An anniversary, of sorts

A new term has begun, which means I’m busy introducing students to the ins and outs of rhetorical theory.

Today’s topic: the modes of appeal.

After introducing them to ethos, pathos, and logos, we spent some time talking about how these appeals appear in various examples of communication. In particular, I have an NRA advertisement that I like to use, featuring Tom Selleck, that is a good one to get the students thinking about how persuasion works (and doesn’t work).

After going through that example, I had a few moments to talk to them about how rhetorical theory can change the way you see the world. In particular, I told them a story about when I started seeing the world differently, through the eyes of rhetoric.

I took my first University course in rhetoric in the second term of 2002. That winter was the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and I remember watching the Opening Ceremonies of that event with new eyes. It was only a few months since the events of September 11th, so the wound was still there. I remember watching the flag from the World Trade Center being carried in:

And sure enough, it was an emotional punch to watch that moment unfold.

But as I watched and experienced the emotions that accompanied that moment, I remember feeling angry.  While 9/11 was a horrible time for my country, I resented how we Americans were using this moment of international awareness to make such a heavy-handed tribute to the events of that day. It just didn’t seem like the right time or place for such an event.

That was when I really started to understand how easy it is to slip from legitimate moments of audience connection (pathos) to moments of audience manipulation.

How timely that I remembered that experience on today, of all days.

Oh be careful little fingers, what you type…

So this last week has been a brutal one for me — it wasn’t supposed to be.

Jerry had the entire week off from work, and we had grand plans of filling our week with gardening, coffeeshop frequenting, obscure errand-running, etc.  And, some of that got accomplished (garden update: my tomatoes LIVE!). Alas, most of it did not.  Why?

I got involved in a nasty online debacle that has separated (maybe irreparably?) friends of mine, who I thought were pretty dear.  Oh, the power of email!  While it can be a lifesaver in terms of providing a written record and nearly-instant communication, it can also inspire such viciousness in false bravado.  There were words and ideas spoken this week over electronic communication that I know for a FACT would never have been spoken face-to-face.  And there’s the rub.

Right now I’m left feeling like I’m in the midst of a really bad breakup, and I’m trying my best to have some perspective on what exactly happened, and why.  I keep coming back to the communication adage I impart to my students (each term!) that it isn’t always WHAT you say to someone that’s so important, but HOW you say it.

It’s not that I want everyone to agree with me, or even always understand things from my perspective — but is it too unrealistic to consider the emotional impact of your message and the perception of the audience?  As evidenced from the flame war I witnessed this week, apparently not everyone has the same communicative priorities as I.

(and I feel fine)

Back home, is it the end of the world as we know it?

If you were to believe much of the uproar on conservative TV/radio/blogs these days, the US is now on the brink of an “apocalypse” because insurance companies will soon have to dedicate 80% of their customers’ funds to actual health care costs. (the horror!!1!) Worse yet, these same insurance companies can’t deny coverage to kids, and eventually will have to eliminate their overuse of “pre-existing conditions” to deny coverage to women. (again, the horror!!1!!)

I have to admit, it’s been fascinating watching all the hullabaloo over health care reform back home, especially now that I live in a country where health care isn’t something you have to fear not having access to. Not only that, but Canada is a country that so valued my first year as a mama that it ensured I could stay home with my little one, with pay, for her first 12 months to help give us a good start in our lives together. On the other hand, my sister, who lives in New York state, got only a 6-weeks and a we’ll-save-your-job with no pay start to her mamahood experience.

What I don’t understand is the fear and loathing of people who are opposed to health care reform — for some, it’s not enough that they lost and the bill is now law, but in the last few days, many Democratic members of Congress are receiving threatening phone calls or having physical damage done to their property by some enraged anti-reform folk.

More on this from tonight’s Rachel Maddow show — but be warned, this stuff is hard to watch:

and CNN:

I can’t tell which is worse: the violent nutjobs who are making the threats, or the quiet (and seemingly condoning) Republican congressional leadership. I think it spoke VOLUMES when none of the House Republican leadership appeared with the Dems to denounce these activities in today’s press conference. How bad are things when even some FOX News (!) reporters notice the dangers of over-inflated dissent inciting people to act out in stupid and dangerous ways?

Maybe much of this fury is to be expected? After all, even here in “socialist Canada” there were issues when health care reform was passed in the 1960’s. Last month there was an interesting article in Slate magazine that detailed how Saskatchewan became ground-zero in its role of starting government-funded health care:

As in the United States today, opponents of the health reform plan weren’t sure whether to denounce the CCF [the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party] as Communists or Nazis, so they did both. Protesters greeted [SK Premier Tommy] Douglas’ motorcade with Nazi salutes—when they weren’t throwing stones at it. Other opponents painted the hammer and sickle on the homes of people thought to be associated with the party.

The doctors made good on their threats: When the new health care plan was introduced on July 1, doctors across the province walked off the job. But the government was ready, flying in replacement doctors, mostly from Britain. The strike ended after three weeks, the health care plan stayed in place, and four years later, the Canadian government passed the Medical Care Act, which provided funding for every province to create a similar plan.

Douglas and his party were vindicated. Once their plan took effect, Shackleton writes, it “was soon so well accepted that no political party had the temerity to suggest its abolition.”

As we all know, Canada’s socialized medicine system stuck — and now, for the most part, it’s a point of pride for Canadians. (of course, it’s not perfect, and there’s always room for reform, but you’ll meet very few Canadians who are eager to privatize health care) In fact, a few years ago when there was a nation-wide contest for the “Greatest Canadian,” SK Premier Tommy Douglas won 1st place, solely for his political temerity to implement such a medical system in this country.

So while I’m dismayed at all the vicious (and dangerous) rhetoric that is being hurled right now by people who are opposed to reform, part of me does take heart that much of this sound and fury will hopefully diminish, once people can begin to benefit from what this bill will offer.

I’m patient enough to wait for Republicans who will eventually be as protective of this reform bill as they are now over Social Security and Medicare — both government-run programs that were initially vilified and denounced until they became sacrosanct to America’s citizens.

Until then, hold on for a bumpy ride.

“Hell no you can’t” versus “Yes we can”

Which side are you on?

I love Rachel so much, mainly because she often speaks directly to what I’m passionate about: social justice and reform.

You know, the older I become, the less I’m able to understand (read: empathize) with people who hold opposite views than I. I can’t tell if this quality of mine is due to me being able to fully cement my opinions and perspectives, or if it’s a sign of me becoming more stubborn.

I’d like to think it’s the former — because I have YET to understand the “pros” of supporting insurance companies over the rights of fellow human beings to health care.

Putting my humanities degrees to good use

From an email forward from a work colleague:

I suggest that graduate students hedge their bets with study of what may still be called the Real World. They should apply their formidible learning skills against the evil day that may cast them upon the waters of the economy, there to founder. Fortunately, especially for those in the humanities, guidance abounds.

Iliad: Dealing with stupid bosses
Odyssey: Marketing
Job: Corporate justice
Xenophon: Crisis management
Aristotle: Supply chain management
Commentaries: PR
Confessions: Ambiguity tolerance
Beowolf: Task prioritization
Chaucer: Yukking it up with the guys
Inferno: Meyer Briggs profiling
Prince: Means ends management
Quixote: Delusional leadership
Macbeth: Overreaching
Leviathan: Infighting
Austen: Strategic alliances
Narrative: Don’t take no for an answer
War and Peace: Balancing work and life
Nostromo: Reputation management
Mein Kampf: Meglomania
Rules for Radicals: Jujitsu
Lot 49: Networking

[link: comment #99]

If God is for us, screw everyone else

A friend of mine pointed me in the direction of a post on a popular Christian author’s blog, A Slave to Public Opinion. False Redemption and a Jury of your Peers. Here are a couple quotes from the post, to sum it up:

  • The truth is, there is one judge, and God does not look around to your friends to ask their opinions.
  • My feelings of self worth do not come from within me, they come from an external source. That source was supposed to be God [… but] after the fall, we continue to look for affirmation from an outside source, and that source is each other.
  • If [his] redemption would have come from Christ, he could see himself more objectively. But instead, he was a slave to the jury of peers.
  • It really is a waste of your time to defend yourself to anybody but God Himself. And it’s even more of a waste of time to claim any defense other than Christ crucified.

Donald Miller is one of the more “liberal” evangelical authors out there right now, but he’s coming across pretty fundy in this post, in my opinion. It’s a bit hilarious to see him diminish the human desire to appeal to others for affirmation — considering that, as human beings, we are COMMUNAL in nature. So rather than appreciate the natural elements of humanity, Miller sees this human attribute as a consequence of “the Fall.” (yikes)

But the hardest part for me to stomach is the last bullet I’ve listed above: It really is a waste of your time to defend yourself to anybody but God Himself. And it’s even more of a waste of time to claim any defense other than Christ crucified.

I take issue with Miller’s contempt for being accountable to critics in an audience. What does it mean to say that the only person you are accountable to is God?

In my opinion, it’s this kind of seemingly solipsistic approach that has made the church so irrelevant in many peoples’ eyes today. If the only person you ultimately need to please is “God”, well then it doesn’t matter who you hurt or whatever criticism is directed your way. You’ll always have an “out” — you can just shrug off legitimate critique and assert that your only audience is God (however you define him/her/it). So not only are you not accountable to the people around you for what you say, but this dismissive perspective also is a backhanded way of silencing people from questioning you in the first place.

So much damage has been inflicted with this kind of attitude, especially in the church’s service. I don’t see Miller’s disregard for human critique as something to be admired. If anything, I think views like his give license to some of the worst forms of religion out there.

Part of what I teach my students is the importance of considering the audience in your communication. Now this isn’t to say that you can always answer everyone’s critique (or that you’re even obligated to in all instances) — but to simply write out any consideration of the audience (or to characterize critical interactions as “a waste of your time”), reveals more about the flaws in your message and yourself as a speaker than it does about the audience you are addressing. That kind of dismissive approach conveys a condescending attitude that doesn’t win over people to your message — whether you’re an engineer attempting to find financial approval for a proposal or you’re a minister spreading the good news.