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What’s the Big Deal? Looking for Stasis in the WikiLeaks Cables Controversy

November 29, 2010

There are surprisingly few occasions when C-SPAN and The New York Times carry the same leading story. National elections, sure, but otherwise it takes a serious political crisis. Not that national elections aren’t a serious political crisis, but we know when they’re coming. It’s the Spanish Inquisition or release of thousands of secret U.S. embassy cables that no one expects. And we’re smack in the middle of the latter right now.

Obviously, the 250,000-plus U.S. embassy cables now in the hands of The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, among other newspapers, are controversial. But what kind of controversy is it? And I don’t mean if it’s just annoying or worthy of moving to Canada. I mean, what are we arguing about? A fact? A definition? Welcome to stasis theory!

Stasis theory was first staked out by Hermagoras of Temnos and now can only be reconstructed from what’s said about it in Cicero’s De Inventione and an unknown’s Rhetorica ad Herennium. It was also described by Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician who didn’t take credit for the idea, probably because he already had plenty to say in his twelve-volume Institutio Oratoria. The stasis of an argument is the main issue being argued. For Quintilian and his contemporaries, identifying the stasis was an important beginning to arguing legal issues because it identified where the disagreement was. To settle a disagreement, you should consider each of the four possible stases:

  1. Conjectural—that is, about fact. Did the person do something?
  2. Definitional—that is, about definition. What did the person do?
  3. Qualitative—that is, about quality. What is the quality of what the person did—for example, morally correct?
  4. Translative—that is, about jurisdiction. What actions should be taken now?

We’ve since liberated stasis theory from the Roman and Greek legal scene. In fact, we can use it in pretty much any context where there’s a debate, such as the WikiLeaks Cables Controversy of 2010. And what we find is that there are two sides arguing about not one, but two stases.

No one’s questioning if WikiLeaks, via an intermediary (allegedly Pfc. Bradley Manning), took classified cables out of the hands of the U.S. government and distributed them to major international newspapers. So we all seem agreed on the conjectural and definitional stases.

The problems show up when we consider the qualitative and translative stases. For the qualitative, WikiLeaks and its in-the-know newspapers consider WikiLeaks’ move to be the right thing to do. The New York Times, in its “A Note to Readers: The Decision to Publish Diplomatic Documents,” declares that:

the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.

WikiLeaks echoes this sentiment in describing its general goal to publish news and information “so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.” Although the newspapers take a retrospective “well, now that we have them we might as well publish” stance, WikiLeaks also identifies transparency in governing as another reason for the cables’ distribution and publication.

Are you surprised that those in governing don’t agree? (If you are, I have a bridge to nowhere to sell you.) In the White House statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Saturday, we’re told that:

President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal. By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.

As we see here, WikiLeaks’ transparency argument gets a response—and the Obama administration’s go-to argument-by-example appears again—except the whole point is that the U.S. can’t be too specific about who “our allies and friends around the world” are.

Each side’s different qualitative perspective leads to a disagreement over the translative stasis. A letter from a U.S. State Department legal adviser to the WikiLeaks lawyer asks for a cease-desist-and-delete. WikiLeaks, of course, wants to stay the course that it created.

Knowing what kind of stasis you’re dealing with doesn’t immediately resolve a debate, much less offer up a surefire compromise or make you a quiche. But it does help everyone involved realize if they’re even arguing about the same thing, whether it’s a cable that criticizes Qatar’s counter-terrorism efforts or the release of the cables themselves. Or if you think Cyber Monday is better than Black Friday (qualitative) and your friend is a Scrooge regardless of season (translative).

If you want to know more:

  • You can learn more about Quintilian and read his Institutio Oratoria online. Skip to Book 3’s Chapter 6 to read about stases.
  • You can read the White House’s official statement on the released cables.
  • You can visit the home page for Wikileaks and read about the organization’s mission.
  • Read The New York Times article on the cables here.
  • Read the English-language Der Spiegel article on the cables here.
  • Read The Guardian article on the cables here. The Guardian has also set up an interactive feature that allows you to search the cables by country, subject, or person.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. james permalink
    November 29, 2010 8:10 pm

    Both Cicero and the author of Rhetorica ad Herrenium describe the stasis theory and it is attributed to Hermagoras of Temnos. Well before Quintillian’s Institutes and Imperial “second Sophistic” rhetoric.

    • November 29, 2010 9:56 pm

      You’re right, of course, and I’ve rescued the original line that says as much from my overzealous editing. Thanks!


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