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The Rhetoric of Supreme Court LOLZ: Obamacare and SCOTUS Hit the Interwebs

July 9, 2012

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) likely spawned a discussion or two on your Facebook news feed. And you probably saw an image or two like the ones pictured here. These things have been going around quite a bit lately. But it’s important to note that the use of images in public argument is nothing new. Pictures, monuments, images, drawings, pictograms–all are potent political tools, and have been since long before Mark Zuckerburg invented today’s Internet. But images have never been so easy to create/remix/repurpose than they are today thanks to presentation, photo, and document design programs.
The current meme-craze suggests that images are firmly in the digital toolbox, but why do they work so well? Based on current theories of digital rhetoric, I think there are a few reasons they work so well:

1) People love to argue. The combination of argument, disagreement, and cheering for our side is what makes us paint our faces for the rivalry game just like it’s what prompts us to bring up politics at Thanksgiving dinner even though Uncle Bart is there. It’s also what makes us post political stuff on Facebook–maybe we can convince someone. Maybe not. But it feels good to get that off our chest, right?

2) People love to be connected. We don’t want to make an argument that is wrong, but more than that, we don’t want to make an argument by ourselves. In other words, we’d much rather be wrong *with someone else* than to do the extra research to make sure we’re right.

3) People love to share. We forward, retweet, repost, repin, reblog, copy/paste, and then we shout for our friend to come over–“you HAVE to see this.” Whether it’s a .gif of a bird on a tennis ball or Stephen Colbert pretending to be a nuclear explosion, when we find something we like we want to pass it on. I think we want to pass them on for two reasons: 1) we just really want to share the joy 2) we want to be the person our friends heard it from.

So, what does all this have to do with rhetoric? Contrary to popular belief, rhetoric isn’t just about creating persuasive arguments. It’s not just about the rhetorical triangle, kairos, or topoi. It’s about creating community, building connections, and sharing. The images prompted by last week’s ruling are about persuasion and argumentation, but they’re also much more than that. They are about joining into the deliberations our friends and followers are having, jumping on the same team as those we agree with and jumping on errors of our opponents. Rhetoric in the digital age, then, is more than just Aristotle online. It’s the ability/study of joining arguments and passing them on. Together.

I’ll give two more examples of this. First is this image of John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi:


This pretty well mirrors the feelings in the country (or at least those expressed on Facebook) since the ruling. This is the first thing the Democrats have had to cheer about in quite a while, and they are really enjoying themselves in cheering about it. On the other hand, phrases like “the Constitution is dead” have been flowing around the web as Conservatives commiserate with each other about the ruling.

The second example is a bit more wonk-centered. That is, only the biggest political nerds in the room will get the joke, which is why it is significantly less popular than the previous images, but also why it is delighting wonks and nerds across the interwebs.

This image is a remix of this classic image of a happily victorious Harry Truman holding up a newspaper erroneously proclaiming he had lost the presidential election. This is a particularly relevant image because, for a few minutes right after the Supreme Court released its finding, CNN and FOX both announced that the Court had overturned Obamacare. Turns out they were wrong and retracted the story, but not before some quick moving folks took some screen shots of the error.

For each of these images what is most important is the community they represent and create rather than the arguments they make or stances they defend. Now we watch and wait for the next SCOTUS decision or quotable snippet to come along in image form and take our social networks by storm.

If you want to know more:

  • ThisNation tells more about what went wrong with the Dewey prediction (spoiler alert: it was nonscientific sampling in the paper’s polls), while the Washington Post explains what went wrong with the predictions of CNN and FOX.
  • Kenneth Burke talks a great deal about rhetoric as “identification”–creating community rather than simply making arguments.
  • SCOTUS blog has a great summary of the SCOTUS decision in “plain English.”
  • No Caption Needed is quite possibly the best book on visual rhetoric.
  • The Sweetland Digital Media Collaborative is the place to go for more on digital rhetoric.
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