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Ethos and the Right to Speak

In reading about Maria Stewart, Sarah Grimke, Frederick Douglass, and Ida B. Wells, I note the way that each of these speakers built ethos and justified their right to speak publicly, an act that was not uncritically open to them during the nineteenth century. In all cases, to greater and lesser degrees, there is a basis for “speaking out” that is founded upon biblical authority and/or American values. Without the warrant of the veracity of Christian doctrine and American idealism, justifying these positions would have been more problematic, but because of the ubiquity of the dominant religion in American culture at that time, and the oft-repeated phrases concerning American ideals, these arguments held sway with diverse audiences that, despite other differences, adhered to Christianity and were American. Through constructing ethos in this manner, women and African Americans used their authorial and rhetorical abilities to persuade changes in the rights of both groups, often working together to combine causes for greater emancipation and representation within America.

For Maria Stewart, the need to speak about the importance of education and the hardships of poverty for American people of color led her to go against social convention and speak before mixed (gendered and racial) audiences, an act that eventually led her to leave Boston. She justifies this act of social defiance by heavily quoting the Bible, claiming that, “he [God] hath unloosed my tongue, and put his word into my mouth, in order to confound and put all those to shame that have rose up against me” (1040-1). Citing other female leaders and rhetors from the Bible, such as Deborah and Esther, Stewart demonstrates a precedence for women speakers that is echoed by other women seeking to speak publicly amidst ridicule. She even notes a belief “that the Deity more readily communicates himself to women” that has been held by various cultures, questioning the assumption that men had more authority to speak of religious matters in public (1041). She promotes education, noting that it is not possible for anyone to further studies and move beyond menial labor jobs if they are so bogged down in the work of day to day survival. In this way, she asserts herself as an authorized speaker who gains her ethos and credibility directly from the Christian god, and thus she needs no further authorization for her socially surprising actions.

Sarah Grimke, too, uses biblical authority to lend credibility to herself as a speaker on behalf of women and their rights within society. To Grimke, those who used the Bible as a justification for the silencing of women did so as men who sought to leverage their own position over women, rather than as an accurate or true interpretation of biblical text. She does not question the authority of the Bible, but rather seeks to “enter [her] protest against the false translation of some passages by the MEN who did that work, and against the perverted interpretation by the MEN who undertook to write commentaries thereon” (1050). By railing against the oppression of men against women, of which their biblical interpretations represent only one of many, Grimke argues that it is not the Bible but rather male interpretations of it that lead to the justification of this oppression. To further support her argument and to develop her ethos as a speaker, Grimke then offers multiple textual interpretations by respected sources, as well as showing the error of logic that led to male-privileging versions of the biblical text. She, like Stewart and other women rhetors, references strong female speakers in the Bible, noting that they were prophetesses and teachers (1055-7).  Through this, she justifies her own position as a speaker, as well as an advocate for the civil rights of women, showing the many ways that men have subjugated women historically, whether through physical violence or the deprivation of educational and rhetorical access. Further, by demonstrating herself to be an educated writer and speaker, she gives credence to the argument that education leads to greater power and knowledge, showing how and why it is important (or dangerous, depending upon one’s position) to educate women – to deny them access is just another form of the male oppression against which she speaks.

Frederick Douglass also uses Christian principles to lend credibility to his words, though not (at least in these passages) to the extent that the female rhetors examined do. He notes the effects of slavery upon the (once) kind mistress who taught him the rudiments of literacy, saying that she was once “a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman… [but that…] slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” (1072). These qualities, upheld by Christianity as important, especially for women, are harmed, according to Douglass’s argument, by the evils of slavery, in a way that is different but no less harmful than the effects suffered by the slaves themselves. He also notes the paradox of slavery within the paradigm of Christianity, commenting with irony that, “it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country” (1073). This juxtaposition of the prohibition of education to slaves within the context of Christian values highlights the hypocrisy of the institution(s) without directly quoting biblical scripture. By using the ethos of Christianity and its culturally-held capital, Douglass, too, adds to his own credibility and supports his right to speak out against slavery by appealing to an audience that ostensibly supports the same principles. By appealing to the values of both Christianity and American values (life, liberty, freedom, etc.) Douglass is able to effectively argue his point within a cultural climate that supports these principles.

Ida B. Wells, likewise, appeals to values that are ostensibly held by all members of her audience, invoking an appeal based upon a desire to uphold justice, order, and lawful activities. By showing that lynching occurs more often than her audience might suspect (or at least phrasing it that way so as to avoid alienating them as supportive of such violent action) she calls upon values of equality and justice to back up her argument, demanding that, “mob rule shall be put down and equal and exact justice be accorded to every citizen of whatever race, who finds a home within the borders of the land of the free and the home of the brave” (181). By choosing these words, Wells utilizes the ethos of American freedom and self-identity, thus if the audience adheres to these values, they must also agree that lynching is not in alignment with these values. As Royster notes, Wells also uses logic and the ethos of respected sources to further her argument and “crafts her argument from good sense, reason, and logic, she documents her account through sources that her audience would find reliable, more reliable than the word of a young black woman” (180). By utilizing these rhetorical methods of building her own credibility, Wells carves out a place from which to speak, justifying her action simultaneously within her argument for greater civil rights.

In all of these cases, marginalized rhetors note the importance of education in furthering the civil rights of oppressed people, and build their credibility upon foundations to which their audience will already grant authority. In constructing ethos in this way, it makes it more difficult to discount or dismiss the message being spoken, as the right to speak is predicated upon values already held by the society in which these messages were spoken. It is interesting to note that those who did not have authority to speak had to justify their own right to speak alongside persuading an audience to take a certain action or stance on an issue. For these speakers, the establishment of ethos was more than just another appeal to persuade their audience of the message they were conveying; rather, they had to persuade their audience to listen to them at all, or to allow them to speak in the first place.

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2 comments on “Ethos and the Right to Speak

  1. In all these cases I would say that the rhetors were involved in acts of reinterpretation or correction — exegesis — of scriptural texts: in one case, Biblical scripture; in the cases of Wells and Douglass, more the “scriptural” texts about the founding of the United States (e.g., the Declaration). So I see the canon of invention as a critical component of the persuasiveness of these speakers/writers. Certainly, yes, the power and leadership and skill they display as orators — their ethos, certainly — but also their inventional skills — how they develop and frame an argument, particularly over a long period of time — is equally impressive to me.

  2. I like that you bring interpretation to the forefront here. In my reading I concentrated on the idea that the speakers gained access through a patriarchal structure by using the Bible. But your reading of their usage of religious text highlights the act of reinterpretation. So now you have me questioning the post I made about the disadvantaging of orality–how is speaking an interpretation safer than writing it down for these public speakers? I think that they could say more and push the envelope more by not writing.

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