Tag Archives: civil life

red white blue bar

The Frail ‘Rules’ of Rhetorical Courtesy

It may be possible to briefly escape to a theater to witness old video clips displaying the grace and decency of Fred Rogers, but we still must return to the daily spew of an insecure and needy leader.

Periodically civil discourse in the United States withers. The remarks of some public officials are intemperate and too many are compliant. Those of us who have been around awhile remember Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1963 declaration of segregation “forever:” certainly a low point in the American project.  More commonly, agitation for change motivates activists to defy the rhetorical norms of social discourse in favor of the rougher ‘music’ of personal condemnation, leaving little room for finding middle ground. There have always been moments in our history when this kind of incivility gains the upper hand: for example, in the vilification of President Lincoln by even the abolitionist press, or during the 1968 presidential campaign, when tensions over the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the assassinations of MLK and RFK brought the melting pot to a boil.

We are in another such period.  But this time the challenge to civil order has not originated from angry newspaper editors or youthful marchers in the streets of Chicago, but from the single agent of the Commander-in-Chief.  The President of the United States is a full-time social disruptor with an unhelpful penchant for trashing core values in the American canon.  Listening matters less than judging. Arguments with evidence are not worth the time.  Facts and even prior statements are disowned.  Self-promotion dominates over self-reflection.  Our best political norms emphasizing tolerance and a degree of generosity have never seemed more frail.

Americans are living through a virtual festival of rhetorical abuse unmatched by any other president. 

If we were unprepared for how silent the Constitution and the President’s party can be in reining in a chronic norms-breaker, many Americans have been stunned by the almost daily verbal slights and discourtesies Donald Trump shows toward ordinary citizens, neighbors, trading partners, immigrants, the press, and especially the nation’s traditional allies.  It seems that women who lead our most important international partners are especially in for unhealthy doses of disrespect.  Germany, led by Angela Merkel, is our most powerful ally; Britain is our closest. It was a breathtaking violation of international norms to hear a President dressing down a British Prime Minister Theresa May in an interview given within hours of meeting her face to face.  He noted in Britain’s Sun that, among other things, a rival within her own party would make a good prime minister, making a mockery of his role as her guest.  (He later offered kinder words, like a sullen teen asked to ”make an effort;” it’s a recurring pattern where Trump is forced by his handlers to issue a rhetorical corrective.)

It was just a few years ago we heard a very different message in a 2012 joint statement released jointly by Barack Obama and then Prime Minister David Cameron:

"The alliance between the United States and Great Britain is a partnership of the heart, bound by history, traditions and values we share.  But what makes our relationship special--a unique and essential asset--is that we join hands across so many endeavors.  Put simply, we count on each other and the world counts on our alliance."

Americans are living through a virtual festival of rhetorical abuse unmatched by any other president.  Not even an old Marx Brother movie can match the rude assaults dished out by the former reality show personality.  It’s as if we have been locked in a dingy bar with an insult comic who won’t leave the stage. It may be possible to briefly escape to a theater to witness old video clips displaying the grace and decency of Fred Rogers, but we still must return to the daily spew of a fearful and needy leader.

The Damaged Individual Who Cannot Self-Monitor

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the stage at a campaign rally in Windham, New Hampshire, January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTX21VNU
               REUTERS/Brian Snyder   theatlantic.com

To be fully human is to be responsive to the shifting     landscape of others’ feelings.  

People who spend time assessing how we relate to each other usually also reach the conclusion that we possess not just intellectual intelligence—however that is measured—but also social intelligence.   We have various capacities that help us function effectively with others.  These traits include such basic ideas as empathy, the capacity for identification, and a reasonable awareness of what others need from us. This last ability for self-monitoring is a fundamental attribute of maturity.  It’s what makes us social creatures.

Certainly not all communication is so self-regulating.  Hit your finger by mistake when hammering a nail and the first sounds you utter are not likely to be intended for others.  But most of the communication that spills from us encompass the parts of our sentient life that we deem fit for sharing.

Consider even in the smallest exigencies of life:  for example, the reasonable expectation that a person will acknowledge the courtesy of another who has held open a door, or the stranger who has paused to assist someone scrambling to collect groceries that have fallen from a torn shopping bag. There are no hard rules, but the recipients of such acts of consideration are usually expected to acknowledge the courtesy. To be rhetorical is to be aware and responsive to the shifting landscape of events and their witnesses.

This is an interesting moment to think about the social necessity of self-monitoring.  I can’t recall any modern presidential campaign when one of the contenders so casually violated the impulse for self-restraint.

Beginning in the 1970s, rhetoricians began to extend this idea of self-monitoring by attempting to locate the varied dimensions of “rhetorical sensitivity” which could make “effective social interaction manifestly possible.”1  Most notably, Rod Hart and his colleagues developed a massive correlational study of attitudes within individuals that might motivate them to weigh the effects of their actions on others. In their work “rhetorical sensitivity” was essentially a synonym for the impulse to read the needs of others and monitor one’s own rhetoric accordingly. 2

The goal of the project was to develop an inventory of attitudes—known as the RHETSEN scale—to test the idea that “rhetorical sensitivity is a function of three forces: how one views the self during communication, how one views the other, and how willing one is to adapt self to the other.”  Worded where agreement affirms these forms of awareness, some of the items on the inventory include the following:

One should keep quiet rather than say something which will alienate others.

The first thing that comes to mind is [not always] the best thing to say.

When talking to your friends, you should adjust your remarks to suit them. 

A person who speaks his or her gut feelings is [not always] to be admired.

We should have a kind word for the people we meet in life.

This is an interesting moment to think about the necessity of self-monitoring.  I can’t recall any modern presidential campaign where one of the contenders so casually violates the impulse for self-restraint.  Even past leaders who could be crude or thoughtless in private (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon come to mind) were careful to honor the basic dignity of Americans with varied backgrounds that were within the range of their discourse.

To be sure, partisanship always frays the boundaries of what is acceptable to say in public. And the existence of “live” mics everywhere adds to the burdens of keeping strictly private thoughts out of the ears of others.  We are deep into a new age where audiences are sometimes unseen and unintended. So the risks are greater that a candidate will be heard uttering slurs against individuals or entire categories of potential constituents.

Donald Trump is both the perfect case and a cautionary model.  He is one of the victims of a fully wired age.  At the same time he has eagerly tapped into group tensions and antagonisms that energize his core supporters, using we/them binaries to build a political base based on a strategy of division rather than unification. Mexicans, African Americans, Mexican-Americans,  immigrants and scores of women have felt the cold breath of his offensive characterizations.

When voters express concern about Trump as a role-model, this lack of self-monitoring is partly what they mean.  We expect Presidents to be the personification of rhetorical sensitivity.  We want them to keep their deepest prejudices to themselves.  Virtually every idea of leadership works when the arrows are pointing away from division and toward inclusion. The problem with dividers with insufficient concern for the feelings of others is that they cannot govern a free and pluralistic nation.  They seem only capable of making the society coarser.


1. Roderick Hart and Don Burkes, “Rhetorical Sensitivity and Social Interaction,” Speech Monographs, 39, 1972, 75-91.

2. Roderick Hart, Robert Carlson and William Eadie, “Attitudes Toward Communication and the Assessment of Rhetorical Sensitivity, Speech Monographs, March, 1980, 1-22.

Parts of this essay are adapted from  the author’s The Perfect Response: Studies of the Rhetorical Personality (2010).