Where I Cram My Ideas


Friday, June 22, 2007

Rhetorical Analysis - Ultimate Words in the Abortion Dispute

When two sides are in direct dispute over a topic, their stance is often labeled appropriately: pro-war vs anti-war; pro-gay marriage vs anti-gay marriage. In only one contemporary debate is there a situation where one issue has two conflicting 'pro' sides. Abortion rights is the battle between 'pro-life' vs 'pro-choice.'

These terms are 'ultimate words,' according to Richard Weaver, one of the preeminent rhetorical ethicists of the century. 'Ultimate words' are used to direct our passions toward favoring one side or another; to shape the way we look at the subject.

Both sides of the abortion debate use loaded language, which doesn't help to move our passions in the way that a responsible rhetorician should.

Value-laden terminology
Weaver's discussion of 'ultimate words' distinguishes between 'god' terms and 'devil' terms. In America, there is a positive association with words like 'progress,' 'democracy,' 'freedom' and 'justice,' and a negative connotation with 'reactionary,' 'fascist' and 'militant.'

More pointedly, there is a positive association with words like 'life' and 'choice,' and a negative with 'killing babies' and 'forced pregnancy/childbirth.'

Weaver had a somewhat traditional view of rhetoric - 'addressing itself to the most important of all ends, the persuading of human beings to adopt right attitudes and act in response to them.' The sort of attitude generated by the particular use of 'ultimate words' by opposing parties in the abortion debate is not very helpful to understanding the arguments in regards to the issue.

Certainly nearly everybody is 'pro-life' in most circumstances. You won't find many people in the general public who are 'against' life... but that is the connotation implied when those opposed to abortion use the term. People are essentially told that 'if you value human life, you must side with us. If you side with them, you don't value human life.'

The other side does the same thing, through its choice of words. Nearly everybody is 'pro-choice' in most regards in this democracy, particularly, ironically enough, the Republicans who usually stand on the other side. Yet when the value-laden terminology of 'pro-choice' is used by the pro-abortion rights side, the public automatically gets the assumption that those who disagree with abortion rights aren't concerned with allowing people to make their own choices with regards to their bodies. Making independent choices is an important American value - a 'god' term in our culture.

Language is sermonic

Weaver is probably most famous for his claim that language is sermonic; that people engaging in rhetoric are preachers.
"Finally, we must never lose sight of the order of values as the ultimate sanction of rhetoric. No one can live a life of direction and purpose without some scheme of values. As rhetoric confronts us with choices involving values, the rhetorician is a preacher to us, noble if he tries to direct our passion to noble ends, and base if he uses our passion to confuse and degrade us."
The use of value-laden language to cast two opposing sides as noble is quite simply the oldest form of argument on earth. In this case, using 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' amounts to a pathetic appeal - an argument from pathos. Pathos is the third of Aristotle's artistic proofs (Ethos: perceived character of the speaker, and Logos: logical syllogism, are the other two).

The passions are being stirred by using value-laden language that suggests 'We support life. They support killing babies.' Or 'We support the right to make our own choices. They think important life decisions should be forced down our throats.' This is not the same as trying to 'direct our passion to noble ends.'

Pathos, Phaedras, and the noble rhetorician
"The office of rhetoric is advising men," wrote Richard Weaver. In his analysis of Plato's Phaedras, he points out that the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedras was written to describe the difference between a noble and a base rhetorician.
"Sophistications of theory cannot obscure the truth that there are but three ways for language to affect us. It can move us toward what is good; it can move us toward what is evil; or, in a hypothetical third place, fail to move us at all."
The analogy Plato made was between a lover and a rhetorician. A lover can treat you in a dispassionate way - as an object or in a carefree manner, in a way that manipulates your emotions and uses you for his/her own benefit, or in a way that focuses on meeting your needs, on self-sacrifice and mutual trust. A speaker, likewise, can be dispassionate and boring, can manipulate your emotions to promote his/her own benefit, or - this is the 'noble lover,' or 'noble rhetorician,' can speak in a way that 'persuades human beings to adopt right attitudes and act in response to them.'

We have an obligation to use language responsibly. 'But any utterance is a major assumption of responsibility,' as Weaver concludes. Using loaded language will always have ramifications. Be careful.

50 comments:

Jane said...

Thank you for the invitation to your bog site G-man. You have a pretty intelligent repertoire here in this "locker room". And to think I expected smelly feet and ball scratching. Glad to be disappointed...

Anyway, after encountering ignorant fundies like you and I are apt to endure these days, I often reflect on the fact that I'm neither pro-life or pro-choice. How do you like them apples?

I'm pro-abortion. In fact, I think we need more abortion - even late term abortion - Really late term abortion. Actually, I favor post natal abortion at as long as 61 years post-gestation for people answering to the nickname of Dubya.

If you read Freakonomics you can see references to the studies that pretty clearly support the premise that the record drop in crime in the late 80's through 90's was correlated with abortion.

Let's face it, you and I both know there is nothing sacred about life. Many people are simply pests. Let their mothers exterminate them before society has to at far greater expense.

Is that a two-fer? - Sort of a reply to your abortion and utilitarian musings in one silly fell swoop!

G-man said...

Well I'm sure you noticed that this blog not only gives off a fresh, shiny new feeling and aroma, it is clearly a little attention-starved :)

It's young; it just needs time (and maybe shorter blog posts).

The first thing you may have noticed, as a matter of fact, is that I didn't directly deal with the issue of abortion in this entry.

We agree that life isn't sacred - at least, not in some super-natural, extraterrestrial way. In the sense that it's the only one we ever have, I suppose we could call it sacred :) Besides, I've never heard of any problem more serious than overpopulation stemming from treating life as if it's sacred...

Anyways, this response is long enough already without me going into my two-fold rationale behind my support of abortion rights.

I'm glad to pleasantly disappoint you, and to welcome you to the short list of Locker visitors :P

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