Tag Archives: oppositional rhetoric

The Oppositional Turn

Source: White House photographer Pete Souza
Obama comforting a Hurricane Sandy Victim Source: White House Photographer: Pete Souza

 Almost all of the energy in our public rhetoric is reserved for unmasking what appears to many as the unjustified and self-serving optimism of political elites.

Anyone listening to any past president surely noticed that their public rhetoric was in a distinctly different key. Assuming that Donald Trump is a one-off anomaly, presidents speak in major chords that emphasize positivity, success, praise, enduring values, and always a degree of hope.  It’s the nature of the office to be affirming.  But such rhetoric is increasingly at odds with the sour and minor keys that tend to dominate the ‘rough music’ that comes with significant national and political events. It can hardly be news that irony and suspicion rule our airwaves, talk shows, blogs, news sites, and twitter feeds.

It’s clear to anyone who is listening that we live in an era dominated by oppositional rhetoric. The cultural voices that command the greatest attention are mostly reactive, negative and frequently vitriolic.  Almost of this energy goes into unmasking what appears to so many as the unjustified and self-serving optimism of political and corporate elites.  Increasingly, the negativity of the internet troll looks less like an isolated aberration than a new and durable rhetorical norm.  As a younger student of political communication in the 1970s, I don’t recall seeing the plethora of books asserting presidential conspiracies than can now be found among the “new releases” on the shelves of our public libraries.  And there is, of course, the current President’s daily vitriol.  It’s hardly news that he excels at making nasty comments.

How did we get here?  A bit of this effect is a matter of perception. The Democratic strategist Tony Schwartz noted years ago that in a simple election between two people there are actually four voting choices; a person can vote for or against either candidate.  Schwartz noted that it was sometimes easier to help people discover who they were against. That insight was enough for him to produce devastating anti-Goldwater ads in the 1964 presidential contest.

In addition, the democratization of news gathering—or at least news commentary—means we hear less from official voices and more from dissenters.  Presidents can no longer easily command broadcasters to turn over prime time for an important speech.  The media competition for attention is too great. At the same time, more of our informational sources have merged straight reporting of public events with the entertainment imperative of centering a program on a host who can issue slicing rebukes. We expect our news with the twist of irony that comes easily in The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, or online outlets like Slate or Salon.com.  As for talk radio: outside of NPR, no one seems to want to sound like a good-government wonk from Minnesota. A surer route to success is to become the audio equivalent of a professional wrestler tossing unworthy adversaries over the ropes.

In actual fact, as psychologist Stephen Pinker has noted in The Better Angels of Our Nature (Penguin, 2012), we are a somewhat more compassionate society than the one our ancestors knew. But it also seems apparent that we have less interest in advocates motivated to find common ground in civil discourse. This splintering of the culture is thus partly the effect of more decentralized and polarized news media, but it’s also caused by a cultural turn away from the communitarian trope that was proudly uttered in defense of significant advances in social welfare legislation following World War II.  The G.I. Bill, Social Security, and the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s were milestones as enactments of this value, which could be summarized as broad support to use the political resources of the nation for the benefit of all. In this common pre-Reagan belief, government was the solution, not the problem.

The challenge posed by the newer turn toward a more atomized and suspicious culture is whether we and other western democracies can maintain a sense of shared national destiny.  With a fragmented nation now served by fragmented media, finding what unites us is more difficult. That search is compounded by the fact that we no longer pay much attention to Presidents, even when they yearned to be the poets of our national spirit.

Tell Them You Like It

Comment boxWe need their music, and the music of your words. Let them know they’ve done something you like.

The other day I was searching online for information about a brilliant but mostly forgotten figure in the film industry. As expected, I found a brief entry on Wikipedia, but also a link to a beautifully written and illustrated blog post written  by someone motivated to express his appreciation. The rekindling of interest in the composer/arranger Conrad Salinger with the help of this particular blogger is the kind of thing the internet does so well. The part that’s new for most of us is the impulse to follow through on a digital discovery and actually tell a talented an expert, performer, or amateur enthusiast—anyone whose work you admire—that you really like what they’ve done. We need to get in this habit. And most websites are set up to make responses easy.

We live in an age when there are often more sellers than buyers, more writers than readers, more supplicants to join the ranks of musicians and actors than audiences to support them.  Our politics is now described as more “oppositional” than celebratory.  In sum, recognition, praise and gratitude are increasingly rare forms of response.

There are two parts to this. We are used to consuming the products of our culture as commodities, letting it slip from our notice that someone worked hard to produce a piece worthy of praise. In this age of fragmented media–and especially writers and musicians who tend to be underpaid and over-copied–a little personal praise is a small but useful gesture. Beyoncé can probably live without hearing from you. But musicians appearing at a local club or releasing their first recordings would probably welcome an encouraging word. The same is true for bloggers, journalists, newsletter compilers and others whose labor is likely to be taken for granted. We need their music, or the music of their words. Really useful internet content does not simply happen. Do more than “like” them on Facebook. Let them know they’ve done something that moved you, even transformed your understanding of a subject.

The second part of this requirement seems unnecessary to acknowledge, but is important in a era of mindless trolling. Be complementary. As we know, web anger seems to be the new normal. Comments after news posts or in Twitter feeds are notoriously cranky, and all the slimier for usually being anonymous. Instead, say something nice and sign your comments.  Meaningful and constructive criticism is best when knowledge of a subject makes it fully earned. But praise is an important gesture of acceptance and needs to be more freely expressed, especially in a society where most of us are stuck looking inward.

Comments?  Write woodward@tcnj.edu