Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

What to Do if a Debate Breaks Out

The coverage of the entire episode points to how feeble our political life has become.

Journalists and some Americans expressed amazement at the impromptu debate that broke out in the Oval Office on December 11.  The President was meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in the hope of coming to an agreement to keep the government funded into the new year.  To the surprise of the Democratic leaders, Trump opened up the meeting to the press, who then scurried into the crowded space to record the conversation taking place inches away.  For the next 17 minutes a sometimes rancorous discussion unfolded, especially after Trump indicated he would prefer to shut down the government than accept a bill without financing for the five-billion dollar folly of a border wall.

Trump “temper tantrum”: President spars with Pelosi, Schumer in Oval Office border debate

An Oval Office photo op with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer descended into a back-and-forth on the likelihood of President Trump winning votes in the House & Senate on government funding, and the effectiveness of a border wall.

Pelosi and Schumer were not pleased.  For them, “debate” usually means reading prepared remarks to empty chambers.  They expected a private discussion rather than an event that gave the impression that they had been sandbagged. Trump professed his pleasure for the open meeting, noting with a half smile that it was an example of “transparency.” And so the bickering continued, with both democrats claiming there was very little legislative support for his project.

The President and former reality television star seemed to love the moment. But in truth he’s not a very good debater; in this instance he gave up too much to his opponents. Using his preferred style of bluster, he overreached by taking full responsibility for any eventual government shutdown. He said it would be worth the price of improved American security.

Aside from this bogus false choice, Trump clearly had forgotten what misery that closed government facilities can cause in a holiday season when the need for them is near its peak.  Want to visit a national monument? Think again.  Want to get information on medical and social security services? Not if the government is mostly closed.

The coverage of the entire episode points to how feeble our political life has become.  We welcome the shelter of like-minded folks on the news channels that many of us watch.  In these polarizing days even our choice of who to spend time with is weighed based on the known political views of the others.  Moreover, as a nation we are less likely to entertain a full debate on the merits of an idea unless a member of the press is present to change the topic when things begin to get interesting.

              The Prime Minister in the House of Commons

At the same time  that there was this momentary public airing of differences, British legislators were still engaged in a nearly continuous public debate–much of it within the House of Commons–exchanging pleas to move beyond the self-inflicted morass of Brexit. To be sure, it is a mess; few are interested in throwing Prime Minister Theresa May a lifeline.  However this quandary is resolved, it is likely to cost Britain a great deal in terms of its national prestige and economy.

But here’s the point: though we may be justified in giving our British cousins a rap on the head for this quagmire, give the country credit for airing the issues fully, and with the expectation that the Prime Minister will participate in days and and many hours of open debate with her opponents.  Britain and other parliamentary democracies have woven debate into their system.  True to form, May has been a dutiful if uninspired advocate throughout this exhaustive process.

The British expect that a public official should be able to answer questions about key facts, the likely effects of policy actions, and best estimates of the consequences of a changed relationship with the European Union.  Public debate is a fixed expectation.  In the United States it is such an unexpected event that it gets its own “Breaking News!” graphic and an excited cadre of talking heads.  All of this in an age where we have convinced ourselves that we are more connected than ever.

Burke’s ‘Definition’ of Us All, in Five Clauses

                     Kenneth Burke

Rarely has a writer so economically represented the forces that act on the mind. 

Kenneth Burke was a rhetorician, poet and public scholar. The New Jersey resident had a keen sense of the centrality of language to human thought, making him what W. H. Auden described as “unquestionably the most brilliant and suggestive critic now writing in America.” (1941).  To this day the pull of his ideas is still immense.

Cognitive psychologists remind us that consciousness arises from language.  Burke went much further.  For him, language isn’t the residue of some other experience, it frequently is the experience.   If we ask what it means to live as sentient creatures, Burke’s compelling answer is that we are driven by labels used by and applied to us.  We live is a sea of verbal constructions.  In his words, as laid out in the third clause of his “definition of man,” language is the “instrument of our own making” that separates us from our natural condition.  And so it goes in Burke’s evocative five part “definition.”  We live the most meaningful parts of our lives in the symbolic world.

This is how he expressed his perspective in Language as Symbolic Action (University of California Press, 1966), 16.

1.Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-                  misusing) animal,

2. Inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative),

3. Separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making,

4. Goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order),

5. And rotten with perfection.

There is a lifetime of exploration contained in these five defining features, and even a journal devoted to this prodigious thinker.

Other animals communicate.  But they communicate in signs.  We connect using a broad mixture of signs and inherited symbols.  If you don’t speak Norwegian, the language will be a mystery.  Of course, a Norwegian stop sign can still be understood, as can most Norwegian faces.  But the linguistic universe that permeates the culture offers few visual clues about what they mean.  And since symbol making is a constant human project in any culture, the words we choose are existential. Stories, tracts, reports and conversations define the common boundaries of our world.  Think of the descriptors that others have used about you and how deeply some of them have burned into your memory.


Behaviorists  in his day sought to de-emphasize what Burke saw as obvious: that symbolic action is the representative human gesture.


The great threshold of language is why schools are structured to advance students mostly on their literacy skills.  Language is the gateway to experience.  Language shapes perception.

In his first clause Burke was pushing back against the reduction of human “behavior” to what can be physically observed.  That was the fools-errand of the behaviorists  in his day who sought to de-emphasize the obvious: that symbolic action is the representative human gesture. 

The second clause adds a wonderful insight.  We are not only symbol-makers and users, but the very act of expression through language makes possible a cognitive life that includes what is not or what should not be.  We are the inventors of the negative. Language allows the construction of the past and predictions about the future.  It makes it possible to imagine worlds present and missing.  Most dramatically, consciousness of the negative means that we are alone in the natural world as creatures who can imagine their past and future.  Bless their hearts, our pets live in the present.  But our use of language as a tool of consciousness means that we carry the heavier baggage of knowing we have a finite life.

It is a keystone of ordinary language that it does more than name.  It often judges as well.  And so any practical understanding of our communication essence must include the rhetoric is infused with terms of judgement: words that praise and blame, words that suggest who is up and who is down.  Ordinary language is hierarchical in ways that the languages of mathematics or programming almost never are. It would be odd, indeed, if a person “liked” the number 2 more than the number 4.  Mathematical terms do not have what rhetoricians call “tendency.”  Mathematical terms say nothing about their user’s feelings and attitudes. But my reference to someone I know as a “jerk” or “windbag” represents a hierarchy of preferences that I carry with me.  As a symbol-user I cannot avoid marking my attitudes in word choices. Our personal rhetoric leaves impressions as clear as footprints in fresh snow.

As to the odd coda, “rotten with perfection.” The resources of language are equally available to enlighten or deceive, help us ‘know’ or distract us from ‘knowing.’  Our miraculous capacity for language gives us all of the tools we need to be disingenuous.  And some of us are far too good at it.