Some Thoughts On Rhetoric

Some unorganized thoughts on rhetoric and tone:

1. I have sympathy for people who would prefer our civil discourse take on a more irenic tone. Bobby Kennedy’s remarks from his famous speech, On the Mindless Menace of Violence, well sums up the fear behind this preference:

When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force.

Civilized people, especially in a civilization which claims to value free speech as a means to truth and to fair and democratic rule, cannot ignore these warnings.

2. On the other hand, I have some sympathy for people who, for example, think that the British parliamentary culture of direct and agonistic discussion, with liberal use of polemic, has some value. For example:

(Jon Stewart also sums up the point here or here.)

There is a time for polemic, and, perhaps, it can be done in a way that is respectful of people. Surely even Bobby Kennedy would have agreed; one can recognize that violence and aggression should not be the default setting for human interaction, and still believe that they have their place in extraordinary circumstances. While gentleness is indeed a fruit of the Spirit, the one who had the Spirit without measure also was far from gentle during some points in his ministry.

3. I wonder if differences over this issue are related to gender differences.