Rhetoric and real people

As follow-up to my previous post, starting on a tangent: The complete sentence Shakespeare has Cassius speak: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The assumption of writers who argue that we can be free of rhetoric, that rhetoric is some evil manipulation of people (who need to think more rationally), is that most people would not be ‘underlings’ if they were better informed, and rhetoric better controlled. That’s unfortunately untrue.

The two crucial speeches in “Julius Caesar” are by Brutus and Antony. Brutus’ speech is modeled after Cicero, and is an impeccably reasoned appeal to the reasoned identification of the audience with the interests of the Roman city – an abstraction. Antony’s speech is an indirect appeal to the individual citizen’s immediate emotional response (probably modeled on the sermons of Shakespeare’s Reformation England). The ethical backdrop to these speeches is ambiguous (acceptable to Shakespeare’s audience, since Romans were pagans, thus doomed to hell) – Brutus has helped murder a man recognized as a capable governor, because of what he might have become; Antony seems to be revenging a beloved mentor, but has a hidden agenda.

Ethically, both men are in the wrong: Thus their differing speeches need only be judged rhetorically as to their differing success (and Antony’s clearly wins out).

Shakespeare not only had a better grasp of rhetorical practice than most rhetorical theorists, but also of rhetorical theory. The problem surfacing, surely, is that of how the audience sees its own interests, not what is in their best interest, reasonably assessed.

One can’t ‘manipulate’ racists into engaging in racists acts. They are ready and willing to do so. Is racism in their interest? Unfortunately, they think so. So we begin undoing racism by undoing racists beliefs already held. Pretending they are being manipulated seems rather overly charitable.

America invaded Iraq – because the American people wanted to do so. The Bush regime gave them the excuses they needed to feel satisfied in their personal identities as citizens of ‘the world’s only super-power,’ a ‘Christian nation’ sitting as a ‘City on the Hill,’ an ‘exceptional people’ with an ‘manifest destiny.’

Fools do not fly in where angels fear to tread; they walk about daily, going to work, coming home, pretending they have a good idea of how the world works and expected of them.

My mother often said, that we are all born slaves; and once I asked her, if she had been hired to work at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, would she have taken such a position? She said ‘well, it would have been a job; of course.’ Part Jewish, and ‘it would have been a job, of course.’

Before we are the ‘rational animal,’ we are the ‘rationalizing animal.’ Never underestimate that – especially when it comes to the power of rhetoric to persuade.

The Socratic notion, that language and knowledge can be melded together to cut through rhetoric, and thus delegitimate the powerful, seems to me on shaky epistemic and psychological ground – not to mention that there is a sociological problem, namely that the powerful will use any means necessary to maintain power; rhetoric, lies – or military force. We only have such discussions as this because we live in a culture where rhetoric and lies are fairly successful, thus perennially deferring any sense of the powerful that they must slam military force down upon our heads. But we have plenty of examples of cultures where discourse doesn’t really matter, because everyone knows the powerful will use military force.

I’m not saying we need to avoid being critical of the powerful; on the contrary, in a culture where we can do so, I’m suggesting that we need to mount a rhetoric more powerful than the powerful present – persuasion increases our numbers, and there is strength in numbers. But in doing so, we would be in a stronger position the more certain we are of our own motives, so that our rhetoric doesn’t catch us by our tails. Antony’s rhetoric engendered a bloody civil war and led to the establishment of the Roman Empire – regardless of bourgeois scholarly hype, one of the worst political disasters in the West – regardless of its technical and cultural achievements.

That is a level of hell we need not have ever visited again.

Alas! we did; we did….

My caution: give up hope for perfection (‘utopia’ – Latin; translation: ‘no place’); surrender claim to glory and ‘grandeur.’

What do real people (the ‘naked ape,’ as one theorist called us – the animal we really are) really need? If that’s not the question, what is the question? What could possibly be a question anymore important than this?


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