Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Rhetorical Pressure and Moral Will

We are currently living in deficient democracies. For democratic rule depends on an informed public who have the ability to be heard in the public discussion.

In “Introduction to Rhetorical Theory” Hauser writes that public discussion forms public judgment, and the quality of this discussion “depends on the conditions under which it takes place.” (88) Hauser mentions some of the conditions necessary for a good public discourse: “right to participate”, “access to relevant information”, “access to relevant media of dissemination so that they [citizens] can share their point of view with others in the public”, and “right of free speech.” (90) Whenever any of these are lacking it undermines good public judgment and (by implication) poses a threat to democracy.

Except for freedom of speech, all the conditions mentioned above are controlled mainly by the media. Though a citizen may want to participate in the public discourse, he is not likely to be heard unless he is granted access to relevant media of dissemination, and the media organizations often have the privilege to decide which information is relevant for their audience and how that information is presented.

Mass media is arguably one of the strongest “social forces” of modern society. There is a real danger that such forces could deceive a people to identify themselves with principles, parties and social movements that they ultimately do not have joint interests with. As Burke remarks in “Linguistic Approach to Problems in Education”, “In practice, democratic states move toward a condition of partial tyranny to the extent that the channels of expression are not equally available to all factions in important public issues. Thus we see democracy being threatened by the rise of the enormous ‘policy-making’ mass media that exert great rhetorical pressure upon their readers without at the same time teaching them how to discount such devices; and nothing less than very thorough training in the discounting of rhetorical persuasiveness can make a citizenry truly free.” (285)

Burke claims that a citizenry which has not been "thoroughly trained in the discounting of rhetorical devices" is in some ways enslaved. Clearly such a citizen will not be able to achieve enough autonomy from social forces to render him capable of reacting back on those forces effectively. Such training would contribute to restore the balance upset by the rise of ‘policy-making’ mass media and make citizens able to detect and hopefully avoid manipulation.

A stable democracy needs citizens who are able to distance themselves from these influences, question them to see what they are doing, and make a conscious decision to act with or react against those influences with intelligence and power. I believe that in order to become such a people we need to be learned in the intelligence of persuasion: rhetoric and rhetorical criticism.

As Professor Gary Layne Hatch writes, "those who understand the power of language to shape and respond to significant moments in time can gain some power over their circumstances and expand their individual freedom and influence. They become agents [no pun intended] - those who act - rather than those who are acted upon." Rhetorical criticism is how we can pause and negate some of the "bullets of influence" that fly at us all the time, and by using rhetoric we can fight back against those influences that are harmful. 
I believe we need to raise more awareness and help people be more educated about persuasion and democratic participation. Otherwise we may as well let a handful of powerful people rule us, since that is in effect the same experience we have as non-participating citizens. Hatch comments, "For many people, life is motion rather than action. Things happen to them that seem beyond their control. They are caught up in the flow of time and seem to be victims of circumstance."

Democracy is a gift that should be a cherished and living part of our societies. As Senator Smith says in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", "Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books."