Cause and Effect in Rhetoric (Part 7)

"Cassandra" by Evelyn de Morgan.  The prophetess that nobody believed.  (from Wikimedia Commons)

"Cassandra" by Evelyn de Morgan. The prophetess that nobody believed. (from Wikimedia Commons)

This section of the blog article “Cause and effect in rhetoric” discusses how cause and effect arguments are based on  Social Biases and have Disciplinary Power Implications.

For the introduction to the article, go to Cause and Effect in Rhetoric Part 1.

There is a bias in contemporary western society and culture which predisposes us to believe that the more likely “causes” are things to which our culture attributes power — physical matter, biology, money, science, technology, etc.

Cultural and disciplinary bias (to which most of us are subject without realizing it) makes it much harder for scholars to argue cause/effect relationships that are culturally less plausible.

Links to other sections of this article:

Part 1: Introduction, Causal Reasoning, Social Constructionism

Part 2: Speech Act Theory  and Contemporary Rhetorical Theory

Part 3: Rhetorical Criticism

Part 4: Rhetorical History

Part 5: Rhetorical Praxis and Pedagogy

Part 6: A Typology of Cause-Effect Arguments in Rhetoric

part 7: Social Biases and Disciplinary Power Implications

Social Biases

It is easy to argue that a powerful force, such as a law or policy, a military attack, a volcano eruption, or economic crisis, has “caused” people to communicate and act in a certain way.  The “softer” parts of life are usually where people look to see results/effects.

It is especially difficult to argue that “causes” are factors to which we attribute less power: entertainment, communication, and less powerful people (women, children, employees, the disabled).  How can these factors possibly cause policy change, military strategies, environmental disasters and economic crises?

  • In a culture that values science, politics, economics more than the liberal arts and humanities, it is generally harder to argue that rhetoric could be the cause of major social and historical effects.
  • It is much easier to argue the converse — that major social and historical trends and contexts are the causes of rhetoric.

One can even safely make cause-effect arguments within the uncontroversial “bubble” in which texts / rhetoric / communication affects other texts / rhetoric / communication and no outside factors of another nature are claimed to be in the realm of its effects.

Ironically, society does admit to the power of rhetoric — but only under limited circumstances, where it can be blamed and contained. Rhetoric is often attributed the power to be the sole, necessary, and sufficient cause of many bad things (i.e. libel, hate speech, harrassment, attack advertisements, propaganda).

If society admits that rhetoric has such powerful effects that it could be this harmful, and that in these cases the rhetors deserve to be sanctioned and punished, how could it be possible for rhetoric (often considered mere or empty) to make use of its intrnisic power?

Disciplinary power implications

The neglected prophetess Cassandra pulls her hair in frustration as the city burns

The neglected prophetess Cassandra pulls her hair in frustration as the city burns

If rhetoric could break the cultural chains of imprisonment in the dungeons of evil influence, or materialize out of the limbo-land of irrelevant flowery talk, it could be seen as a potential cause of something good, — even as a contributor toward widespread social transformation for good — such as … enhanced civic participation,  ethical responsibility in youth, stronger communities, the avoidance of war and conflict, the prevention and mitigation of environmental harm …

Perhaps, more generally, the nature and frequency of cause-and-effect claims in any discipline can be one index of its power in society, or the power it claims to have, or hopes to obtain.

If the primary mode of causal reasoning in a humanistic discipline is merely to argue that less powerful things (rhetoric) affect other less powerful things (other rhetorical acts, perceptions and not realities), what this does, socially and intellectually, is keep the less powerful disciplines in a ghetto where they only talk to each other and have very low social power and relevance beyond their own intellectual game.

People may occasionally feel threatened or shocked when our discipline claims to have a significant degree of power and relevance.

“How dare they argue that something less powerful within their domain of inquiry has affected something more powerful, within our domain of inquiry?”

It is very much about intellectual territory and transgression.

When rhetoricians claim cause and effect relationships that others do not believe are possible to argue, they may be ridiculed or dismissed.

If we become intimidated and do not know how to respond with rhetorical self-respect, then we may cower, despite centuries of rhetorical theory and practice, and allow rhetoric to be policed by the more powerful disciplines.  We would let other disciplines define what we are about and how we go about it, telling us that what was formerly our territory of inquiry is now someone else’s territory–Certain species of academic territoriality may wish to consign rhetoric to irrelevance.

It reminds one of how Plato and Aristotle wanted to keep rhetoricians out of politics and ethics, their own domain.  The rhetoricans, Socrates reasoned, are like the lowly cooks (just pleasing the taste) and they, the philosophers, are the doctors (healing the soul).

Out of fear of the consequences, the punishment and ostracism, we may even police each other to ensure that we are not crossing the disciplinary boundary and actually saying that rhetoric is a form of social action.

Cicero, Roman orator and statesman

Cicero, Roman orator and statesman

When Antonius came to power, why did he feel so threatened by Cicero’s eloquence? If Cicero’s rhetoric was so harmless and impotent to effect political change, and could only affect other words and perceptions and feelings, then why couldn’t Antonius just tolerate Cicero and send him into exile alive, as Julius Caesar had?  No.  He felt it was necessary to have Cicero assassinated and his hands and head nailed to the speaker’s rostrum in the forum as a warning.  (See How they Killed Cicero , from the Great Names in History blog)

Cicero’s martyrdom inaugurated a new era of rhetoric, one which sought the patronage of the emperors and did not rock the boat.

Courageous cause-and-effect argumentation and appropriate evidence and analysis may gradually be able to persuade society that a certain type of rhetoric, working hand in hand with other factors, is one of the causes that contributes to social good or social harm.

What is the alternative to such courage?  Social irrelevance?

At Cassandra's feet

At Cassandra's feet

On what social ground does our discipline rest — on a beautiful disciplinary island, apart from our world in need of good, timely persuasion?


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