Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sarah Palin vs. Barack Obama: An Issue of Rhetorical Ethos

With the tragedy in Arizona and challenges to vitriolic rhetoric, Obama's opponents are pulling up the relatively few examples of him speaking forcefully and Palin's defenders are pulling out an old 2004 bullseye graphic from a nonprofit Democratic action group, but the American debate challenging politicians, the media, pundits, and bloggers to dial back the ugly tone of our political rhetoric should not become a "you did it too" discussion. There's too much at stake.

It's true that political speeches have long used militaristic rhetoric. I say this up front because in evaluating the current debate about violent rhetoric and the Arizona shootings, I've already seen people who think that in order to silence discussions about dialing back the nastiness, they simply need to point out the use of violent figures of speech on both sides.

I'll even present this olive branch and admit that some progressives have also used "targeting" language when writing about or speaking of conservatives. For example, the Democratic Leadership Council used a graphic in 2004 that had bullseye images on a map about gaining back control from Republicans. I learned of this graphic because a member at BlogHer.com, Adrienne Royer, took issue with the graphic six years later when she wrote in 2010 about Sarah Palin's "Take Back the 20" poster.

The DLC is a group with which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords herself has had some association, but we know that Giffords does not embrace the loose ownership of guns nor use incendiary rhetoric habitually. We can also learn that the Democratic Leadership Council (which is not the DNC as some misreport) is considered to be centrist, not extremist. For instance, they support the rights of Americans to own guns, but promote enforcement of ownership criteria and safety, the kind of laws that would have kept the mentally-ill Arizona shooter from having a gun in the first place. (As you will see later in this post, that's part of my point. We decide meaning and intent based on context and what we know of a person's beliefs, practices, and character. Conversations about toning down rhetoric must not become a tit-for-tat style debate.)

In addition, I am not one saying that one person's rhetoric or even one group's rhetoric pushed Jared Lee Loughner to shoot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, federal judge John Roll, little Christina-Taylor Green, and others Saturday in Tucson, Arizona. Giffords is recovering, but Loughner allegedly killed six and wounded 14 people.

I don't blame a particular public figure or group because making such an argument without compelling evidence such as discovering Loughner built shrines to the Tea Party or Palin in his home is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, an argument that connects dots carelessly. We might feel in our bones that certain kinds of rhetoric directly influenced the shooter's rampage, but we can't know exactly how the shooter's disturbed mind worked to drive him to that grocery store because he's not talking and who can trust what he may say should he speak?

Nevertheless, as someone whose graduate focus is rhetoric, I must disagree with the use of another fallacy that's arisen as we try to make sense of tragedy, the tu quoque ad hominem argument that is being used to quash a much-needed discussion about hate speech and inflammatory rhetoric in America. As one scholar defines it, the tu quoque ad hominem logical fallacy is the "so's your mom" fallacy; others call it the "you too" appeal:
Like the appeal to authority and ad populum fallacies, the ad hominem ("against the person") and tu quoque ("you, too!") fallacies focus our attention on people rather than on arguments or evidence. In both of these arguments, the conclusion is usually "You shouldn't believe So-and-So's argument." The reason for not believing So-and-So is that So-and-So is either a bad person (ad hominem) or a hypocrite (tu quoque). In an ad hominem argument, the arguer attacks his or her opponent instead of the opponent's argument.
In the current situation, with Sarah Palin in particular falling under the microscope, any argument about speech must naturally look at people. It's people who speak and so they and their words are the evidence. However, as we look at people in the context of how their rhetoric creates a positive or negative political climate that persuades others to take action, we should focus on patterns, tendencies to use violent rhetoric and to speak irresponsibly (twisting facts to create hate, etc.) to inflame others. It's the pattern of speaking provocatively with little concern about facts or consequence that's at issue here.

After seeing CNN's interview with Libertarian radio talk show host Neal Boortz, who by the way was immediately cocky with Don Lemon (Boortz was flattered that CNN follows him on Twitter and made a point to say that he does not follow CNN), I decided I needed to write something again about the tit-for-tat argument style of some conservatives.

At the Wall Street Journal, I guess they've discovered that so many people are looking for dirty rhetoric from President Barack Obama that the WSJ has annotated a post about a 2008 Obama comment he delivered in Pennsylvania. In the speech, Obama said said, "If they bring a knife, we'll bring a gun."

I remember that. Even then the right was attempting to throw onto then presidential candidate Obama the criticism the left and moderates had thrown at Republicans, which is that they promote and create climates of fear. It's a common tactic with them to resort to this kind of arguing or rock throwing when they want to deflect attention from complaints against the kinds of harmful speech they tolerate or at least try to convince the general public that there's nothing wrong with shades of hate speech. (Clinton seized on it as an opportunity to criticize Obama as well, thinking he had put his foot in his mouth with white, small town voters and that would help her win.)

But when we look at Palin, Beck, O'Reilly, Limbaugh (Limbaugh, btw, has a page up at his website now called examples of Obama hate speech)--when we look at these kinds of public speakers, we observe a pattern, a history, and a practice of either an inflaming to entertain strategy or a willingness to yell fire at a paranoid electorate. So our concern is not about occasional slips into edgier rhetoric or using militaristic figures of speech sometimes when getting out the vote. It's about the rhetorical term ethos, the appeal of their persuasion through their character to the pathos--the beliefs and emotions--of their identified audience.

Palin, Beck, and Limbaugh in particular know that their audiences identify with people who hide behind the Second Amendment to defend keeping guns and a desire to use them and also a fear that they will become oppressed under a socialist takeover. The latter is a fear that these pundits/speakers have exploited.

President Barack Obama, however, has a reputation for compromise, for not being extremist, and for being cool-headed. He doesn't court the NRA crowd and speak of the joys of gun-ownership, killing moose or turning back the clock in America through an active militia. He has not been reasonably associated with people who today talk in terms of overthrowing the government by violent means.

In fact, it was in Pennsylvania that he got into trouble with his "clinging to guns and religion" statement about certain kinds of people who oppose him or feared him taking office. The U.K. Guardian back then called the statement "an uncharacteristic moment of loose language" for Obama. "Uncharacteristic."

He's not been the one dividing America with rhetoric about "pro-America areas of the country" versus, I suppose, "anti-America" sections, as Palin has done. He's not like Beck, who worked people up into thinking Van Jones is a die-hard communist to be McCarthyed out of his position with the White House. Nor has Obama ever suggested that any group of Americans had engaged in a plot to hurt America the way Rush Limbaugh said African-Americans have been in a plot.

In fact, the president had to be pushed to use stronger language during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last summer as some critics called him "too nice" and "not passionate enough." See the "whose ass to kick" video. Remember, Gen. Colin Powell even endorsed Obama for office because the man seems level-headed.

So, people know--I think that includes people on the right, too--they know when Obama's speaking figuratively and using a popular cliché to make his point. Too many on the right are being disingenuous when they seize on his words that are uncharacteristically fiery because unlike Sarah Palin, Obama does not have his people create websites like Take Back the 20 with gun sights over states and a list of opponents' names (a website she's removed from the Net since the Arizona massacre), and unlike Obama's opponents, he does not attract the kinds of supporters who proudly sport guns in public spaces. He and his family are the ones whose lives have been considered most endangered by the kinds of hateful rhetoric that started with his run for office. But the potential bullets claimed others.

This post is not intended to be a defense of Barack Obama. I am using the president's rhetoric and considering his ethos because some on the right are using his rhetoric as an example to defend themselves while not addressing the issue of ethos.

What I'm saying is that people are looking at people like Palin, who thinks she can win the Oval Office from Barack Obama in 2012, and the commonly-accepted talk of conservative pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and even Bill O'Reilly, because these speakers have a reputation for wild speech. When we consider their histories of using inflammatory rhetoric to get attention, we by nature consider their ethos--their character--and that is part of why we cringe at the words coming out of their mouths. We think they use fighting words craftily with ill intent.

Added link, 11/14/11: At Pam's Coffee Conversations, Pamela Lyn has written the poignant post, "When Should I Believe You? - an ode to political discourse in America."


Lisa Paul said...

I thought Jon Stewart had the most thoughtful commentary on the issue (and how ironic is it that a comedians have become the voice of reasonable political debate). He said, and I paraphrase, that it's beside the point whether or not inflamed right wing speech -- or anybody's inflamed speech and militaristic rhetoric -- motivated this nut. And it appears that it didn't, that he had his own mental demons that were driving him.

The issue, says Jon, is do we want the political discourse of sane people to sound like it's coming from the crazy people. So let's ratchet it down a few notches.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

It's not going to stop, Lisa. We're about to go into the big election ramp up. By September 2011, all this concern about rhetoric and AZ will be forgotten and America will be back to its he's-a-socialist-and-you're-a-Nazi,-they-love-illegals,-you're-a-reverse- racist-because-I-said-so talk all over again. We don't learn. And I say this hoping desperately that I am wrong.