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When “Mere Rhetoric” Saves Lives: The Decatur, GA Gunman as a Case-in-Point

August 21, 2013

Rhetoricians and others who study persuasive language often find themselves confronted with the following tropes: 1) the use of the word “rhetoric” to mean empty or nasty discourse, 2) the idea that there is such a thing as “mere” rhetoric, and 3) a contrast between rhetoric and reality which would seem to imply that the two are totally separable (e.g. “we need action, not rhetoric”). The news this week brought a powerful repudiation of all of these ideas. In Decatur, Georgia, a would-be school shooter was talked down by a school staff member, Antoinette Tuff:

“She was in there, she was able to talk him down,” [DeKalb County Police Chief Cedric] Alexander said. “Had that not been the case, this could have certainly turned into something very, very ugly very quickly.”

Let’s reconsider these myths about rhetoric in light of this incident, beginning with the twin notions that rhetoric needs a “mere” in front of it and that rhetoric and reality are mutually exclusive things. There’s a good reason that “actions speak louder than words” is a powerful cliché. It is true humans would in many circumstances rather talk about a problem than do something about it. But, of course, oftentimes speech is action. Sometimes talking is doing. Moreover, sometimes speech is a more desirable form of action than what we can call, for lack of a better phrase, physical action. Rhetoric is, as I never tire of saying, one of the only known alternatives to force (another being, I guess, to run away). Tuff might have tackled the shooter, or shot at him, but she spoke instead and, although this is not always a smart choice (she could have been shot and killed), in this case it led to a remarkable interruption in what has become a terrifyingly well-worn narrative: shooting and dying inside a school.

How about the idea that rhetoric and reality are separable? Linguists, rhetoricians and others have repeatedly argued (and shown!) that language is not a mere accessory to the real world, a simple system of names for the things we see around us. Indeed, rhetoric powerfully defines how we see the world, shaping human action and understanding in ways that have significant material consequences. The consequences in this case are clear: no one died. According to accounts of the interaction, the shooter claimed that “no one loved him.” Tuff responded that she in fact loved the shooter (I suspect “loved” here has several available interpretations). News accounts claim the shooter had ceased taking some form of medication, so we cannot say for sure that what was taking place between these two was an exchange of arguments predicated on the giving of reasons (i.e. argument in a normative sense). Let’s assume, for the purpose of my argument, that it was. Tuff was contesting an over-generalized claim about the world (“no one loves me”) and, from the perspective of rhetoric and argumentation theory, she did a pretty darn good job. Confronted with a global statement about the totality of humanity, she disproved it with a single counter-example. Her claim, which boiled down to “well, I love you,” is admirable both for its human consequences and its economy. To put it simply: she said she loved him and, in that moment, her words made it so (from his perspective, at the very least).

As for the widely circulated claim that rhetoric is a bad thing, I think the example speaks for itself.

Really, though, I am pushing on a rotted door here. I think even the most cynical among us recognize that words are actions in a non-trivial sense. I suspect that we (and I’m including myself here) are trapped by our own linguistic formulas. Rhetoric vs. reality is just too easy a paradigm, and I say that with the greatest affection for James Berlin. Rather than go on complaining, I’ll take this opportunity to try out some alternatives to commonly used phrases which unfairly malign rhetoric. Picture these being exchanged in a debate if it helps.

Commonly used phrase #1: “Look, we need action here, not just rhetoric.”

Possible alternatives (lengthy, pretentious): “I agree with what’s being said, I just wish that the sentiments expressed were reflected in concrete action.” Or, “What we need is a material redress of the problem, not another articulation of it.”

Possible alternative (shorter): “We’re talking about this in the right way; now we need concrete action.”

Possible alternative (folksy): “Look, you’ve sold me the horse, now bring him into my barn.”

Commonly used phrase #2: “This is rhetoric, not reality.”

Possible alternative (lengthy, pretentious): “My opponent’s words are convincing, but there’s a gap between what she/he is saying and the lived experience of actual people.”

Possible alternatives (shorter, meaner): “Your rhetoric is deceptive.” “Your argument is untrue.” “You are making false claims.” “Liar!”

And now you know why I would make a terrible politician. But here my difficulty is further evidence of the problem. Inspirational stories like the one that came out of Georgia this week can help rhetoricians explain to the world that rhetoric should not be a devil term. But, until we have alternative ways of talking about rhetoric, I will continue to explain, at every Thanksgiving for the rest of my natural life that, no, I don’t teach others how best to lie to people. Any ideas?

If you want to know more:

  • I have drawn loosely on so many theories I hesitate to even try to name them all. I’ll name of a few of the most important ones. First, I take my notion of speech acts from J.L. Austin’s lectures, How to Do Things with Words. I would love to see a speech act theorist take apart Tuff’s claim that she loved the shooter. What are the felicity conditions to this act? Certainly we can say that her speech act was effective and “happy,” both in Austin’s sense of the word and in the sense in which we use that word every day. Then again, mustn’t a person know the person whom they claim to love? To be fair, we may not really be talking about a speech act in the technical sense of the term because there is no established procedure for claiming to love someone, and no way that this act can fail, key criteria for calling something a speech act. A statement like “I love you” can be met with all manner of unpleasant responses (with dead silence ranking near the top) but the idea has still been expressed. It’s also possible that “I love you” is in fact more of a statement that is subject to true/false judgements, the very thing against which Austin defines speech acts.
  • As for the idea that rhetoric powerfully shapes our conception of reality and, hence, the portions of the material world that we control through our actions there are many places to go: Whorf’s linguistic relativity, Bitzer’s and Vatz’s meditations on the rhetorical situation and huge portions of scholarship within cognitive psychology (especially the works of Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky). However, as I wrote this, I was recalling Saussure’s statement in Course in General Linguistics that language is not “mere nomenclature.”
  • See our FAQ for a more detailed account of what we mean by “rhetoric.”
  • As I was reading accounts of Tuff’s remarkable act, a slight suspicion kept nagging at me: is this too good to be true? Will we find out from other witnesses that something different transpired? I hope that the story is genuine, if only because it made me feel good. After watching The Woman Who Wasn’t There, I’ve become suspicious of any story that seems too inspirational.
  • Also, and I was surprised not to hear this more in the news coverage: trying to “talk down” someone holding a gun may not be a go-to strategy for dealing with a live shooter. A serious risk, indeed. I’ll be waiting to learn more here at TSTHQ (the Silver Tongue Headquarters).
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