The Poison of Rhetorical Studies in the Era of Mass Gun Violence

Growing up, I wanted to be a wizard. Harry Potter made me into the prototype of The Magicians’ Quentin Coldwater, a kid sad because my academic skills didn’t literally make my words powerful enough to change the world. Except, in 2002, young asshole me was invited to join a secret club that offered the next best thing to words that literally, physically shaped the world: the idea that our words had the power to shape society.

The secret club was forensics, also known as competitive speech. The shibboleth of membership in forensics was liking to jokingly mock people who thought the term referred to studying dead bodies to find out if crime had happened to them (and that question did occur, at one point in the middle of a speech round at a strange school, leading to a confused student leaving the room with the impression that I was some sort of cop). Categories like informative speech and persuasive speech are distinguished from one another through elaborate rules in forensics. (For those who are wondering, debate and forensics are related and often share tournament time and space. Debate is a more elaborate form of the kinds of competition done in forensics, and emphasizes “pure argument” without taking the style an argument is made with into account when judging its value. Forensics accepts that the style a speaker uses matters, although at least theoretically it’s less important than the argument’s core. More on this later.) Being a member of forensics led to me beginning an academic course that would eventually lead to me earning a Ph.D. in communication studies in 2015. As I pursued that academic course, I was acutely aware that most people outside our field didn’t know anything about it, and it seemed esoteric and hard to describe. We existed somewhere in a limbo between philosophy and English, with a fair bit of theater thrown in.

And we believed we were the only people who really knew what was going on. Rhetorical studies, the subfield I pursued and the one closest to the practice of academic debate, exists in a strange netherworld off to the side of “communication[s]*”. That’s generally the way we liked it.

So, I’ve been away for a while — depression related to my own academic career hitting a major bump, which was also caused by my depression — and I’ve decided to come back despite not really feeling up to it because I’m seeing, wittingly or unwittingly, a huge number of people on the political Right using arguments to dismiss the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas gun massacre that originate in rhetorical studies and debate practices that are fundamentally unsound, and I want to explain why they’re unsound.

You’ve probably seen what I’m referring to. There’s the outright conspiracy theories that the kids who survived the shooting are “crisis actors” and even that the shooting was staged, and then there’s the harder to address (still bullshit, but deeper in a set of arguments our culture recognizes as valid, unfortunately) claim that these kids are too young, too innocent, too lacking in credibility for their opinion about whether the weapon that was used to slaughter their friends is good or not to have any weight.

In that above sentence, there’s two things I italicized because I want to draw your attention to them: lacking in credibility, and weight. These are artifacts of competitive debate, a practice which Ted Cruz of all people rightly denounces as tainted by ridiculous game mechanics that have no place in analyzing discourse. (Cruz’s point in the paywalled article above is that debate often moves at ridiculous speeds in competition, which is in itself a practice that could be linked to contemporary strategies of mass sockpuppeting and trolling.) Judging a source’s credibility is another one of these tactics. It has some value in trying to spot actual fake news, or identify when a source is biased; however, the academic practice is tied in with what amounts to a denial of reality. Sources are judged as credible or not based on nothing consistent, but most frequently something related to Aristotle’s On Rhetoric and its system of logos, ethos and pathos. A credible source, according to rhetorical theory, is a source which is primarily based on logic, or has some kind of innate credibility (ethos) — and if that sounds circular, yeah, it is. Pathos, or emotional resonance, is seen as a tool to be “used sparingly,” which in discussions like the one around the Stoneman massacre, overwhelmingly is expected to be left at home. And the Stoneman survivors are automatically given the opposite of innate credibility, because they’re kids. Thus, their sharing of an actual, real experience is seen as misleading, and their testimony is afforded little “weight” — because they’re kids and because they’re emotional. The reasons for their emotionality are good — it should be an asset to their argument, and it would be, if not for would-be competitive debate referees treating all of this like it’s a game.

None of my criticisms of rhetoric are new, but now, being outside the academy, I end up in agreement with the second-wave feminists who initially made these critiques of the debate-style “rational” argument. I agree with the anti-imperialists and queer scholars who continue to point out the ways in which the Aristotelian worldview, which persists even in communication scholars who don’t call themselves Aristotelian, taints this system.

Here’s my overall point: I was a teenage asshole, and if it wasn’t for being trans and having the friends I did, I could easily have gone down the route to technocratic liberalism if not fascism. This seductive worldview which says there are rules to words, and using them properly gives you power, and that there’s a dark side of rhetoric where you use emotions which are bad, stays with people, and students who are taught these ideas in the well-meaning guise of “critical thinking” and argumentation skills often walk out into the world to make insulting arguments — no, insulting is too soft a word, demeaning arguments about the victims of a fucking school shooting. (“Fucking” there is inappropriate pathos.)

People who grew up — or didn’t — from being teens like me are patrolling the Internet, demanding conformity and a lack of emotion from marginalized and vulnerable people in particular. We need to stop accepting this as “reasonable” and stop teaching it as anything other than a form of bullying. Words do have power, but high school debate doesn’t make you a wizard, or an authority on anything. Experiences, on the other hand, add to one’s credibility, and no one’s argument deserves to be dismissed like a “card” in debate.

This is not a game.

*Don’t ever let a communication studies person think you think they’re communications with an “s” or you will get a lengthy lecture on the differences.

Eleanor A. Lockhart is an independent scholar and sad goth lady who has no income — if you appreciate this essay, donations via Patreon or PayPal are welcome.