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Syria and Persuasive Force

September 5, 2013

Why are we motivated by how people are killed?

This weekend’s Syrian news cycle reminded me of Kenneth Burke, particularly his perspective on persuasion. Burke, writing under the shadow of World War II, argues to be human is to create hierarches and

…since, for better or worse, the mystery of the hierarchic is forever with us, let us, as students of rhetoric, scrutinize its range of entrancements, both with dismay and in delight. (333 also see 141)

Perhaps the urge for hierarchy can explain the persuasive quality (or the attempt to persuade) in Pres. Obama’s speech justifying a military response to Syrian Pres. Assad’s use of chemical weapons.*  Obama gives five reasons for military intervention; I see all of them resting on the assumption that killing with chemical weapons is worse than killing with “conventional” ones. For given the US’s previous non-intervention, if Obama argues the 350-1400 deaths (reports vary) by chemical weapons were “heinous” then he also implies the earlier 100,000 Syrians deaths (Aljazeera; BBC; CNN; Guardian) were tolerable.

Creating a hierarchy of means therefore results in a hierarchy of deaths; being killed by chemical weapons matters more than being killed by bullets, shells, and the negative consequences of war-torn cities. Over 71 times more, if one does the math—not that math makes sense here. Instead we can make sense of ranking by way of analogy; categories of people killed have traditionally had different meanings. Civilians’ deaths, for example, are often weighed as more compelling than those of soldiers’; women’s more so than men’s; children’s over adults’. If in death different categories of people have different persuasive weight, then different means of bringing death also can have different values.

But are we content with such reasoning? The British parliament says no (Guardian; Telegraph). The Washington Post’s “Nine Questions…” (which 16% of my students had in hand today!) says yes. As Burke argues, the urge to create hierarchies is universal, but hierarchies themselves are not. They are human inventions and can be changed. Perhaps US citizens, unlike those of the UK, will agree with Obama’s ranking, and thus find military action is justifiable, even required. Perhaps keeping chemical weapons off the geopolitical bargaining table is a tradition worth military costs. Perhaps holding the line is enough of an argument. And to reframe the analysis completely, perhaps use of chemical weapons simply created a rhetorical situation that allowed Obama and his foreign policy advisers to change tactics.

There are many ways to reason through the murky suffering of Syria. But the chemical weapons warrant, that makes some means of killing worse than others, strikes me as having enough significance and complexity to merit the same scrutiny as what “narrow and limited” means or if chemical weapon use can be conclusively proven. Congress’s decision will be significant in material terms, but the language of debate also shapes the world. As Burke, if called from the grave to testify, might point out “The choice between war and peace are ultimate choices. … And as acts of persuasion add up in a social texture, they amount to one or the other of these routes—and they are radical” (179).

If you want to know more:

  • With Iraq as backdrop chemical weapons claims demand scrutiny and invite skepticism. The US, France, and other countries confidently report their use. At the time of publication the UN’s verification is still ongoing.
  • Complete transcript and video of Obama’s speech found here.
  • I read Obama’s rationale for military intervention as follows:
  1. “This attack is an assault on human dignity.” Assumption: chemical weapons create more indignity than conventional weapons.
  2. “It also presents a serious danger to our national security.” Assumption: chemical weapons—used by anyone, anywhere—threaten the US in a way conventional weapons and their resulting negative spill-over [e.g.: 2 million refugees and over 4 million internally displaced people (Aljazeera; BBC; CNN; Guardian), increased terrorist activity, further instability in Middle East] do not.
  3. “It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.” Assumption: that global prohibition is worth defending, because chemical weapons are worse than conventional ones.
  4. “It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.”  Assumption: chemical weapons are more threatening than conventional weapons and their spill-over consequences, as with reason 2.
  5. “It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.” Assumption: chemical  weapons pose a greater security risk than conventional weapons.
  • I cite Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives [1950]. Berkeley, CA: U of CA P, 1969. Print. See TST make our own sense of Burke here and here.
  • CNN.com is tracking House and Senate comments by member.
  • This week’s Economist has an informative leader (complete with timeline) on how the chemical weapons taboo developed historically.
  • The Post article I mention “9 Questions about Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask” is by Max Fisher. Fisher offers another quasi-mathematical view of chemical weapons: “they’re maybe 30 percent a battlefield weapon and 70 percent a tool of terror.” To me this still lines up with the hierarchy of deaths I describe above—civilians’ deaths matter more than soldiers’ and death via terrorism is worse than death via war. Original can be found here; illuminating Teju Cole’s parody below the tweets here.
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