November 5, 2007

More on the Rhetoric Beat

Tim at Jig’s Old Saws tears into Brent Cunningham re: the rhetoric beat. I mentioned it approvingly late last week. I say “approvingly” because I’m glad an outfit like the Columbia Journalism Review is running an essay about an important gap in the coverage of civic affairs.

I linked to this post from 2006. While I voiced a concern, I failed to put a fine enough point on it–allowing the link to be my argument.

Here’s the finer point: The rhetoric beat–a great idea!–cannot and should not police vocabulary because:

Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias to the message. If, as asserted earlier, there is no such thing as an objective point of view, then there cannot be objective or transparent language, i.e. a one-to-one correspondence between reality and words such that I may accurately represent reality so that you experience it as I do. Language mediates our lived experiences. And our evaluation of those experiences are reflected in our language use. Rhetoric scholar James A. Berlin once said that language is “never innocent.” By this he meant that language cannot be neutral; it reflects and structures our ideologies and world views. To speak at all is to speak politically.

Getting fussy about estate taxes versus death taxes versus inheritance taxes is the stuff of opinion journalism. That’s fine.

Reporters, who should be ever mindful that no terms are politically neutral, can cover a rhetoric beat if they cover the right thing: the structure of argument, not vocabulary.

Let’s revisit that post from 2006 for an example:

A strawman fallacy sets up this way:

Faction A claims X, but the truth is actually Y.

The claim X is a strawman if it meets one of the conditions above.

We often see it appear in journalism (strategically?) in this form (politicians use this, too):

Some say X, but the truth is actually Y.

Notice that X and Y replace propositional content (all the stuff about e.g. “civil war” versus “sectarian violence”). We can do this because many rhetorical strategies (also fallacies used strategically) have specific and identifiable structures. It is exactly these structures that should be the focus of any reporting of civic rhetoric.

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