Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Girly Rhetoric

The shootings in Connecticut are not relevant to the subject matter at hand. This is not a post about the shootings in Connecticut. The ways in which academics are talking about that event, however, is very relevant. And that's what this post is really about, as much as it might seem otherwise.

The New York Times' Philosopher's Stone series is very hit-or-miss. Some of the columns are great and about interesting topics, and other times they're — well, not.

This week they are running a series of pieces about ethics, philosophy and morality in the wake of the shootings in Newtown. And one of them was just appalling, made worse by the fact that it's written by an assistant professor at Princeton, one who studies essayistic writing for a living, to boot. It's the sort of piece of writing that gives me pause every time I've just about screwed up enough courage to return to writing for a general audience. It is well crafted in its awfulness, though, in very specific ways that mean it will be useful in class as an example of how to handle content and rhetoric together.

In the column, the author argues that public rampage shootings are on the rise because young white men are releasing the pent-up frustration they feel at not being universally adored for being young white men and for not being quite as many heads and shoulders ahead of women and minorities when it comes to subtle and not so subtle advantages in all of the arenas in which humans interact with each other. And apparently we women are meant to sit around swooning and making the men in our lives feel heroic and virile and desperately needed. And then they won't feel the need to shoot twenty first graders.

We should act more helpless and googley-eyed. It's okay because we can vote and make many of our own medical decisions. And it'll stop mass homicides.

As far as public policies go, I think this one is a loser.

I feel like each and every one of us simply choosing not to shoot first graders is probably a better one.

Even knowing that I was going to write about rhetoric and qualifiers, I've just caught myself automatically starting the sentence above with the qualifier I feel. It's something that women tend to do in writing and in speech more than men. And it's not unrelated to the kind of horrible rationalization that says that if only women could take it upon themselves to be unobtrusive in their success, and to nurture men more and be responsible for their self esteem, that if only that, then nearly thirty people wouldn't have died, hundreds of gunshot wounds between them. Qualifiers come into play in prose when the author lacks confidence or wants to couch a point or lessen the risk that a reader will take offense or push back hard. The waffling text of the column — "This is merely anecdotal evidence, not social science, but I believe that it is indicative of a sort of infection spreading in our collective brain, one that whispers to the American subconscious..." —  is the rhetoric of someone who thinks that the unidirectional interaction of women making men feel better about themselves is an effective gun policy.

The message in this op-ed piece, like the seriously qualified medium, argues for the passivity of women. It is such a startlingly effective pairing of rhetoric and content that I'm probably going to use it for writing workshops when I return to teaching undergraduates next year. (I  happen teach in a department that overwhelmingly enrolls female students in its classes, which makes it that much more salient for my teaching.) The column demonstrates why using qualifiers is bad rhetoric in a way that is related to a perceived role in society. At the same time it shows that a piece of writing is that more more compelling, for better or for worse, when the style and the content of the writing support each other. That the subject matter — guns and the role of women in society — will catch students' attention might make it an especially effective exercise.

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