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The Rhetorical Situation of Arizona

January 12, 2011

To paraphrase rhetorical scholars Condit and Lucaites: art, philosophy and science, generally speaking, desire to address the eternal and universal.  Rhetoric, to its everlasting oddness and occasional chagrin, deals instead with “pressing needs in particular situations.”

The tragic mass shooting in Tucson, AZ, sharply defines a particular situation as well as a pressing need.  Arguments of how this could happen and what must be done proliferate and diverge, but I see a common thread in many media commentaries:  the need for a rhetorical response.

There are other responses possible. There is the legal response—where an accused criminal faces the justice system.  It is a response assumed acceptable for any number of murders committed across America, even mass murders, even murders of children.   And there are religious or traditional responses, where long-standing rituals sanction mourning, channel means of support, and help people begin to accept a life marked by grief.

We have these responses: Jared Loughner is charged, jailed, and awaiting trial. The nation has observed a minute of silence and flags at half-mast. The deluge of media coverage allows us to join, or at least witness, communities in Tucson expressing sympathy and grief.

But how can a court trial account for the situation House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) described, where “an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve” and what Fox Commentator Bill O’Reilly defined as “an attack on every law-abiding citizen”?  How can a minute of silence or a single funeral be enough time to accept the possibly mortal risks inherent in open democracy, a line taken up in a New York Times OpEd and NPR coverage.  Even if those descriptions fail to express your reaction to the shooting, do you not feel that something, something else or more is called for?

That something called for seems to be rhetoric—public discourse and deliberation at the state level in Arizona and nationally by our elected leaders in Washington.  Commentators are already advising (advice also here, here, here and here) Pres. Barack Obama on what to say at the memorial service.  This advice suggests people place great importance on Obama’s comments.  They believe Obama’s remarks have the opportunity, at least, to be significant.  If he only says the right thing.

In a society that so frequently dismisses speech as “mere words” such dedicated emphasis on what the president will say stands out.   CNN even turned to actual rhetoricians, include Prof. Richard Vatz, to explain how rhetoric ended up at the center of this situation (and if it deserved to be there).

But I think Lloyd Bitzer, the scholar who first developed the theory of a rhetorical situation, explains it best.  Say what you will of Bitzer’s theory (and believe me, many have), Bitzer claims a rhetorical situation is “an invitation to create and present discourse,” discourse by someone intent on rhetorical speech.

This definition becomes clearer, and more compelling, when we couple it with Bitzer’s definition of rhetoric at large, a definition he gives early in the same essay.  He writes

A work of rhetoric is pragmatic, it comes into existence for the sake of something beyond itself; it functions ultimately to produce action or change in the world. … In short, rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action.

What I see, in both the recoils of horror from the actual shooting, and in the commentary of blame swirling through in some media circles, is that Loughner’s actions are not ones we want in our political reality.  And that right now an artistic, philosophical or scientific approach will not suffice (though art provides catharsis to overcome fear, philosophy gives both solace in the face of mortality and ethical guidelines for treatment of criminals and mentally ill, and science can offer means for measuring sanity and the safety of weapons).  What we need is discourse that revises the immediate reality we cannot abide and creates in its place a reality that better reflects the country we want.  One with a political system where people are voted out of office, not removed by violence.  Where senators are able to safely and publicly speak with constituents.  Regardless the depth and bitterness of our political divisions, can we not all agree on that?

A rhetorical reaction, by the President, by Congress, by Arizona legislators, brings with it the weight of law and the sanction of democratic leadership.  In a situation where the media itself has been implicated in fomenting, or at least exacerbating, the violent responses to political leaders, perhaps it makes sense that we wait for commentary not by pundits, analysts or columnists, but rather by elected officials.  They can both redefine our sense of the nation and enact changes necessary to bring into being that redefined world, by virtue of their legitimate power.

If you want to know more:

  • The opening paragraph comes from Lucaites, Condit and Caudill’s introduction to the section “The Character of the Rhetorical Situation” in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory:  A Reader.
  • Through use of judicious quoting, I greatly simplified Bitzer’s explanation of the rhetorical situation.  His more elaborate (though happily clear) description can be found in “The Rhetorical Situation” published in Philosophy & Rhetoric’s inaugural volume or in the reader listed above.
  • Bitzer uses the assassination of John F. Kennedy to exemplify a situation that calls for a rhetorical response, even when that called-for response brings with it certain, almost unavoidable expectations of what can be said.  We here at TST were discussing what it is Obama will say.  Though we, at the moment, lack the chutzpa (or is it hubris) to tell him flat out, we figure one thing Obama won’t claim is violence has a place in political rhetoric.
  • If Obama does surprise us, or if he doesn’t, check back here Friday (Jan. 14) for Hilary Franklin’s review of his formal remarks, to be delivered at Wed. evening’s memorial service.
  • Here’s Alex Pareene of applying one of TST’s favorite questions: “can you define that?” to media coverage of Jared Loughner (though Pareene’s political leanings might be more apparent than a typical posting here).
  • While CNN might have remembered rhetoricians have stuff to say about rhetoric, the Wall Street Journal remembered in this day and age, it’s science that sells.  Its article on the rhetorical response to the shooting turns to forensic psychologists, despite the fact that field’s name has links to two ancient roles of rhetoric (for did not even Socrates admit that rhetoric has a place in the leading of souls?).
7 Comments leave one →
  1. Vic Perry permalink
    January 12, 2011 8:59 pm

    While it seems obvious to me that political assassinations are political events, there seems to be quite a bit of resistance to allowing that anything “political” happened Saturday. A narrative strictly defining this as a situation of mental illness is a narrative that resists even calling the killer an “assassin.” Much less a “terrorist,” which is a word reserved for equally nutty-appearing killers (or would-be killers) who happen to incoherently define their aims in jihadist terms. In other words, we are knee-deep in rhetorical moves before anybody clears their throat to address the “rhetorical situation.” Good luck to us all.

  2. Alexis Teagarden permalink*
    January 13, 2011 11:11 am

    I, too, have been struck by the intensity of the media framing scramble. Although I wonder if my observation is a reliable one, or an idiosyncratic result due to recurrent use of “political rhetoric” in these frames, since political rhetoric is a phrase that generally gets my attention. Perhaps the bid for preferred narratives and frames was as intense following the shootings at Fort Hood or Virginia Tech, and I just don’t remember.

    I came across this Montreal Gazette article (link below), that offers political scientist Jonathan Rose’s take on the matter, similar to yours–everyone’s pushing for their preferred frame. So even across the border, people are seeing this.

  3. Daniel Dickson-LaPrade permalink
    January 14, 2011 4:16 pm

    GREAT post, Alexis. When I saw all the discussion about this, my mind went directly to Bitzer, also.

    It’s funny that VATZ was the one CNN went to, and appropriate; in each case, rhetors CONSTRUCT the rhetorical exigence to suit their own purposes, narratives, and ideologies–e.g., the shooter was liberal or conservative, Palin was an accomplice or was rather the victim of a “blood libel,” etc.

    Epideictic would be another theoretical concept very much in play here, I think. This irruption of a kind of violence we haven’t seen since 1959 REQUIRES condemnation, and it REQUIRES a reinscription of group identities, norms, and values, and it REQUIRES definition at the hands of a duly baptized cultural authority who can language and interpret this terrible event for us in a way that allows us all to move forward.

    CNN phoned up a rhetorician! I’m so excited! Squeeeeee!

    • Alexis Teagarden permalink*
      January 14, 2011 5:23 pm

      Great minds, Daniel (or is it small office-space-world?)–we were talking about the epideictic potentials, as well. Eulogies like the speech Obama gave at the memorial service are expected to be speeches of praise, but Doug was mulling over (and got me thinking about) the speeches of blame going around. Doug pitched the question: how do we understand speeches (and feelings) of blame against speeches (and feelings) of abhorrence? I think where we (maybe just I) got stuck was trying to extricate sentiments of “this should not be” from the immediate desire to know who is causing the evil things and then vaulting ourselves up to the satisfying “how to stop them” argument. Or rather, the media narratives make it difficult to express outrage without immediate advocating for your current preferred solution (political civility, improved treatment of the mentally ill, gun control…). I’d say it’s like Fahnestock writes in “Accommodating Science…”, even when given an argument at stasis levels of existence and definition, we start thinking immediately of higher levels, like value and action and jurisdiction. But then, I just went over argument stasis theory is class, which gives it concept-of-honor space in my memory and on my desk.


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