Is Toning Down The Rhetoric All Talk?

January 14, 2011

Linton Weeks

This week brought a high volume of hypercharged rhetoric over whether hypercharged rhetoric contributed to last Saturday's shootings in Tucson, Ariz. Yet there is no indication that the country will do better when it comes to violent speech, or that the spitting match will ever end.

The airwaves and blogosphere continue to zing with tirades and accusations and recriminations. And The New York Times reported on Thursday that the two-year-old Civility Project, an effort to get members of Congress to sign a pledge of mannerliness, is being dissolved because only three people signed it.

Does the public really want a kinder, gentler brand of politics?

Appealing To Better Angels

Dennis M. Hertel thinks so.

A Democrat from Michigan who served in the House of Representatives from 1981 to 1993, Hertel is head of an informal group of former members of Congress -- Republicans and Democrats -- who, like those behind the failed Civility Project, yearn for moderation in political discourse.

In the fall of 2010, Hertel's organization published an open letter calling for "a civil and productive 112th Congress."

The erstwhile members called on the current Congress "to find common ground to solve problems" and "to have a spirited but civil debate about how to do so… As partisan veterans, we join together to advocate a change in approach – a change in rhetoric and tone that can lead to a focus on problem-solving."

Political debate, Hertel says in an interview, "has been headed in this direction for some time."

When it comes to civility, he says, "you can't legislate it ... but you can create an awareness of what our words really mean."

In a moment of reverie, he recalls uberDemocrat Tip O'Neill traveling to Michigan to help raise funds for uberRepublican Gerald Ford's presidential museum. Hertel reminisces of bygone days when politicians from both parties duked it out in the halls of Congress, then repaired to the golf course to play amicably together.

He longs for those halcyonic times and advocates a "pulling back" on harsh words and partisan attacks today.

Some sitting members of Congress echo the sentiment. "I think we all have a responsibility to tamp down our rhetoric without tamping down our passion," Democratic U.S. Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte told the Charlotte Observer.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has called for healing. In a conference call following the Arizona attack, Boehner appealed to the better angels in all members of Congress:  "At a time when an individual has shown us humanity at its worst," Boehner said, "we must rise to the occasion for our nation and show Congress at its best."

A Boston Globe editorial writer opined this week that "the general public says it's fed up with angry talk. Maybe politicians, who have to appeal to a broad audience, will find themselves under pressure to tone down the rhetoric in the next year or two."

Changing The Tenor

"I always cringe at the idea that we need to 'tone down the rhetoric' in politics," says Christian Lundberg, a professor of rhetoric and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "The definition of rhetoric that this formulation implies is that rhetoric is empty or bombastic speech. We rhetoricians like to define the idea of rhetoric as any speech that aims at convincing someone of something."

Even the call to ratchet down the rhetoric in politics, Lundberg says, is a rhetorical act.

"It aims to convince people to moderate their speech," he says. "This realization is important, because it should remind us that every claim in public life has some agenda behind it, and further, that we should not make judgments on whether or not someone is using rhetoric, but rather on the motivations behind their speech."

Lundberg lists a number of improvements we could make in our day-to-day discussions: "I'd like to see a voluntary moratorium on violent metaphors, I'd like to see less talk about people and parties and more talk about policies, I'd like to see less blame attribution, less recourse to claims of victimization, etcetera. Any or all of these changes could make a big difference in the tenor of American public life."

The problem, he says, is that the very strategies he would like to remove from public debate actually succeed "in a context where political talk aims at the lowest information, lowest complexity forms of political argument. In other words, war metaphors, personification of politics, blame, victimization all work as rhetorical strategies because they translate into compact and simple narratives about who the public should vote for."

As a result, he says, "it is unlikely that anyone would give up any of these tools in the rhetorical arms race that is American politics." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.