Tag Archives: public rhetoric

finger pointing 2


We don’t need Professor Harold Hill to tell us there are troubles right here in River City.  Indeed, the existence of a pool hall seems to be the least of them.

One of the oldest and most recognizable rhetorical forms is the jeremiad, which is a warning or a call to action for others to change their ways. Jeremiads are a popular form of public rhetoric, seen and heard in news columns, religious tracts, documentaries and political speeches. And then there is your insufferable Aunt Tilly. The best we can do is suffer through her endless admonitions. Jeremiads typically describe a whole cluster of problematic habits or behaviors, which I suppose can be seen as a sign our abilities to imagine the world as it might be.

In short notice any of us can emit a jeremiad.  For some reason it can feel good to tell others they are on their way to one of the circles of hell.  The form is named after the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah who condemned idolatry, corrupt priests, and those who would sell themselves as “false prophets.” Sin travels hand-in-hand with the cautionary warnings of proselytizers.  And so it is with their secular counterparts who thrive on doomsday warnings that others seem unable to heed.  My best childhood memory of church was the booming voice of J. Carlton Babbs reminding his Methodist flock how very near we were to the precipice.

Jeremiah                             Wikipedia.org

If this all sounds a bit self-righteous, it surely is.  But jeremiads also provide the necessary churn to prod the rest of us to consider the consequences of our actions. We don’t need the reminders of Professor Harold Hill to tell us there are indeed troubles right here in River City.  Others are eager to pitch in to feed our natural meliorism.

The young have an aversion to jeremiads as much as the old are compelled to issue them.

Those of us with an abundance of judgments about how the social order should work are eager to tell others what they are doing wrong.  For reasons not clear to me, this rhetorical gene seems to especially thrive in men. Freely sharing opinions is a masculine trait.  We can cite the Puritans in early America.  But we could just as easily point to many of our contemporaries who take to jeremiads like fish to water.  We usually think of older evangelicals that have any number of warnings to offer to their straying flocks.  But think, too, of a broad tradition in liberal politics, well represented by Bernie Sanders or the iconoclastic writer, Chris Hedges, both of whom describe current economic, foreign policy and healthcare policies that will lead the nation to ruin.  As befits their unsettling nature, the best jeremiads give us no comfort because we know that they are probably justified.

Even this blog indulges in its share of fire and brimstone religious tracts. The constant complaint here that distraction is the communication malady of our age represents a difference in kind, but not in form.

The young have an aversion to jeremiads as much as the old are compelled to issue them. Cautions on behavioral and lifestyle choices receive a chilly reception from teenage audiences who have often been inoculated against hearing yet more advice.  Some interesting recent research suggests that even peer-to-peer appeals for such basic forms of self preservation such as lowering the volume levels of headphones typically fall on those ostensibly damaged ears.  Newer members of the human race are not all that interested in hearing how older generations became sadder but wiser. It is probably some mysterious generational thing.  But it is also an understandable impulse that the young would like to make their own mistakes.

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.