Thursday, September 06, 2012
There I Go Again: On Rhetoric and Bill Clinton
A lot of people dismiss great speeches as "mere rhetoric." That hurts my feelings. I studied rhetoric in graduate school. For sure, people can use lies and trickery to flatter audiences. They can manipulate and stir emotions. The persuasiveness of Hitler is the standard example of an instance of great oratory skills being used to promote evil. Hitler was awful. But he was clever and tapped in to values his audience shared.
I believe audiences are responsible for what they find persuasive. Powerful people should not use the tools of rhetoric to promote bad ideas. I really wish they wouldn't. But, excepting extreme cases of good vs. evil (which, frankly, I wish happened more often because when these two clash in movies it is always AWESOME), most of the time we disagree about better and less bad ideas and. Even more often, we disagree about which ideas are more or less practical and which ideas serve the most people. It's the middle ground that we disagree about and that's what this election seems to be focused on. Neither candidate is promoting an invasion of Poland, in spite of what Glenn Beck says. (Zing! I take that back. Don't comment about that, please.)
We are accountable for what we find persuasive. That's what it means to be a critically-thinking person. I know the dog rescue commercials featuring Sarah MacLachlan are emotionally manipulative. They make me cry and then I want to donate money. But I can still evaluate how I'm being persuaded and decide if it's fair and whether I support the cause. I can step back and decide.
When people make accusations of "mere rhetoric," they must mean bad or untruthful or manipulative means of persuasion. Well, if you're smart you won't find those things persuasive. Some people are dummies and it's sad when people take advantage of them. People shouldn't do that. But people shouldn't be dummies, either. And there's nothing "mere" about rhetoric. It tells you a lot and helps you make decisions. If you like how Dick Cheney speaks--what he says, examples he uses, how he talks--you probably like Dick Cheney. If you like how he tries to persuade you (I don't), you probably have a lot in common with him. What else do you have to go on?
So, as I listened to Bill Clinton I thought, "Yes! Yes!" He's a great speaker and he knows what he's doing. There's nothing wrong with that. I find him persuasive because I like and respect the way he persuades. I think it is good and I agree with it. He's folksy and funny. You might say that's contrived or fake. But I don't care. Because I value humor and folksiness. Every political speech is contrived to some degree. However, Clinton went off the prompter and he was great. That's a little less contrived. When I compare Clinton's ad libbing to Clint Eastwood's ad libbing (and I'm as big of a Clint Eastwood fan as anyone), I liked Clinton's better. He was more informed and said things that were relevant. I enjoyed Clinton's speech and found it convincing. The fact that he won me over in spite of his character flaws doesn't mean, to me, that I'm dumb and he's just "slick willy." His ability to win me over in spite of the moral repugnance I feel toward him about his affairs means that he had to work harder, be more reasonable, know more relevant facts, and tap into my closely-held ideals in order to make up for his indiscretions. It's not like I'm super forgiving about indiscretions. Just ask anyone.
The best part of Clinton's speech was how he complimented George W. Bush and quoted Ronald Reagan. He comes off as bipartisan. I value that. You might say it's fake and he's "just saying that." But at least he's saying it and giving examples. It shows that he values it too, or at least that he knows I value it and he's trying to appeal to that. I think that's good. It's better than someone who doesn't appeal to something I value at all. It's how we figure out who we agree with. Yes, people can lie all the time and some do. But all we can do is listen and think about it and weigh all the evidence and make a decision. Clinton was super informed. I value that as well. He knows what he is talking about and can give specific examples of each claim that he makes. That resonates with me.
I understand why you might dismiss Clinton out of hand because he had affairs. The fact that he lied about it when it happened detracts from his credibility. I would certainly prefer it if he had never had affairs or done any of that. I get it. For me, it doesn't work to just completely dismiss everything that he says. Clinton, himself, explained why we should continue to listen to each other, even when people make mistakes and are wrong.
He said that neither party is right all the time and that even a broken clock is right twice a day. The first step to having better judgment and making good decisions is to admit this. You can learn from other people and get more done when you look for common ground and work together. His speech is actually a perfect example of the ideals he promotes which was--for all you rhetoric nerds out there and I know there's at least one--pretty sweet. I could stand on principle with my fingers in my ears whenever Bill Clinton talks because he cheated on his wife. Or I can listen to what he has to say and evaluate it.
In a simpler or more homogenous society you wouldn't need tools like rhetoric to figure things out. We'd just need to decide who would be the one true best president. There would be a right answer for everyone. But we don't live like that. No one agrees entirely about what the "best president" would be like. In a heterogeneous country there are more contingencies. There's a lot to work out: What qualities do you care about in a president, which issues do you care most about, what can you let go, what's the lesser of two evils and which ideals match yours the most closely. Rhetoric doesn't obscure the truth, it's a way of managing it and making decisions.
I loved everything Bill Clinton said last night. I think he went a little long, but I agreed with him and learned from him and was persuaded. If I were teaching this semester I would have my class write a paper about this speech. It is effective whether you agree with it or not. Because it was specific, had a point of view, was concrete, laid out ideals and a plan, you can actually figure out what you think by how you react to this speech. It's a nice little piece of oratory.
I liked Mitt Romney's speech at the RNC and, like Clinton said, I'm convinced that he's an honorable guy. He just didn't mention enough specific things to get any traction with me. Obviously I'm a Mormon and have a lot in common with Mitt Romney. Many Mormons place a high value on the things we share, and I do too. But I'm finding that in terms of who I want for president, those things are taking on less significance.
Hangdog compassion and being fair and smart are the major underlying themes of what I care about in a candidate. I'm as surprised as anyone to see them portrayed better by Bill Clinton's Barack Obama than anyone at the Republican convention, but there you have it. And that's why I can vote for President Obama and you can vote for Romney and everything will work out in the end. Except, in Utah, my vote won't count. But that's democracy for you and I believe in it. God bless America!
I hope telling you how I feel about this doesn't make you hate me. I try to be open about what I'm thinking around election time because I think the best way for rhetoric and democracy to work is for people to talk to each other and listen and to only be persuaded by the best things and most constructive input. If this doesn't persuade you, that's OK. We can still be friends. Just be careful that my heart doesn't bleed all over you.