James Garner we’re not. But in the 1970s, Sage Publications capitalized on the “support your local _____” craze and distributed “Support your Local Rhetorician” buttons and bumper stickers at the National Speech Association convention. As a discipline, we rhetoricians are so needy for affirmation that we lapped it up. You’ll still see those old relics, but uh . . . . well, a reproduction is currently my favorite mug for my morning coffee.
Rhetoricians will never win any popularity contests. Corax and Tisias irritated the toga off their judge back in the day. Plato blamed our kind for encouraging Socrates’ death. Aristotle relegated our study to night classes. Ramus simply called what we did “stupid.” Locke figured it all was just some sneaky trick like those wacky feminine whiles.
So what’s new, right? The lawyers still think we’re pinko commies, the philosophers still think we’re liars, the hard sciences still think we’re fluff, the merchants still think we’re lazy, and other scholars think we’re too conservative.
None of those are true, of course. But we’re often too busy deconstructing those assumptions to take anything too personally.
You might say that we’re like the Texas rancher in the 1840s who didn’t brand his calves so, as a result, they wandered in and out of other herds. They had no label and they could fit-in anywhere temporarily.
What rhetoricians do is make judgments and solve problems. Or try to. We think that words are real and material, not “mere rhetoric” that masks and distracts. And that talk, we assume, offers fuzzy glimpses into future policies.
I’ve seen a lot genuine, palpable antagonism across political lines recently. When it all comes out in the wash, it’s often just a communication problem — two groups talking in different languages. That’s really not a problem as such. As people do talk, you can uncover the real disagreement and the real agreements and maybe even imagine a (rhetorical) solution. But when negative intent is applied — when we think our opponent is the enemy — it spins out of control and nothing is solved. Absolutely nothing. After lobbing mudballs over the fence at the enemy (not even looking to see if we hit any targets, but just feeling better for having thrown something), we go back to our lives behind the fence happily thinking we’ve conquered the mean ol’ enemy.
They say that the reason dogs bark at mail carriers is that they get positive reinforcement for their barking every single day. The strange person in a strange uniform comes every day, the dog barks ferociously, and the strange person leaves. It worked!
That’s what these political discussions amount to. Chance meetings, vicious barking, and routine partings. And the neighbors get tired of the yapping.
If any discussion intends to preserve the rhetorical boundary markers, it’s doomed. But in crossing the lines, you just might learn something. Maybe that postal carrier carries liv-a-snaps. Maybe he’s a prowler too, but you won’t know if you just stay behind the door barking indiscriminately at everything.
Rhetoricians are like the cat who sits in the window observing the whole dog-v.-mailman kerfuffle. We live on the borders. We’re all liminal. We’re stinkers. Nobody really likes us I’ve come to realize, but if you’re “lucky,” we might just hang around long enough to help. We want to help. We have wanted to help for millenia.
So go pet a cat. Go support your local rhetorician! A.K.A. Embrace your inner stinker!