The recent shooting incident in Tucson, Arizona, has sparked off debate on the nature of political rhetoric and to what extent it may or may not have influenced the shooter, Jared Loughner. More specifically, discussions have centered on the current perceived trend for popular politicians to use metaphors such as “targeting the opposition,” “taking back the country,” “locking and loading,” and even “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Although the latter was originally attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the issue under fire is whether this type of language can actually encourage people to take violent action.
It’s worth taking a look at the words rhetoric and metaphor just to clear up any confusion between them. The OED defines rhetoric as;
The art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others, esp. the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques to this end; the study of principles and rules to be followed by a speaker or writer striving for eloquence, esp. as formulated by ancient Greek and Roman writers.
Rhetoric can be traced back to classical Latin rhētoricē and refers to the art of oratory and public speaking. Further back, the Greek word is ῥητορική, which in turn can be traced to a “rhetor,” one who teaches rhetoric, with the ultimate derivation coming from Attic Greek ἐρῶ) meaning “I shall say.”
On the other hand, metaphor is one of those “figures of speech” that the definition mentions, and turning back to the OED we find the definition as follows:
A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable.
Like rhetoric, the word can be traced back via the Latin metaphora to the Greek μεταϕορά that comes from the prefix “meta-” meaning “change or transformation” followed by ϕορά, a form of the verb ϕέρειν, which means “to bear or carry.” So the word literally means something along the lines of “carrying a change.”
So when a politicians and pundits talk about “having their opponents in their crosshairs” or “taking out the opposition,” they are not literally pointing a sniper rifle or shooting someone – they are using a metaphor. And it is the current prevalence – actual or perceived – of this type of hunting metaphor that is being debated.
In the realm of sexual conquests, metaphors involving sports are more prominent. “Getting to first base,” “I’d hit that,” or “I scored last night” are clearly embedded in the sporting arena, and the underlying notion here is that sex is a game on some level or another.
In business, metaphors abound as each management guru seeks to find his or her own unique spin, typically with the aim of selling books, training programs, and raking in obscene amounts of money for personal presentations to the gullible business community.
Recent articles have questioned whether or not the Internet has killed the art of rhetoric. One such article in The Economist’s Johnson blog suggested that sloganeering has trumped rhetoric as the regular mode of discourse in the political arena. My own response was to doubt that the general level of intellectual discourse has ever been as high as it has been imagined to be.
“The Internet hasn’t so much killed rhetoric as amplify the lack of rhetoric that has always been a part of common discourse. And by “common discourse” I mean the level of argument that goes on in an average pub along with a couple of drinks.
“Rhetoric as an art or a skill has, I suggest, never been something the masses have either used or learned, but been restricted to the chattering classes. Simply sit at a bar for 10 minutes and listen to the discussions going on around you and it becomes apparent that the “strength” of an argument seems to depend on factors such as volume (he who shouts loudest is right); personal experience (“My dad smoked until he was 105 so how can it be dangerous?”); TV truthiness (“It was on the Jon Stewart show so it has to be real”); and Internet validity (“All the proof to show that Bush and the Jews caused 911 is open for all to see on the net. Just google it!”)
“Any assumed decline in the standard of rhetoric is predicated on the notion that there was previously a high standard from which to fall. I’m suggesting that the bar was pretty low in the first place. The problem of the Internet is that it (a) acts as a repository for so-called “facts” that are not facts, which in turn form the basis for arguments, and (b) provides a level playing field for all commentators regardless of how valid, accurate, well-researched, or even logical their comments are. A post by an expert such as John McWhorter is as easy to find on the net as one by Joe the Plumber, whose knowledge on a particular subject may be based on a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, fueled by a passion to be heard.
“And there are far more Joe the Plumbers posting to blogs than John McWhorters.”
The Internet itself cannot be “good” or “bad.” What can be “good” and “bad” is content, and there is no magically algorithm that trawls the web checking whether facts are right or wrong. And pre-Internet, being the local one-man conspiracy theorist resulted in a lonely life and possible ridicule, but post-Internet, there is now “safety in numbers” and the one lunatic can now become a feted sage amongst the thousands of no-longer isolated crackpots and weirdos that use the web as a magnifying glass to make their own “truths” seem that much larger.
To paraphrase; when one loony thinks the world will end, he’s mentally ill; when thousands create a website, it’s a tenable hypothesis!