Rhetoric outlived ancient Athens, Ancient Greece as a whole. Rhetoric outlived Imperial China, Maoism, and is at the table as China develops as a global economic power. Rhetoric outlived the Russian tsars. Rhetoric outlived the Russian Communists. It outlived the Soviet Union. It outlived Rome, as a republic, and an empire. It outlived the Holy Roman Emperor. It outlived the age of imperialism, the Bolsheviks, two world wars, and numerous global conflicts. Rhetoric was alive and well at the formation of the European Union, and is alive and well now when that Union is being questioned. Rhetoric was present at the Continental Congress, and will be around long after the collapse of the United States.
But where was rhetoric during the Presidential Debates?
Professional rhetoricians, at least on twitter, would rather be the Political Science Auxiliary Club then forward their own ancient, deep art. Rhetoricians linking fact-checking websites, and declaring winners because a policy is better than another one or "would work," or because a candidate was "lying" seem to indicate that contemporary rhetoricians are not that interested, or proud of their ancient art. At the very least, it indicates that rhetoric has nothing unique or special to say about Presidential debating. More accurately, it shows how much suspicion, mistrust, and doubt even rhetoric's deepest adherents have about a rhetorical perspective, even given rhetoric's undeniable power in human affairs.
To those scholars I ask: Where's your fidelity? To your own personal political view? To the journalists who say pretty much what you are saying? Or is it to this ancient art that we have dedicated our lives to studying? Where's your (he)art?
I have been teaching Plato's dialogue Gorgias in my undergraduate courses, which has me thinking about suspicions about rhetoric's value. Gorgias is quite comfortable saying that rhetoric is the best of all human arts, because it constitutes their value. Socrates is panicked about locating the "thing" that rhetoric is about: his teaching relies on "thing-ness" or "being" something in order to teach it; this is where the good of something lives. For some reason, we appear to be more comfortable with rhetoric's detractor than we are with rhetoric's master teacher. When political events appear, rhetoricians pretend to be political scientists or journalists. We are frightened about what we are, so we rush to "seem" to be something else. What would happen if we occupied our rhetoric being? What would happen if we adopted the perspective of rhetoric as the art of seeming? Of seeming to be? Of positionality? Of crafting the frames of meaning? Nope, wait, time to tweet about political fact-check again. . .
During the debates, rhetoricians become very suspicious of their own art. They talk about the debates in terms of facts, of thing-ness, of good and bad in universal terms. They take on the mantle of the journalist; of the political scientist. Where's the mantle of the rhetorician? We should know better. We preach that if rhetoric is a knack, a bag of tricks, Socrates is the chief trickster. But when the rubber meets the road, we adopt his critique wholesale in our own public performances.
Most of the year, rhetorical scholarship is ignored. When we have a chance to forward what rhetorical scholarship can say about the dizzying roles of rhetoric, we balk. We become the junior journalist's society. We become the political science glee club. The history of rhetoric has been one that could be characterized as fighting against positioning rhetoric as a servile art, an art that works to convey the truth, facts, and value of other disciplines. We erase that struggle, that history, when we defer to journalistic opinion in our public statements.
The distrust in rhetoric runs deep; look at how we treat public speaking courses: best avoided by serious scholars. Most rhetoric scholars today do not have much interest in an idea that is gaining traction globally, the idea of oralcy - a sort of literacy competence for the auditory/oral creation of texts. Public speaking is still nearly universally taught as mastering modalities that would have been easily recognized by anyone from the 18th century. At my university, public speaking instructors fight over the limited number of podiums available, as if this was a requirement for speech instruction like a bunsen burner would be for a chemistry lab. There's little critical interrogation of the form, or the pedagogy, of this art. And it's symptomatic across the board. If rhetoricians don't think that rhetoric is the most important art, or the art that has something unique to say about oral communication, then there's little hope that others will see rhetorical studies as valuable either. The way we treat our foundation impacts how we are able to advance our view into the public.
These same scholars who gleefully point out contradictions, fact-check websites, and judge the efficaciousness of a policy option suggested by a candidate also are first in line to complain that rhetoric journals are not cited by other fields. They wonder why their research is not seen as valuable by historians, sociologists, and others. After all, we are all talking about the very same objects, texts, peoples, and events. Why not collaborate? The reason is that we have no clear foundation. We have no clear first principle. We've abandoned it; we don't think public speaking is a serious course. We think argumentation should be taught by "debate people" on contract lines. We base our art on foundations for other fields: History, literary studies, critical theory. We don't collaborate our own theories with those ideas, we supplant them.
When you can't distinguish the unique take your field has on an event that most would agree is at the heart of your discipline, that is internationally broadcast, and that is watched by over 100 million people, you have bigger problems than citations. You fundamentally do not trust your art. You fundamentally are suspicious of the power of your art to stand next to the fields that traditionally have unquestioned value. You fundamentally think that journalism is a better hermeneutic for understanding the debates than the 2,500 year old tradition of studying how deeply human beings depend on words to craft meaningful existence.
Perhaps I'm a bit too sophistic for most reading this, but I really do not understand and will never understand the tectonic divestment we as a field have made from studying the oral production of texts. This is our way in to larger conversations across disciplines; this is our unique take. We are not mere speech teachers (a mantle I really like) but instead we should be the champions of thinking of speech as hermeneutic. Speech is a perspective. Rhetoric is a perspective that lets in certain observations and critiques. Or we can keep re-tweeting fact-checking journalism websites and pointing out "lies" and play journalist, while rolling our eyes each time NPR has a psychologist on to explain persuasion. Our inability to treat our foundational courses seriously is the reason why journalists do not take our field seriously. Our mistrust of our roots is communicated in how we speak about our art, or fail to when the moment is right.
Our fidelity should not be to a party, or parties, or even to the United States. Rhetoric helped build, helped dismantle, and outlasted every great empire the Earth has hosted. It will outlive Trump and Clinton, you and me, the Constitution, and the United States. No art is simultaneously involved in the production and criticism of human affairs at the core like this. Rhetoric is our art. We are the only ones who study it. We should not be so skittish about this powerful force that we adopt a journalistic paradigm when we publicly communicate about rhetorical events.