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).