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It’s A Dirty Job, But Someone’s Gotta Say It

May 23, 2011

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 No, not some alternate universe where Aristotle has been replaced by Neo.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:

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Brent Saindon permalink
    May 24, 2011 10:20 am

    This is interesting to me, perhaps because the assumption seems to be that the problem of skilled labor is a problem of public relations, not the undesirability of the jobs or the serious lack of compensation. Or perhaps I am reading his comments out of context?

    • May 24, 2011 5:32 pm

      You’ve hit on the nuance of Rowe’s argument — that is, that we need positive PR for skilled labor because the jobs are largely perceived as undesirable and anything less than a four-year college education is viewed as an unfortunate compromise. One of the examples Rowe gives in his testimony is how a power plant couldn’t be built because there weren’t enough qualified welders. The money was there and the openings were there, but there weren’t enough people with the right skills.

  2. Jason Conger-Kallas permalink
    August 23, 2011 5:41 pm

    The rhetoric used by Rowe to appeal to his audience is both effective and well thought out. By using the real life examples of how not only he but also the “average American” worker who contributes anonymously to daily society benefits from the jobs most condone for whatever reasons, Rowe is able to persuade his congressional listeners to do what he wants (i.e. fund his program) while garnering public support, awareness, and respect at the same time (more people might tune in to his show as a plus). He does this by appealing to the ethos and pathos of fellow Americans linked by common principles to the common workers, while also integrating logos support in the reasoning that without similar such “magicians,” society would be severely limited.
    The fact that Rowe is a famous celebrity with other notable names campaigning with him draws media and public attention to pressure the congressional committee into making the decision that will most please voters and constituents. Also, the implied notion that being famous gives his statements more validity does not hurt, since based on the article the committee only interviewed celebrities or experts and not (ironically) the actual people funding would affect. Rowe uses his position of renown as a weapon with which he can cut through legal red tape and roadblocks to get where he can make a major impact on many workers. He (or a speech writer) knows that the committee would look unsympathetic or worse, un-American, to refuse aiding Rowe’s effort at least partially, so carefully crafted words are selected to promote the jobs not unlike those on his reality show. In these regards, Rowe’s claim is difficult to refute by any means of emotional or logical dissention since he purposely elevates his so called “dirty jobs” to an untouchable heroic status.
    Rowe weaves his web like rhetorical matrix quite well, since who can truthfully say they don’t want to create jobs that will benefit people after hearing Rowe’s defense that is about as clean of rhetorical fallacy as one can hope to get? His snare is in the implication that to disagree with him hints at relegating the hard-working American to a lower inferior status, something no good politician or patriot wants to do. This article demonstrates the power semantics of words hold when used by a skilled rhetorical writer or manipulator. Had different intentions or meanings been communicated in his speech, whatever results his testimony had could have been greatly altered, either in a positive manner or a negative one.


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