Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and today I want to start with a walk down memory lane

 

Remember laser discs? You might not be old enough to, but I do. I remember my seventh grade science classroom had a laserdisc player and we watched just a couple of films, brilliantly bright documentaries about butterflies or some other medium-appropriate topic. I don’t remember the topic, only that it was beauitlful. But I do remember that we only had the two laserdiscs, partially because they were expensive, but partially because in just a couple of years, DVDs would become widespread and accessible.

 

How about mini-discs? I definitely had boxes of minidiscs I had recorded from cds--I could get a cd and a half  onto only one mini-disc!--and I could listen to seemingly endless music at my college early morning janitorial job. It seemed very impressive--until I bought my first iPod.

 

This is fun. But why am I talking about technological non-starters? Because it’s so hard to guess what kind of technology will be pivotal when you’re doing research on the role of technology in our society. Things are guarenteed to change as fast as you get your book to press.

 

Cynthia L. Selfe wrote Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-first Century in 1999 as a forward thinking volume. In 1999, mini-discs and laserdiscs were soon to fade into history, andsome of the terms she uses, like the Web to name the internet, seem almost quaint. But when technology changes all the time, the best tact, and the one Selfe takes, is to discuss principles of the technology rather than the technology itself.

 

Selfe’s foremost claim is straightforward and applicable today as when it was written: “Literacy professionals and the organizations that represent them need to commit to understanding the complex relationship between literacy and technology and to intervening in the national project to expand technological literacy. We must also realistically appraise the multiple roles that literacy educators are already playing in support of this project” (160).

 

The word “realistically” is key for Selfe. Technology, she points out, has always attracted boosters and boycotters. Somebody introduces, say, a wiki assignment into a composition classroom and assumes that the students will now learn collaboration and concision perfectly, while another teacher rolls their eyes, believing that such an assignment is, at best, an interesting distraction. As Selfe points out “By describing computer technology as either beneficial or detrimental, either good or bad, they limit our understanding”  (36) and instead she aims for us to “understand the complex ways in which technology has become inked with our conception of literacy and, possibly, to shape the relationship between these two phenomena in increasingly productive ways” (37).

 

So what does this word “literacy” mean anyway? We’ve talked about literacy before on the show, especially in the Deborah Brandt episode. Remember how we talked about how literacy has meant, in different times, everything from cursive to memorizing vast tracts of poetry to understanding chunks of French or Latin in the middle of a text? Cursive might not be useful at all for you now. Well, now, Selfe says, we need to think about technological literacy. She defines technological literacy as “a complex set of socialy and culturally situated values, practices and skills involved in operating linguistically within the context of electronic environments” (11). Whew. So what does that include? According to Selfe, it include reading and writing and communicating. It includes the “social and cultural contexts for discourse and communication” and it includes “print, still graphics, moving images” and “such tools as databases...e-mail, listserv software, bulletin boards, and graphics and line-art packages” (11-12).

 

If you’re like me the first thing...well, the first thing I thought was “heh! Bulletin boards. Clip art! That’s as old-fashioned as laserdiscs and minidiscs!” and we’ll get back to that thought in a moment, but the second thing I thought was “how?! How on earth am I supposed to teach visual rhetoric and how to use emerging technology and I might not even be that good at on top of all the other literacy practices that my students need?” It seems like too much for us, and too complicated.

 

And in many ways it is too much. For that reason, it can be tempting to buy a package of projects and assignments, or to subscribe to every new technology that comes out in the hope of covering all the basis. One of the complex relationships that Selfe emphasizes is that whereever there is change, there are people wanting you to buy stuff. The companies who make the technology--in Selfe’s day it’s all “word processing” and “home PCs”--advertise to schools and, especially, parents, that children will fall behind unless they own this or another type of technology, and if they fall behind, the number one consequence is that they won’t make as much money. Selfe says that we need to be cautious of accepting the premise of technology as a purely economic investment--buy a computer now and it will pay off one hundredfold! Other voices, too, will make them, in Brandt’s words “sponsors of literacy,” such as the government and your school’s administration. There are complex and sometimes conflicted voices in how our students are introduced to technology literacy. Okay, now that you know to be skeptical of some of the many voices with vested interests, how do you know how to proceed?

 

Well, let’s get back to that first thought we had--reading Selfe’s book, it’s remarkable to think that less than 20 years ago there were still teachers who didn’t like their students to type up their first draft of assignments and there wasn’t a computer with projector in practically every classroom. There was also relatively little “non-computer digital technology”--she talks a lot about the PC and chatrooms and listservs, not foreseeing the way smartphones, Reddit, and Facebook will transform literacy in the first decade of the 21st century. She couldn’t have, and no one can. So this is maybe a hint about how to incorporate technology literacy into your own pedagogy--things are going to change so quickly that perhaps what you can best do is to encourage students to develop the general skills that will help them to adapt to new forms of technology.  You can encourage conversations about privacy and anonymity, audience and permanence with their application to whatever technology is blooming and dying--FourSquare, Twitter, Pokeman Go. You can teach students about the way we talk about technology--how those vested interests like corporations and governments talk about how technology is to be used and the limits of both the optimists and the Luddites. You can also teach them the tools that will make them successful when they encounter new kinds of technology. Maybe you teach them how to use a peer review software that they will NEVER AGAIN use in their lives, as I had to do once. My students HATED it and, to be honest, I hated making them use it. We struggled over and over again, spending precious time in class explaining how to upload their papers, how to make comments. But what I should have done instead is emphasize how this experience taught them certain abstract technology skills--how to fiddle around with something without thinking you’re going to break it, how to search for FAQs online when you need to troubleshoot, how to read instructions and intuit from the interface what the program “wants” you to do. These are skills that will outlast listservs and laserdiscs and  their progeny.

 

In short, we need to realize, to quote Selfe’s subtitle “the importance of paying attention” and help students to identify the ideological, political, economic, and spiritual implications of the the technology they can ignore or embrace.

Direct download: Selfe_Tech_21st_Century.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 3:14pm CDT

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, and I’ve had a hard time getting started on this one.

 

Sometimes I procrastinate an episode because I don’t want to get into an idea or movement that is potentially stupidfaced. Other times, I’m nervous about doing a great work a disservice in doing a stupidfaced episode. This is one of those times.

 

Patricia Roberts-Miller was one of my mentors at the University of Texas, and I always knew that she was doing work on demagoguery. She’s one of those wonderful rare people who let you in on the secrets of their research revision and editing process, letting you behind the curtain of producing academic work. But until I read Demagoguery and Democracy, I had no idea how important that work could be. I am not exaggerating when I say this is the most important book I’ve read this year.

 

First off, let me give you the caveat that the small, portable, ultimately very readable Demagogury and Democracy is not, strictly speaking, the academic version of her research. That’s forthcoming. But Demagoguery and Democracy is compact and makes a handy gift for friends and relatives this holiday season. Perhaps you can think of someone who needs it.

 

The fact is we all need it. Roberts-Miller argues that when we think of demagoguery, we usually think of demagogues-- silver tongued seducers who memorize their audience into doing stupid things they would normally never do. These lying liars know what they’re saying is false, but they know it will manipulate the sheeple follow them. But that’s not the direction it goes. “We don’t have demagoguery in our culture because a demagogue came to power,” she argues, “when demagoguery becomes the normal way of participating in public discourse, then it’s just a question of time until a demagogue arises” (2). So if we should be focusing less on individual demagogues and more on the practice of engaging in demagoguery, if it’s something you and I could be doing, how do we know if we’re doing it?

 

“Demagoguery,” Roberts-Miller says “is about identity. It says that complicated policy issues can be reduced to a binary of us (good) versus them (bad). It says that good people recognize there is a bad situation, and bad people don’t; therefore, to determine  what policy agenda is the best, it  says we should think entirely in terms of who is like us and who isn’t” (8). In other words “demagoguery says that only we should be included in deliberation because they are the problem” (20 emphasis in original).

 

I shouldn’t have to say that if you’ve been following American politics for the past, oh, especially year and a half, all of this is going to sound familiar, but again, remember that demagoguery isn’t about one powerful individual--it’s about a range of discourses that gives power to an individual. When compromise is out of the picture and persuasion is about being the right kind of person rather than having a good idea, democracy withers.

 

Roberts-Miller gives the example of Earl Warren as someone who go burned by participating the demagoguery. Warren, if the name doesn’t ring a bell, was the WWII-era attorney general for the state of California, and he advocated strongly for Japanese internment. He made spurious claims, like that people of Japanese descent were living disproportionately close to areas like factories, ports, railroads, highways etc. without considering that PEOPLE live disproportionately close to factories, port, railroads, etc. because that’s part of living in civilization. Years later, in his 1977 memoirs, Warren himself said he deeply regretted his role in advocating in Japanese-American internment. Warren wasn’t an evil mustache-twirler, even though he participated in some pretty wicked demagoguery. Later, Warren was the supreme court justice who, among other things, managed to bring about the pivotal Brown vs. Board ruling, hastening racial desegregation. So if this generally good dude could engaged in bad demagoguery, we’re all at risk of falling into it. I like to think that he might have had fewer regrets iif one of Warren’s friends had been all, “Hey Earl, seems like you’re getting carried away. Let’s take a couple steps back and talk about your reasoning.”

 

And that, Roberts-Miller suggests, is one of the keys to fighting demagoguery whereever we find it--with others or with our friends or even ourselves. She gives us some key todos:

 

  1. Consume less of it yourself. That means not clicking on links that say “Look at this stupid thing the other side did--aren’t they idiots?” It’s hard to restrain yourself because, as demagoguery, it will make you feel good for not being one of those idiots. But it’s not what you or democracy need
  2. Don’t engage in purely “us vs. them” arguments who are just repeating talking points someone told them to think. Instead, consider sharing counter-examples or stories, which can lead them to think for themselves. Instead of arguing abstractly with, for example, someone who thinks immigrants are lazy, tell them how proud you are of your sister-in-law for learning three languages and graduating college and becoming a high school math teacher. Even better, invite them to meet her and get to know her personally. It’s hard to think of someone as “them” when you’re meeting him or her individually.
  3. If appropriate, go ahead and engage those arguments, but be prepared to point out inconsistencies in reasoning. This is where Roberts-Miller encourages all of us to review our logical fallacies and learn to reason abstractly in order to look for internal inconsistencies. Again, think of Earl Warren’s imaginary friend saying, “Say, Earl, don’t you think those folks are living next to highways and railroads because they need to commute to work, not because they want to sabotage them?” You can’t just go around saying “that’s a fallacy” because that will make people want to punch you, so you might as well also ask, or discover, the key question “what are the circumstances under which [you] would change [your] mind?”
  4. Finally, and most importantly, support and argue for democratic deliberation. Encourage inclusion, fairness, self-skepticism and the other values of democratic deliberation. As Roberts-Miller puts it “Democracy is about having to listen, and compromise, and it’s about being wrong (and admitting it)” (129).

I’ve given you the quick summary and takeaways of this book, but I really do recommend checking it out yourself, and recommending it to others who are concerned about the increasingly bifurcated social and political world we inhabit. I don’t know about you, but I hate always having to wonder if I’m the “right kind of person.” It’s much more freeing to think, “Am I having the right kind of conversations?”

 

If you have a favorite strategy for more productive deliberation, why not send us an email at mererhetoricpodcast@gmail.com? I’m thinking we’re probably going to be talking a lot more about this sort of thing in the future, so probably an episode on listening rhetorics? Maybe something on protest rhetoric? What would you like?

Direct download: Demagoguery.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Don’t you love those group adventure movies? You know, the ones with a ragtag group of misfits who each have their special skill--Ocean’s 11, the Great Escape, Power Rangers? Rhetoric had that too and they were called the Canon of Ten of the Ten Attic Orators. Like most canonical lists, they weren’t clumped together until they well and dead. Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace compiled what’s called the Alexandrian Canon including these ten hotshots of the 5th and 4th century BCE. Later, a scholar who was probably not Plutarch, called the Psuedo-Plutarch, wrote “The Lives of the Ten Orators” to chronicle the Rat Pack of Classical Greek rhetoric. A couple of these ten will be familiar to you--Demosthenes and Isocrates. Demosthenes and Isocrates are like the George Clooney and Brad Pitt of the Ten Attic Orators, getting most of the screen time and most of the glory. We’ve have individual episodes on each of them as well as individual episodes on some of the works they’ve written. Mere Rhetoric isn’t alone in emphasizing these super stars of the Canon of Ten: the Psuedo Plutarch spends almost 3500 words on Demosthenes and a paltry 392 on Aeschines. So, to make it up to them, we’re going to dedicate eight episodes of Mere Rhetoric to the  other members of the Canon of Ten, the Bernie Macs and Casey Afflecks of Classical Greek Rhetoric.

 

And today we’re going to start with the anti-Demosthenes, Aeschines.

 

Aeschines hated Demosthenes. The most famous peice he ever wrote was a legal argument called Against Ctetisphon (k’tes-i-fawn), which really could have been “Against Demosthenes and His Stinkin’ Friend.”

 

First, some background. Aeschines came from a modest background. He wasn’t destitute, certainly but it is “generally doubted that his father could have afforded to provide him with an education in rhetoric” and he had to marry up to enter a public career (9). The Pseudo Plutarch describes him as “neither nobly born nor rich.”  Demosthenes, on the other hand, was born to privilege and had a first-rate education. Demosthenes was educated at the schools os Isocrates and maybe Plato; Aeschines was taught by someone named Leodamas, whose reputation in history is partially that he was a mathematician and partially that Plato may have taught him math. Not a particularly impressive training for a future political rhetor.

 

Aeschines was a good performer and did a stint as an actor, and while this wasn’t as shameful as it would become in later centuries, Demosthenes accuses Aeschines of being a bad actor, which is pretty shameful (10). Unlike Demosthenes, he never was a professional speechwriter--every speech we have is about his own political concerns, and all three of them may be all that there is to have--nothing seems to have been lost (12). The best of these three, “Against Ctetisphone,” requires a little political history.

 

Demosthenes, as we’ve discussed in our earlier episode, was a rabble rouser against King Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, and the aggressor of the Hellenistic cities like Athens. He defeated them and then ruled over them in something called the League of Corinth, sort of a loose confederation of vassal states. Demosthenes did not like that and called for activism, which was pretty popular. Aeschines on the other hand favored peace and capitulatoin with Macadonia and King Philip. He was badly let down, though, as were the rest of the pragmatists because they received no gains or special treatment from the partnership. Defiant Demosthenes gained all the cultural capital and Aeschines looked like a collaborator.

 

Demosthenes’ friend, Ctetisphon, seeks to give a public award to Demosthenes, kind of a lifetime acheivement award from the state, with some real money attached. This “Golden Crown” was a civic and almost religious honor : As Thomas Leland points out, “To give this transaction the greater solemnity, it was moved that the ceremony should be performed in the theatre of Bacchus during the festival held in honor of that god, when not only the Athenians, but other Greeks from all parts of the nation were assembled to see the tragedies exhibited in that festival.”  So everyone would be fawning over Demosthenes, not just the Athenians. Aeschines just can not. Ctesiphon gives public crown to Demosthenes, Aeschines brings suit against him, and, like an animal to a trap, Demosthenes shows up in person as a “speaker for Ctesiphon.”

 

So there you have it, head-to-head, Aeschines and Demosthenes in the courtroom arguing about whether Demosthenes is a public hero or an extravagant wastrel and war profiteer. Opposition political parties, opposite managerial styles, opposite backgrounds. You can kind of feel Aeschines boiling over in this oration. One scholar points out that “Against Ctesiphon” disorganized, uneven, although powerful in some places.”

 

But Aeschines makes three main claims that range from the reasonable to the vitriolic.

 

First off, there is the location. The law specifically says that the award is presented in assembly and nowhere else, certainly not at the theater! How humiliating, Aescheines says if “He confers this honor, not while the people are assembled, but while the new tragedies are exhibiting; not in the presence of the people, but of the Greeks; that they too may know on what kind of man our honors are conferred.”  Okay, I could see that.

 

Also, that the award being given to Demosthenes is a little preemptive. Aeschines complains about giving Demosthenes the crown--there hadn’t been a full investigation into his full character.

 

But finally, Aeschines says, the award is supposed to be for people who have excellent character and Demosthenes, he argues, is the opposite of excellent. He is not shy about it: “Say, then, Ctesiphon, when the most heinous instances of this man's baseness are so incontestably evident that his accuser exposes himself to the censure, not of advancing falsehoods, but of recurring to facts so long acknowledged and notorious, is he to be publicly honored, or to be branded with infamy? ”Demosthenes, as a senator, doesn’t acknowledge diplomats, and he led a lot of soldiers to their certain death in an ill-fated military campaign. Aeschines even attacks Demosthenes’ private life because “He who acts wickedly in private life cannot prove excellent in his public conduct: he who is base at home can never acquit himself with honor when sent to a strange country in a public character.”

 

At the beginning, he says,“An examination of Demosthenes’ life would be  too long a speech, why should I tell it all now…” then he does, tells tale of primary, nepotism, violence, heart of it though “the worst of the crimes” was his greed for a cut of the peace with Philip, benefitted from war profiteering and perjury, sacrificing the lives of the young soldiers “as yourselves whether the relatives of the dead will shed more teachers over the tragedies and sufferings of the heros that will be staged after this or at the city’s insensitivity” (152). He holds, even, his bad luck against him, because in ancient Greece, bad luck in a leader was as indefensible as stupidity.

 

Look, I’m team Demosthenes and fighting for independence is always going to sound better than capitulating to an occupying force and this speech is so venomous and spiteful that it’s hard not to just dismiss it because it is so angry, but Aeschines does make a lot of good points, and he’s mostly pointing out that we don’t make exceptions for Demosthenes, which could also be interpreted as “no one is above the law,” which I find quite reassuring. The law is a big deal for Aeschines--makes sense, this is a legal case, and he praises it throughout the speech. Aeschines proclaims how excellent the law is, how excellent the assembly is: “A noble institution this a truly noble institution, Athenians!” he declares.

 

I’m also sympathetic when Aeschines alleges the Demosthenes just wants to shut him up. “He compares me to the Sirens, whose purpose is not to delight their hearers, but to destroy them. Even so, if we are to believe him, my abilities in speaking, whether acquired by exercise or given by nature, all tend to the detriment of those who grant me their attention. I am bold to say that no man has a right to urge an allegation of this nature against me; for it is shameful in an accuser not to be able to establish his assertions with full proof.” You shouldn’t want to shut up your opposition--that leads to all kinds of tyrany.

 

But then again, Aeschines dishes it out again back at Demosthenes, “But when a man composed entirely of words, and these the bitterest and most pompously labored when he recurs to simplicity, to artless facts, who can endure it? He who is but an instrument, take away his tongue, and he is nothing.”

 

In the end, I think the jurors had the same unpleasant taste in their mouths that we do reading it--Aeschines comes across and a squirming, angry little man trying whatever he can to stop his wildly popular rival from getting praise. In the result of the trial, Ctesiphon was acquitted and Aeschines failed to get ⅕ of the votes. Aeschines was humiliated for having brought the lawsuit to the courts, and, because of the unsuccessful suit, he was slapped with a  “fine of 1000 drachmas and (probably) loss of the right to bring similar action again” to the court. Aeschines left Athens in shame, and ending up as a rhetoric teacher in Rhodes.  As a rhetoric teacher myself, I don’t think of this as that much of a crushing ignobility, and, really, history has looked fondly on him, including him, with his bitter enemy, on the list of the Ten Attic Orators.

Direct download: Aeschines.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

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