Tag Archives: North Korea

Rhetorical Exigencies

Listening to the President issue his bellicose threat against North Korea made people around the world wonder: why now?

Early in their college careers students of rhetoric are introduced to the enduring idea that a leader’s public remarks are shaped by some kind of precipitating event.  As the University of Wisconsin’s Lloyd Bitzer noted decades ago, public figures respond when they believe their words will answer a problem, bending it’s trajectory in ways the speaker imagines will be positive. In the short version of the idea, rhetoric is a response to an “exigency.” It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s almost always a piece of a larger conversation provoked by a significant event. George W. Bush was slow to react to Hurricane Katrina, taking a lot of heat for the delay. He was better in assuring Americans after 9/11.

This simple notion that has not gone unchallenged, but it is also more than an empty academic term.  It rewards us by asking that any comment be set in the context of immediate past events, not just as an isolated island of thought.  When a president or public official speaks, we expect that there are clear reasons–significant antecedents–for steering our attention toward certain issues. The theory goes on to note that in significant ways the antecedents will govern the response.  The glaring lateness of Donald Trump’s denunciation of white hate groups last Sunday is a violation of the principle. But his tone deafness on key events always been one of his problems.  His comments are too little too late or too much too soon.

Of course  Pyongyang is always making threats, but nothing coming from them seemed to warrant an out-of-the-blue threat to engage them and the world in a potentially catastrophic nuclear exchange.

Listening to the President issue his bellicose threat against North Korea on August 7 made people around the world wonder: why now?  At the time he was in the midst of a meeting on the nation’s opioid crisis, and yet the warlike language on North Korea is how he unburdened himself when reporters were ushered into the room:

North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. [Kim Jong-un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.

Apparently only after his comments did we learn that the North Koreans blustered that they were looking at options for attacking Guam, some 1800 miles away. Of course Pyongyang is always making threats, but nothing coming from them seemed to warrant the President’s out-of-the-blue challenge to engage them and the world in a potentially catastrophic nuclear exchange.

This was troubling because the sabre-rattling affair would make more sense if the exigency for his words was after North Korea’s threat. But no. Trump commented first on a Tuesday of last week. The North Korean’s comment came on Wednesday. In the short term, the larger exigency resided with the Koreans.

It is so like Donald Trump to make inaccurate and combative comments for reasons that only he understands. Too often his reference points are still the former president and Ms. Clinton. In his rhetorical wanderings he often seems like a befuddled fisherman casting a line miles from the closest stream. In this case he did have legitimate bragging rights after the unanimous United Nation’s vote to increase sanctions against the North. Any other President would have used the occasion to build off this diplomatic success. But on the sanctions he was mostly silent.

In this strange pattern there is a lesson in how much we are hardwired to place the flow of a person’s ideas in a larger frame of reference.  Meaningful rhetoric is almost always a moment in a river of known events.

Exigency theory explains how we arrive at attributions of other people’s motives. We naturally search for the antecedents that seem to trigger strong reactions in individuals. There is a form to these things. We expect to be able to identify contributing factors for a significant presidential statement. This feeds into the dialogical form that is second nature to us. We mentally ‘build out’ from a person’s words to make conclusions about what likely gave rise to them. When we ask questions like “why did Mary say that?” we are looking for the triggering exigency. When we can’t find one, we worry that we are missing something important, or that the speaker has a chaotic mind that has drifted into magical thinking.

A Case of Failed Journalism Ethics

Source: Wikipedia.org
Source: Wikipedia.org

Members of the Fourth Estate should honor the idea of privacy when there is no compelling public need to know.

The massive hack into Sony and Columbia Pictures’ computers at the end 2013 was recently made worse because of a decision by WikiLeaks to catalogue and release 30-thousand company documents and 173-thousand employee e-mails. The original cyber-attack, which included theft of the sophomoric film, The Interview, is sometimes credited to North Korea. Others who follow these things aren’t so sure.

What is apparent is that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has decided that the presumed confidentiality for communications we all expect as a functional necessity in organizational life means nothing.  His rationale for releasing the documents is generic and lame: Sony is “newsworthy and at the centre of a geo-political conflict.”  And so—with too many hangers-on within a compliant American press—we can all be voyeurs to the health documents of employees, their social security numbers, their phone numbers, and their private communications.  Apparently Assange is determined to “fence” this stolen data to the rest of us.  His egregious decision is made even worse by his decision to  set up a separate website to display the material and make it fully searchable.

Sony has a right to expect that its internal affairs—which apparently involve no violations of any laws–are private. This is simply an unauthorized peek into someone else’s business that is really none of our business.

What makes the theft and publication of these materials even worse is the willingness of many news outlets to mine this stolen property to pander to its readers. It’s still early, and already the New York Post, CNN, the Associated Press, the New York Times, The Verge, Gawker, the Daily Beast, New York Magazine and others have published gossipy stories from these memos. To my knowledge no major news organizations outlets have editorialized against the practice, even though the fig leaf of legitimate “news” keeps slipping out of place with every innocuous story ginned out of the celebrity e-mails.

This gossip won’t be repeated here. But you get the idea if you remember the temptations of news sites who carried images of an unclothed Jennifer Lawrence stolen from Apple’s ‘cloud.”

Too few journalists have taken the principled position of Slate’s Jacob Weisberg:

“News outlets should obviously cover the story of the hack itself, the effect on Sony, the question of how it happened, and who’s responsible. This is a big and legitimate news story. But when it comes to exploiting the fruits of the digital break-in, journalists should voluntarily withhold publication. They shouldn’t hold back because they’re legally obligated to—I don’t believe they are—but because there’s no ethical justification for publishing this damaging, stolen material."

Federal courts have  ruled that the press can publish most kinds of material stolen by a third party. There is understandable value of immunizing journalists against governmental sources that would like to suppress evidence of failed policies or simple malfeasance. There is no question the nation was well-served by the unauthorized release and publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  But nothing so grand is at risk here. This is the equivalent of opportunists looting a store that has been torn open by an earthquake.

Assange’s efforts to frame his voyeurism in the language of “public service” is an abuse of the term. His error of judgment should also be apparent to members of the Fourth Estate, who must honor the idea of privacy when there is no compelling public need to know.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu