Rhetoric And Its Use

Generally speaking, when we apply highly emotionally charged language to highly emotionally charged issues, we accept the ensuing controversy. If one wishes to make a particularly controversial point inoffensively, one typically employs a very delicate writing style and requests a lot of patience from one's readers. If, on the other hand, one cares little about who will be offended and instead prefers to direct one's message to those who already agree, one embraces the more potentially offensive nature of one's comments and digs deep for maximum rhetorical flair. This latter tactic is called preaching to the choir.

There is a third possibility: one can opt to rock the boat. Rocking the boat is when one employs potentially objectionable language for the rhetorical purpose of shocking people into second-guessing their priors. This is a risky approach, but one that can often be quite effective. (Most typically, we see this approach in art and literature.)

Thus, when faced with the task of making a difficult point, one has three options:
  1. Appeal to readers' patience and make the point delicately,
  2. Preach to the choir and let those who may be offended be damned, or
  3. Rock the boat, but be prepared to follow up.
Each approach results in different possible outcomes, so the trick of course is knowing when to employ which tactic. What follows is a discussion of rhetorical strategy.

Option One: Tact
Yesterday I read a mostly unremarkable article at The Atlantic online about some controversy over what someone wrote about some politician's wife. I am not close to the details of this issue and truthfully only clicked on the link to the article because I saw a picture of the Taj Mahal. But anyway, contained in that article is a good demonstration of the tact option I described above:
This is a tricky point to make delicately, because it's certainly true that there's a lot of manufactured indignation on the web, and I'm not convinced that much good comes from examining every written word in search of the politically incorrect just to have something to talk about. But that isn't a reason to ignore harmful stereotypes -- and what's remarkable about this particular paragraph of stereotyping is that people are not calling it out ... possibly because Internet sensitivity isn't set equally high for all ethnic categories.
It goes without saying that I am neither endorsing nor criticizing the article or this excerpt. I cite it only to demonstrate my point. The author, one Heather Horn, knows she may face blow-back from making her point, and thus aims to make it most effectively by anticipating potential objections, and asking that her readers follow her chain of thought anyway.

This option works well in discussions that risk knee-jerk reactions. In Horn's case, she knows that a white writer crying foul at unintended racism involves a lot of potential objection; thus, she accepts it, acknowledges it, and asks her readers to hold their objections until they follow her chain of thought all the way through, before making their final judgement call:
Because I was an equal-opportunity skimmer of reading assignments in college, I never had much time for Said, just as I never had much time for Adam Smith. But somewhere along the line, probably while listening to female friends of South Asian extraction talk about feeling exoticized by American men they were trying to date, something sank in. 
She then further buttresses her point with a description of the political theories of Edward Said. Whatever the actual merits of her argument, her rhetorical approach quite effectively serves to diffuse initial objects at least long enough for her to make her point. Chances are, the objections that will ultimately be raised will address her logic moreso than the knee-jerk.

How did it work for her? Well, a quick perusal of the comments section reveals that most commenters actually didn't care about the subject matter that much. The ones who did, however, still got stuck on the knee-jerk aspect of it. Oh, well. Better luck next time, Ms. Horn.

Option Two: Preach To The Choir
I suppose I've picked on Sonic Charmer a bit too much lately, so I'll choose another source for my example of preaching to the choir. In this case, I'm citing an article that I actually completely agree with on substance. Still, there's no denying that the author is preaching to the choir. How do I know this? Because Jacob Levy readily admits it:
Being anti-immigration in any broad way is simply, clearly incompatible with libertarianism.  It’s easy, it’s straightforward.  If I’m going to write about the evils of immigration restriction, it’s not going to be aimed at the people who fail to see that; it’s going to be aimed at people who don’t care about libertarianism as such one way or the other.  It’s not an internecine fight I’m going to pick.  The libertarian restrictionsist think I’m wrong on the issue, but I don’t see any reason to care about that; they’re not the source of public opposition to immigration, and don’t have anything especially interesting or different to say about it.
Now on with the preaching:
Respecting established property ownership is important.  It is less important than the principle that human beings are self-owners and not owned by others– absolutely, lexically, hierarchically less important.  But it’s a genuine value.  The southern antebellum slaveholding class used a language of respect for property rights (among many other languages) to defend their false right to own slaves; they posed as defenders of liberty against an overreaching state that might expropriate their goods without compensation.
It all means that the link between those concepts and that cause isn’t a fringe problem.  It’s not a set of marginal cases.  In my view the Confederatistas perpetuate the white southerners’ two-century-long scam of dressing up the cause of racial dominance in classical liberal clothes, perverting the goal of liberty into the project of slavery.  This has been a defining fact of American political life; it has served to discredit some of those classical liberal values and institutions, while also perpetuating a story in which the freedom of African-Americans (postbellum as well as antebellum) lies somehow outside the calculus of American liberty.  These weren’t uniquely southern problems; they were problems in and of the American Revolution and Founding.  (Samuel Johnson on the Americans: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” See also Adam Smith’s prescient analysis of the problems of herrenvolk democracy, and why monarchies were better bets than republics for the abolition of slavery.)  But they became especially and enduringly southern problems, and the rival views about how to think about the Civil War are rival views about the meaning of classical liberal/ libertarian ideas in American political life.  Are those values that have been especially strongly associated with the states of the old Confederacy, making southern white pride an attractive source of energy for libertarianism today?  Or are they values that were both misused and publicly discredited by that association, and that need to be rescued from it? 
Libertarians are rightly quick to say “that Che t-shirt you’re wearing stands for the entanglement between your socialist ideas and murderous totalitarian Communism.”  There are social democratic and democratic socialist traditions that were opposed to totalitarian Communism and continue to be so, and those who belong to those traditions are (at their best) thoughtful and attentive about the problem posed by that entanglement.  The fact that Communism used socialist ideas doesn’t discredit those ideas utterly and forever; but neither is it something to brush aside and pretend to be irrelevant, and certainly it’s not something to playfully flirt with (coughZizekcough).  It’s a live problem about the publicly understood meaning of socialist ideas and about their actual inner logic, and the social democratic thinkers I admire don’t shy away from that problem, and definitely don’t treat nostalgia for Stalinism as being a charming bit of egalitarian energy to draw on for support.  The Confederatistas’ romanticization of apartheid and continued conflation of libertarian ideas with southern nostalgia is a live problem in a similar way, and isn’t just a disagreement to paper over in search of a big tent for our little team to huddle under together. (Your  Stars & Bars t-shirt isn’t any cuter than the other guy’s Che t-shirt.)   The Confederatistas think that means that people like me are picking fights with them as a signalling device to curry favor with left-liberals; but the fact that they think so is itself a symptom of the fact that they don’t think the history of southern white racial dominance and terror is an especially important part of the history of American unfreedom.  For those of us who think otherwise– or, well, at least for me, as someone who thinks otherwise– this isn’t a difference that can be papered over. 
 Some commenters remarked that Levy had failed to name names, and that he was thus constructing a straw man. Who are the "Confederatistas," anyway? They sure sound bad, but do they really exist? Well, that's the criticism. Further down in the comments, Levy did name names, but let's assume that he didn't, because that will help underscore the fact that Levy's article is an unequivocal example of preaching to the choir.

It's an excellent example, not just in form and style, but also in strategic use. Left to their own devices, liberal strategists will use libertarianism's Confederate-sympathizing fringe to smear every single libertarian idea in existence. ("You're for free markets? Well I guess that means you're a racist Confederate sympathizer!")

Note well, and I specifically address this to Sonic Charmer: In such situations, what is required is an unequivocally clear disavowal of immoral, unjustified, and sinister beliefs. Levy doesn't merely throw up his hands and say, "I know there are racist idiots out there, but you're missing my point and you're twisting my words, and you're not doing a good enough job of listening to meeeee...!" The reason he didn't do this is because he was wise enough to know that his position is better served by a clear proclamation of ethics than a bunch of poorly constructed maybes and insinuations about people who are too dumb or bad or jerky to separate the wheat from the chaff.

To do this, Levy absolutely needed to appeal to his "Bleeding Heart Libertarian" base. He had to forget - at least for the moment - about making inroads with the Confederate wing of the libertarian movement because he recognized that when it comes to slavery and racism, the American public has a very low tolerance for "nuance."

In short, if you're going to start talking about race and culture and freedom and human rights, then you had better be prepared to come down hard on the racists and bigots and idiots who invoke the principles of libertarianism in order to justify the most atrociously un-libertarian positions imaginable.

That is not hard to understand, and I am extremely disappointed that some bloggers have a hard time just owning up to it. But at any rate, we see the occasional need to preach to the choir for maximum rhetorical effect.

Option Three: Rock The Boat
I think the clearest and most poignant example of rocking the boat was the day Sinead O'Connor decided to tear up a picture of the Pope on live TV in a protest against the sexual abuse that some Catholic priests have committed against many, many children worldwide. This is a crime that has only recently been formally and publicly recognized within the Church. O'Connor's performance occurred in 1992. The Church finally started owning up to this problem last year, about twenty years later. Twenty years is a very long time. I recall that during part of O'Connor's episode of VH-1's Behind The Music, she stated that she knew at the time that it would be years before anyone would understand her actions. She was right.

Naturally, she faced a lot of blow-back. To my recollection, she has never cowered away from this blow-back. She has never sought to avoid the controversy, and I am not aware of any occasions during which she faulted those who took offense for not properly understanding her position. This was a classic case of someone opting to employ shock to wake people up from a state of complacence.

Some feel that this kind of aggressive rhetoric is never of any use whatsoever. I, on the other hand, feel that it is an extremely important and highly effective rhetorical technique, provided one is aware of and comfortable with its costs.

The main cost of rocking the boat is emotional currency. Sinead O'Connor was on top of the world in 1992. That one act of protest cost her a lot of fame and money. To her, the protest was worth it. Considering that her protest strengthened a political movement that finally had its day two decades later, and ultimately succeeded, it's difficult to argue with O'Connor's approach. I am not sure a more sensitive rhetorical approach would have made much of an impact on society.

Another great example, at least in my opinion, is when Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Panther salute from the winner's podium of the 1968 Olympic Games. There was a civil rights movement going on. Ultimately, Smith and Carlos' position was the correct one. They were on the right side of history, regardless of whether some people understood that at the time.

But, again, they both understood that their protest would cost them a lot of emotional currency. Sometimes it is better to shock others out of their complacence in order to alert them of the evil going on around them than it is to smooth things over and play nice all the time.

But it would be silly to spend that kind of emotional currency on more minor issues. For example, when someone calls the gay rights movement's use of the word "pride" "retarded," one spends more emotional currency than is necessary to make the same point. It becomes a waste. It retains all of the hostility but conveys none of the seriousness required of the matter at hand. Yes, I do understand that being proud of one's sexual orientation is as silly as being proud of one's having thumbs. Facts of human nature are nothing to be especially "proud" of, and as I stated yesterday, the main point is that people ought not feel ashamed of things that are beyond their own control.

But look: I just made that point in a couple of sentences, without having to use words like "retarded." I also don't think I offended any homosexuals by saying that their movement is stupidly using the wrong words. That's the difference. If you can make this kind of point without tearing up a picture of the Pope, then why tear up a picture of the Pope? Use of the phrase "gay pride" is not exactly something out of which society needs to be shocked. It is blase. Why offend, if you don't have to?

Different rhetorical strategies can be used for different reasons in order to maximize the impact of one's position. I'm no expert in expository writing, despite the fact that I am prolific in that medium. But I have at least enough expertise to know that there are reason to choose one approach versus another, depending on the context. No approach should be totally written off, but each is only as effective as its level of appropriateness for the its context.