It’s A Dirty Job, But Someone’s Gotta Say It
Voyeurism is never so delicious as when we have no experience with—but plenty of curiosity about—what we’re watching. Most of us aren’t “guidos” and “guidettes,” or even play them on TV, but we can watch Snooki, The Situation, and their friends on Jersey Shore. Most of us aren’t 16 and Pregnant, but once again, MTV provides.
Which brings us to the show Dirty Jobs, where host Mike Rowe engages in a different kind of unseemliness than what the Jersey Shore crew is doing right now in Italy. Leech trapper, sausage maker, maggot farmer—Mike has done it all on his show in order to, as he says on the show’s web site, “profile the unsung American heroes who make their living in the most unthinkable—yet vital—ways.”
In fact, Mike recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about the need to campaign for skilled labor—not just to make it a career destination, but to give it a good name.
This is a difficult message to get across because many (if not most) viewers of Dirty Jobs start watching the show for more voyeuristic reasons. This means that Mike’s show in general, and his Congressional testimony in particular, is happening in a “rhetorical matrix.” No, not some alternate universe where Aristotle has been replaced by Neo. A “rhetorical matrix” is when you have a single situation with multiple rhetors and multiple audiences, like that Congressional hearing I was just talking about.
After all, as amazing as Mike is, he wasn’t the only witness to testify. He was joined by Leo W. Gerard, International President of United Steelworkers, and Dr. Stephanie Burns, Chairman of Dow Corning Corporation.
But more importantly, Mike was talking to multiple audiences, which meant that he had to be different things to different people. If, as Kenneth Burke states in A Rhetoric of Motives, “you persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his,” Mike was going to have to talk the language of Congress and Dirty Jobs at the same time. (Not that these languages are so different, depending on your level of political cynicism.) What Burke observed, and what Mike needed to do, was to talk these languages in a way that showed both audiences that he understood them and was one of them.
So, Mike began his testimony with a story about his grandfather:
I’m here today because of my grandfather. His name was Carl Knobel, and he made his living in Baltimore as a master electrician. He was also a plumber, a mechanic, a mason, and a carpenter. Everyone knew him as a jack-of-all-trades. I knew him as a magician.
One point for speaking the language and experience of Dirty Jobs! Especially since Mike goes on to explain how his grandfather, his dad, and he fixed an exploding toilet… and how it’s one of his favorite memories.
Mike then contrasts this heartwarming anecdote with a more recent event:
Thirty years later in San Francisco when my toilet blew up again. This time, I didn’t participate in the repair process. I just called my landlord, left a check on the kitchen counter, and went to work. When I got home, the mess was cleaned up and the problem was solved. As for the actual plumber who did the work, I never even met him.
One point for speaking the language and experience of Congress, who I’m betting do not fix their own exploding toilets.
Mike chalks up another point in each category for continuing to talk about the vital importance of the kind of skilled labor his grandfather was capable of and for talking about chatting with the Secretary of Agriculture and starting his own foundation, mikeroweWORKS, to revitalize the disenchanted public opinion of such skilled labor. He’s got street and Congressional cred.
Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on The Simple Life never had either, but they weren’t trying to send a message. Mike Rowe may have been #4 on Maxim’s “Dudeliest Dudes of 2007” list, but he’s not just a pretty face. He’s got something to say—to a lot of different people.
If you want to know more:
- The concept of the “rhetorical matrix” comes from Young and Launer’s Flights of Fancy, Flight of Doom: KAL 007 and Soviet-American Rhetoric (University Press of America, 1988). Another positive, and more famous, example of a multi-audience situation is President Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech on the campaign trail in 2008.
- The UC press page for Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives is here.
- Read the transcript or watch the video of Mike Rowe’s testimony.
- Check out (pictures of) Mike in a suit—and with no hat!
- Check out the official web page for Mike’s Dirty Jobs show.
- Want to buy some Dirty Jobs merchandise for yourself? Or for me?