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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.


backchannelDiplomats, mediators and leaders of all sorts make extensive use of backchannels.  They know that the expressive needs of individuals are sometimes at odds with the goal of finding face-saving solutions.

Imagine that you are at a party with five other close friends.  In the course of a conversation with the group, the host mentions that he is pleased to have found a new employee to work in his small business. The new hire who he identifies lives in the same small town, and is known to you and some of the other guests. You also know that others who have worked with the employee have reported that he is an unreliable worker, showing up late and sometimes making careless mistakes.  Should you say something to the host?

Do you:

  1. Tell the host immediately and in the midst of the gathering that they have probably made a mistake in extending the offer of a job?
  2. Say nothing?
  3. Follow-up privately with the host, mentioning the doubts that you have?

Most of us have been in this situation, where there is no perfect answer. The first option of saying something immediately in the presence of all is what many would see as an obligation of good friendship.  Friends save friends from making bad mistakes. The sooner, the better. In addition, an opinion aired within a group is more easily disputed or affirmed by others who are present: a kind of base-line value built into American patterns of more open communication.

Some, though probably not many, would say nothing, believing that both the host and the new worker deserve the advantage of a clean slate.  After all, the employee is being judged partly on hearsay, and in advance of the record they might establish in their new job.

And some would choose the last choice, what I call the backchannel option.  They might wait until later to tell the host privately that the new hire could be problematic. This option protects the host from the embarrassment of being asked to publicly disown the positive view they just stated.  And it allows a little more time to assess the reliability of the pessimistic view.

It’s often a good idea to opt for a backchannel, where a message can be focused and private.  On the solid premise that we need to carefully pick our moments, it can make sense to hold back in a group setting when we have the awkward task of telling someone that they have made a mistake.

Backchannels have many advantages, and at least one disadvantage. The disadvantage is that they deprive the truth-teller of their moment in the spotlight.  It can be hard to not parade our wisdom before a gathered group. Though this may seem like a selfish and frivolous concern, it’s good to remember that most of us are fulfilled and affirmed by the display of what we regard is a superior understanding of what’s really going on.  This kind of “showboating” is probably why the concept of “forbearance” had to be invented for the rest of us.

Aside from our expressive needs, the advantages of backchannels are even more consequential.  Communication out of the public eye is useful as a way to save the “face” of another. A person can be corrected or warned without carrying the additional burden of what can seem like an unnecessary humiliation.  Small potatoes, perhaps.  But in the actual situation described above, the enthusiastic employer was quite embarrassed by the less than positive response that came from his friends. He clearly felt a need to honor a commitment he had already made, obviously wishing he’d said nothing.  And it’s easy to see why. Unravel this small moment a little more and it’s apparent that a public conversation about a potential mistake could be construed as an implicit judgment about the host’s competence. With backchannels, most of this baggage doesn’t accumulate. There is a better chance to preserve the friendship that exists between the host and the doubters.

Diplomats, mediators and leaders of all sorts make extensive use of backchannels.  They know that the expressive needs of individuals in groups are sometimes at odds with the task of finding face-saving solutions. The challenge for all of us is to resist our first impulse to take ownership of a conversation on the quick hunch that we have superior insights.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu