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Party, Politics, and the Limitations of Eloquence

(This is an “extra” post to help keep my notes ordered.)

But of all the prepossessions in the minds of the hearers which tend to impede or counteract the design of the speaker, party spirit, where it happens to prevail, is the most pernicious, being at once that most inflexible and the most unjust” (938).

Given the importance of politically oriented discourse within the history of the rhetorical tradition, it is interesting that it is not until Campbell’s work that a direct discussion of party political affiliation is found, for as he notes, this sentiment within the audience will surely have an effect upon the way that they hear, believe, or are persuaded by a speaker. Additionally, this affiliation is likely to be stronger than any other consideration within the rhetor or the speech itself, and may be so rigid and inflexible that nothing a speaker can do will alter the perceptions of his or her audience. Given the regularity of political discourse, especially in modern society, the discussion of the implications of party affiliation upon a speaker’s ability to persuade is an area that is highly relevant in the application of these rhetorical theories to current times and historical exigencies.

When this discussion is applied to current political discourse, it is interesting to note that by the standards discussed, our society now might be viewed as a time when “a people is so unfortunate as to be torn by factions” (938). Given the typically one-sided arguments presented in the political arena today, Campbell’s observations are rather astute, and he says, “if the speaker and the hearers, or the bulk of the hearers, be on contrary parties, their minds will be more prepossessed against him, though his life were ever so blameless, than if he were a man of the most flagitious manners, but of the same party” (938). According to Campbell, this dynamic is true regardless of which party is examined, that it “holds but too much alike of all parties, religious and political. Violent party men not only lose all sympathy with those of the opposite side, but contract an antipathy to them” (938). This prejudice based upon party seems to be an obstacle to constructive communication or understanding across party lines, as Campbell admits that “on some occasions, even the divinest eloquence will not surmount” (938). What, then, is to happen within a society torn by faction where eloquence and persuasion can find no hold, regardless of the speaker or what is spoken?

In the following section dealing the prejudices, Campbell offers other observations, that when taken with the above, further illustrate the possible issues and problems arising from the use of rhetoric among the populace. Though he explains his position using language that is derogatory toward the “gross” natures of the “ignorance and rudeness” displayed by the “rabble” of society, his ideas of how people can be led or influenced by rhetoric is important, especially, perhaps, when taken as additive to the conditions of factioning explained above. According to Campbell, it is “from a consciousness, it would seem, of their own incapacity to guide themselves, they are ever prone blindly to submit to the guidance of some popular orator, who hath had the address first, either to gain their approbation by his real or pretended virtues, or, which is the easier way, to recommend himself to their esteem by a flaming zeal for their favourite distinctions, and afterwards, by his eloquence to work upon their passions” (938). Though he couches these statements in a discussion of the “rabble” of society, he does admit that “it must be acknowledged, on the other hand, that even men of the most improved intellects, and most refined sentiments, are not altogether beyond the reach of preconceived opinion, either in the speaker’s favour or to his prejudice” (938). It is perhaps to minimize these conditions that Campbell extols the virtues of developing and “improving” taste through practice and experience, for to not understand the underlying implications of political discourse, has real and potentially destructive implications for the population at large. Though he discusses the cultivation of taste in regard to poetry and literature, the refined ability to analyze texts seems applicable in his discussion of party affiliation and prejudice in political discourse as well.

An examination of these passages brings up several issues. Firstly, there is the examination of the means by which party affiliation that can lead people, apparently of any class or educational background, to holding prejudices for their own party and against other parties that preclude productive debate, discussion, or the possibility to persuade when the speaker is viewed as coming from an “opposing” political faction. This is especially the case in situations where factions are at the greatest oppositional ends of the political spectrum and conflict is at its most intense. Given the highly charged nature of this political atmosphere, it seems unfortunate that this is exactly when cross-information from the other side of the debate is the least likely to be heard, thus causing further strife and the potential fracturing of society. The strength of the prejudices against out-party members renders it unlikely for anything they say to be heard by those who identify with the other party, making reconciliation, mutuality, or the potential to work toward the common good impossible.

Secondly, when combined with the next point made by Campbell, it is easy to see how large portions of the population might be easily persuaded in a violent manner toward one side or the other, again, regardless of the nature of the speaker or what is being said. If these two ideas are taken together — namely, that political affiliation creates prejudice and encourages faction-forming, and that people can be motivated by appeals to strong passions, regardless of the ethos of the speaker or what is being spoken — then it becomes clear how rhetoric, when irresponsibly applied, can have devastating, violent effects upon a society, to the point of breaking it apart. In these cases, eloquence has limited power to persuade, and words that are perceived as coming from “the other side” of the political arena have little influence. In a society that is primarily divided into two factions, there would be no possible site from where a mutually neutral voice might arise that could offer solutions to the potentially destructive nature of political divisiveness.

Campbell offers a few possible solutions to these issues, though none are particularly hopeful. To start, he encourages the speaker who is going into a situation where he (or she, though female rhetors are not acknowledged in Campbell’s text) know there will be a strong prejudice against him because of the position from which he speaks, that the speaker will “need to be much more cautions in every step he takes, to show more modesty, and greater deference to the judgment of his hearers” (938). Though it is a difficult process and one likely to fail, “he must attempt, if possible, to mollify them, gradually to insinuate himself into their favour, and thereby imperceptibly to transfuse his sentiments and passions into their minds” (938). Rather than appealing to the hearers from a place of similarity between speaker and listener, or to their emotions, the rhetor must instead “entreat their attention from pure regard to the subject; that, like men of judgment and candour, they would impartially consider what is said, and give a welcome reception to truth, from what quarter soever it proceed” (938). In this sense, Campbell is resorting to the Aristotelian idea that the logos is “the speech itself,” downplaying, then, the ethos of the speaker as well as pathos, which might only serve to ignite the passions of the hearers against the words of the speaker.

However, given Campbell’s earlier notions of what actually creates a persuasive situation, the above seems to be spurious advice. According to Campbell, “to say that it is possible to persuade without speaking to the passions, is but at best a kind of specious nonsense,” thus to appeal to a logos devoid of pathos as a strategy to downplay the lack of ethos given to the speaker seems to be a rather dubious logic, given his earlier assertion (927). It seems, rather, that speaking in a situation where the hearers are already prejudiced against the speaker is almost guaranteed to be unsuccessful, which begs the question, then, of what purpose persuasion actually serves in political discourse. If the “other side” cannot be persuaded effectively, then who is the audience for persuasive rhetoric? If the side from which the speaker speaks (and in a factioned society all speakers speak from a “side”) is already predisposed to take action in accordance with their party, is political discourse more of a set of marching orders, as opposed to the open debate that it tries to appear to uphold? If persuasion of those who are prejudiced against opposing positions is futile, then does persuasive discourse exist in politics at all? Or is it a rhetorical ruse designed to give the appearance of debate and dialectic discourse? Is it merely appropriating the ethos of dialectic, rather than employing it as a potential creative site of knowledge? Furthermore, are all politicians simply trying “to recommend himself to their esteem by a flaming zeal for their favourite distinctions, and afterwards, by his eloquence to work upon their passions?” Though Campbell argues that it is only the “rabble” who “chiefly consider who speaks [to be] men of sense and education,” might not the same be said of nearly all who hear current political debate? (938). Once a society is broken into factions based upon party affiliation, does political rhetoric, then, become a shell-game wherein no actual debate occurs, where no persuasion is possible, and where logos and ethos are almost wholly subsumed by appeals to pathos that are always already successful because of the relational position of the rhetor to the audience?

This issues of party affiliation and the factioning of society as it pertains to the ability of the populace to hear or consider positions from outside their party points to yet another limitation and problem with a society based upon binary oppositional forces. In any arena, if there are “only two” from which to choose, it follows that conflict will eventually arise between these sites of greater and lesser power, as the one with less power will struggle to gain dominancy over the other. This dynamic, then, will reverse until the other side likewise struggles to gain power over the other. In this dynamic, there is nowhere from which to reconcile these sides, as it is difficult to imagine a place outside of the binary for those steeped within it, thus perpetual conflict and struggle appear the only recourse. Additionally, the concept of reconciliation seems impossible, as from within this system, one side has no meaning without the other, thus to dissolve the conflict between them and deconstruct the boundaries of the “sides” threatens the very definition of their own self-concept. In other words, to eradicate the structure itself creates a clinging to the structure, however painful and conflict-based it is, as to release the conflict simultaneously eradicates the identity of those within the conflict as “we who struggle against so and so.” Without the binary there is no conflict, and yet without the binary, from the perspective of those wholly caught within in paradigmatic confines, there is no meaning outside of it either.

The issue, then, becomes not how factioning can be repaired from within the binary model (as that, as Campbell astutely notes, is next to impossible), but rather how the binary ordering structure can be dismantled or expanded without likewise creating a binarily opposing force toward or against that movement. In a sense, this “struggle” has been taking place within Western ideology and thought since before the time of Plato, as models that arise outside of the binary are opposed within the binary structure that has become the dominant ideology. The challenge becomes not only how to (re)introduce these non-binary systems into current Western thought, but how to do so in a way that does not simply (what I call) “force the binary” by viewing these systems as merely a reaction to or placed against the dominant binary one. Western civilization has a history of suppression and violence against any system that does not fall into binary distinctions, and has created a host of derogatory words to delegitimize their efficacy or ability to likewise order reality, always placing itself in the “top position” of this forced binary relationship, and then (at least attempting) to eradicate any other system entirely.

Though Campbell’s text does not give a lot of hope for a rhetor being able to effectively speak from outside of a binary category, and essentially none for an ability to speak across them, his advice to appeal to the logos of the argument is at least a start. Additionally, it might be argued that with the further rise of humanism and the scientific method in Western culture that appeals to logos might carry more weight than they did at the time of the writing of The Philosophy of Rhetoric, or rather that overtly trying to appeal to logos might instigate the pathetic response of the hearers, i.e. they may respond emotionally to overt appeals to their logic. The above passages from his text also highlight the importance of education, and specifically education that encourages critical examination of rhetoric, for without the tools to dissect and analyze what is being said, by whom, and to what purpose, an audience has no hope of discerning the actual message of the speech or text, but only its intended effect upon their behavior. In a society where factioning influences are rampant, the ability to see and analyze the effects of rhetoric becomes not only critical, but potentially necessary for a continuation of that society.

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One comment on “Party, Politics, and the Limitations of Eloquence

  1. This is an impressive post on Campbell and the question of argument within the realm of politics and political factions. And how timely! If I look to the example of rhetors like Sor Juana and Douglass, I see the appeal to a shared authority, the effort to find a common ground or common set of values that can serve as the springboard to resolve conflict or difference. This approach, as I see it, seldom works on the immediate audience in the present … but over time, as a long-term, sustained approach, can work. I think of the gains made in area of rights for same-sex partners — despite deep ideological divides, gains are being made in the US. But it has taken sustained and multiple acts of argument and rhetoric over time, not the least of which is the bravery and patience of same-sex couples, their behavior, their character, their modeling, etc., that has resulted in social change. The common value that has often worked — e.g., in courts of law — is the value of, What is best for the children? Or sometimes a basic fairness argument when a gay person is denied rights to visit their partner who is unconscious in a hospital. Rhetoric has tended historically to look at the single speech or piece of writing and judge its effectiveness as an isolated instance. How often have we studied acts of sustained rhetoric over a long period of time, that result in change because of the persistence and continuity of the rhetor … Ida B. Wells stands out as an example in this regard, so does Frederick Douglass.

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