do harm.

And if any of that is true, how would you prove it? How could such laws be enforced?

In my view, these mass shootings will not be resolved via legislation of guns or mental health but of propaganda.

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