|Morning sun and last ice, Lake Leelanau|
When President Obama announced on March 16 his nominee to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, he noted that the nominee, Judge Garland, is well known and widely respected for (and I’ll have to paraphrase here, not having written down the exact words) “understanding before disagreeing” and “disagreeing without being disagreeable.” If you missed what amounted to a fully prepared speech from the president on the occasion of his announcement, it’s worth taking time to catch the whole thing.
I must admit I’ve been rationing my news listening of late. So little is “new” from one day to the next, and very little encouraging, let alone inspiring. Listening to the president on Wednesday, however, I did feel encouraged. I also felt proud to be an American and to have such a president in office, a man who has had one of the most difficult jobs in the world and has endured acrimonious hostility and partisan opposition at every turn, yet one who continues to believe, despite its shortcomings, in our country and its form of government and to be a model of civility to the nation and the world. I had been happy to read [in Rolling Stone, Oct. 2015] that he understands the “failures” of his administration are not exclusively presidential failures. He could and would have accomplished more with Congressional cooperation. The Congress wouldn’t have had to cave to his every demand, either -- just have been willing to engage constructively and compromise creatively. But “compromise” has become a dirty word to ideologues, both those in political life and all too many of those who elect them, Americans who have convinced themselves (or pretend they have) that political compromise is nothing less surrender to evil.
Really? Angels vs. Devils? Jehovah vs. Satan? Really?
In his essay on “The Future of Tragedy,” Camus wrote that tragedy differs from drama or melodrama in that, “the forces confronting each other in tragedy are equally legitimate, equally justified.” This is what makes tragedy difficult, if not impossible, to grasp in adolescence. In high school I could only see Creon as a tyrant, Antigone as a heroine. And yet, for the playwright and his Greek audience, the entire situation was ambiguous. There was reason, as well as blinding passion, on both sides. Thus,
Antigone is right, but Creon is not wrong. Similarly, Prometheus is both just and unjust, and Zeus, who pitilessly oppresses him, also has right on his side.
Camus gives the formula for tragedy as follows: “All can be justified, [but] no one is just.”
Ah, we keep our little minds so busy, we humans, justifying our lives!
And this is beside my point, too, but as Camus understands tragedy, the present American political scene may well be tragic, although Congress and the American public in general lack the basic insight of the Greek playwrights and audience. In all too many minds, we do not have tragic conflict but a morality play. If you see where I’m coming from. But that was an aside....
Slowly, in roundabout fashion, I am coming to my topic for the day, which is not tragedy but rhetoric. How the two may be related (if they are) will perhaps emerge before the end of this exploratory foray.
What is Rhetoric?
Before agreeing or disagreeing with any social practice it’s important to get clear on just what the practice is, so before I ask if rhetoric is good or bad, I need to be clear on what I take the term to mean. It helps to look at the origin of the practice. Then, does the term carry nonstandard but legitimate meanings, or are there nonstandard but legitimate ways of understanding the practice? Finally, has rhetoric changed (improved or degraded) over the course of history?
So tedious! I know! But what is the point of speaking or writing at all, if not to understand and be understood?
Well, the term is Greek, and so, like tragedy, rhetoric has Western European origins. More important in the context of present-day American politics is the fact that rhetoric grew up alongside Greek democracy. In the fifth century BCE, when ordinary citizens first had the opportunity to argue legal claims against other citizens, teachers of oratory offered their services for hire. They were not lawyers but speech coaches for citizens acting as their own lawyers. These teachers then devised theories about what made for successful speech. Finally philosophers got into the act, with concerns for truth and morality that went beyond having a winning argument. Perhaps we should note that all this was taking place in the early days of the decline of “the glory that was Greece.”
Roman rhetoric (Romans copying everything Greek for their own purposes) broke down the process of rhetoric into five components: analysis and research (the marshalling of facts); arranging of the material; putting the argument into effective language; delivering the speech (the performance); and committing its ideas to memory (for, one presumes, future use).
Having flowered in the Greek polis and law courts, it is hardly surprising that rhetoric became nearly synonymous with debate. The idea that truth emerges from adversarial verbal combat continues in our American courts and political campaigns today.
As Americans with differing perspectives, some of us may believe strongly in justice and politics as competition while others hold a modified or even entirely different view. For now, my point is simply that rhetoric and debate, like it or not, are
1) adversarial in nature;
2) closely allied historically, if not almost identical; and
3) serve a function in American society much like the function they served in ancient Greece.
One course required of all first-year undergraduates back when I was a freshman at the University of Illinois was Rhetoric. In that class we learned to take and argue for controversial positions, although, as I recall, our arguments were handed in as written papers rather than delivered to the class as speeches, so there was never an opposition ready to jump up with objections. The instructor, however, assigned positions to each of us, often not the positions we would have chosen for ourselves, and so to do the job we necessarily had not only to give support for our assigned position but also to imagine, anticipate, and respond to potential serious objections. That was rhetoric as it was taught to me – not debate, as such, but the clear statement of a position and solid supporting argument for holding the position.
This, in fact, is how I continue to understand the term “argument” -- as a reasoned exchange. Shouting, name-calling, high-horse refusals to explain with a patronizing “Trust me!” – none of that is argument, as I see it. Argument demands accepting one’s opponent as a moral equal, deserving of respect.
But is “rhetoric,” my stalking horse, something else? Is it something more – or (gulp!) less?
I can’t get the question out of my head because voices on the radio keep using the term “rhetoric” in a way to suggest that the practice is less than desirable in the political arena – ironically, the very arena that gave it birth. Rhetoric, they imply, is obfuscation at best, and inflammatory bombast at its present-day worst.
Suspicions of rhetoric are as old as rhetoric itself. John Ralston Saul, in The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense, presents under his heading “Sophists” the following description (his own opinions apparent in the other bold-faced terms he defines elsewhere in his book):
SOPHISTS The original model for the twentieth-century TECHNOCRAT; more precisely for the BUSINESS SCHOOL graduate and the ACADEMIC CONSULTANT.
These fifth-century BC teachers wandered around Greece selling their talents to whomever would hire them. Their primary talent was rhetoric. They were not concerned by ethics or the search for truth. Long-term consequences, indeed reality in most forms, did not interest them. What mattered was their ability to create illusions of reality which would permit people to get what they wanted.
Clearly, reservations about rhetoric today are nothing new. Back at the root of reasoning’s public practice, rhetoric was used by the Sophists for gain, their own as well as that of their clients, and victory was the sole relevant measure of rhetorical quality. Serious examples of debate today (in my opinion, American political campaign matches hardly merit the term, although they certainly employ rhetoric), e.g., the “Oxford-style” debates we hear on public radio, while neither monetary award nor political office is at stake, are still concluded with winners and losers, as decided by audience vote.
Sample question: Has religion contributed, over the course of history, more good or evil to human society? Two teams argue, each taking a side of the question. In the end, the audience votes for one team or the other. Truth decided by vote: a strange Western notion.
And there’s the sorry truth of it: outside a classroom led by a instructor with high standards of argument, rhetoric as persuasive reasoning can include just as many straw men, bandwagon appeals, camels’ noses, and other informal logical fallacies as can be put over on an audience. And that’s not all. Innuendo, empty claims, and outright falsehoods, if said with sufficient conviction and repeated often enough, can be – and here we must sigh over having to use a perfectly inoffensive word in such a ghastly context – effective.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Because argument presupposes an attempt to influence, if not an outright conflict of opinion, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, whether or not there’s yelling involved. But can we imagine a human society that made no attempt to influence the thinking of its members? Fear and force are one way to urge social conformity. Reason, which presupposes freedom and works through argument, is another.
But suppose you are not comfortable with conflict, perhaps also fearful of “losing” – what are your options if you decline to engage in debate?
Here’s one possibility: Refuse to listen. Walk away. Get on your high horse and take what you see as the high road. Follow the example of Senate Republicans, who say to the president, “We don’t care who you nominate for the Supreme Court. We will not meet with your nominee, and we will not hold hearings.”
Am I the only one reminded by this strategy of fifth-grade girls? “Come on, let’s walk away. We’ll just ignore her!” Did we really elect people to Congress to play this game instead of doing their job? Well, perhaps we can be thankful Senate Republicans are not acting like fifth-grade boys, slugging it out (wordlessly, of course) on the playground after school!
Sometimes people are yelling because they think no one is listening. Listening could be a course of action taken in place of debate. I say “in place of” deliberately, because although in a true debate only one person can speak at a time, we have all seen the others making notes and preparing their rebuttal during the other side’s speeches. Understanding is not the goal in debate, much less working together – only “winning.”
I’ve said that reason -- that is, argument -- demands and presupposes freedom and equality. I’m thinking now about listening and wondering what, if anything, it presupposes. There is, unfortunately, a frequent perception, shared by speaker and listener, that the speaker is in a superior, one-up position (see Tannen reference at the bottom of this post). Can a listener take a different perspective on the relationship? If so, might the speaker’s perception also shift? Not necessarily. But possibly?
I haven’t found a wide, clear path yet but am searching through the forest.
Judge Garland’s way, as President Obama characterized it, of “understanding before disagreeing” tells me that the judge must be a good listener. I can psychologize and/or demonize an opponent, based on his or her positions, but I can’t understand the reasoning that led to those positions unless (1) the other person is willing to explain his or her reasoning, and (2) I am willing to listen. Possibilities that follow listening are multiple rather than binary:
o I may find I agree with the speaker, after all. Perhaps we were simply using different language and not realizing we were aiming in the same direction.
o I may agree with some of the speaker’s reasons but don’t see that they entail the conclusion the speaker has drawn. Maybe we can talk this through together.
o Our positions may be incompatible but not marked by enormous pragmatic distance. Perhaps we can each move a little closer.
o I disagree more strongly than ever and now understand more clearly where our disagreement lies. Understanding allows me to aim my own explanation to the heart of the matter, in hopes of changing the speaker’s mind or modifying her or his position.
o I might change my mind!
These are possibilities that immediately occur to me, not a list I see as exhaustive. Do you see other possible outcomes?
Maybe, as Bergson says of the future, the path to bring us together isn’t lying somewhere in the woods, waiting for us to stumble upon it. Maybe we have to clear that path ourselves.
As for the Senate blocking the President’s nominee for the Supreme Court, the following idea comes from my friend Michael Roth:
"Recent history suggests there are no adverse consequences for this style of political maneuvering. So perhaps an alternate form of questioning might be to investigate what the opposition's options are.
"Suppose the president could get a federal court somewhere to find that the submitting the name is sufficient for fulfilling his constitutional duty and since the Senate has chosen not to weigh in, he can go ahead an seat his nominee.
"The senate might then chose to appeal this to the supreme court. Assuming the appeal results in a 4-4 tie, the lower court's ruling would hold and the Justice would be seated.
"Is that possible. What are the next steps for getting it done?"
That Michael! He was definitely one of the smartest of our graduate school philosophy cohort!
Suggested reading: The Argument Culture: Working from Debate to Dialogue, by Deborah Tannen; The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense, by John Ralston Saul