Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Political Rhetoric

One reason I was drawn to politics early in life (it was my major field of study as an undergraduate) is that I've always been interested in language. What it is; how it's used; how it's abused; &c. Language is a powerful instrument. Those who understand it and know how to use it have power over others. Politics is about power--who has it, what forms it takes, how it's acquired and lost, what is and ought to be done with it, and so forth--so naturally most politicians are adept with language. Rhetorical ability helps them gain power, and, having gained it, helps them solidify, ramify, and retain it. Newt Gingrich, for example, is one of the most gifted rhetoricians this nation has produced. His speeches and writings should be study manuals for aspiring demagogues. Here are two examples of political rhetoric:

1. At least twice in the past couple of weeks I heard someone describe President Bush as "prancing about in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier." Not wearing a flight suit, mind you; not walking around in a flight suit; but prancing in it. When said of a horse, to prance is to raise the forelegs and spring from the hind legs. When said of a person, to prance is to "walk or behave in an arrogant manner" (The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide). Arrogance is bad, obviously, so the word "prance" is evaluative (prescriptive) as well as descriptive. It simultaneously tells the reader what President Bush did (the descriptive part) and condemns him for doing it (the evaluative part). The evaluation is implicit rather than explicit.

2. A great deal has been spoken and written about whatever it is that Howard Dean did nine days ago in what was supposed to have been his concession speech in Iowa. Some jokers have called it the "I Have A Scream" speech. At least the humor there is obvious. But a letter writer to today's Dallas Morning News describes what Dean did as a "squeal." He says Dr Dean squealed in order to thank and motivate his many young volunteers. Interesting word, no? Piglets squeal. Children squeal with delight. This term domesticates what many people saw as an intemperate, vulgar, and frightening outburst.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with rhetoric, even political rhetoric. An educated, informed electorate would see through it and perhaps even be amused by it (as I am). Unfortunately, not everyone is educated and informed. Rhetoric is used because it works. It engages the heart rather than the brain. It bypasses the rational faculty, thereby disrespecting ("dissing") the person. I've said for many years, only half kiddingly, that nobody should be able to vote without having taken my Critical Thinking course, or at least having read my coauthored (with the late Irving M. Copi) textbook, Informal Logic, 3d ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996). Learn logic. Don't be hoodwinked and bamboozled by the Al Frankens and Newt Gingriches of the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment