Rhetoric, Abuse, and Community

I’ve been reading a lot in the last few days as politicians, pundits, and most of the rest of us try to make sense of the senseless shootings in Tuscon last Saturday. Writers from the “left” vilify the incendiary language of the “far right” (including their talk-radio spokespersons). Writers from the right vilify the “left’s” exploitation of the tragedy for political ends.

You can probably guess how easy it would be for me to jump on the bandwagon, and fueled by my own political leanings and perspectives, add my angry reactions to the boiling pot of public discourse. I would have no trouble finding enough angry energy to sharpen my words and aim them at what I perceive as the vulnerable places in my adversaries. While such an approach might feel satisfying in some personal way, I choose to address the issue from a very different foundation.

No, I’m not going to say that all sides are equally to blame and that everyone should just cool the rhetoric – at least while we are still grieving. Rather, I want to challenge the very idea of rhetoric’s practical persuasive purpose – to “induce belief or action” in others. The operative word here is “induce.” Let’s remember that induction is not designed to help people connect with their deepest values so that their behavior expresses their integrity. Nor does it invite people into a conversation or dialogue to help them learn, grow, or explore the depth of truth collaboratively.

No, induction’s purpose is to replace “your” integrity with “my” idea of what you should believe and how you should behave. Induction is the exercise of power over others so that their beliefs and actions will conform to the standard I (the powerful one) set for you. As I see it, rhetoric (as it is commonly employed), persuasion, and induction are fundamentally abusive and violent!

Do you think I’m overstating the case? Perhaps so, but not according to my general definition of abuse: “treating persons as objects.” It’s not hard to see plenty of that going on around us all the time, in families, schools, churches, businesses, the media, and certainly in the political arena. Words like “democrat,” “republican,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and particularly, “enemy,” and “terrorist” are used as “object designators,” not as terms of respect between persons. And we could add “consumer” and “potential vote” to the list of objectifying terms.

In my counseling practice I have learned that not only can people be taught to think of themselves as objects, but, it seems to me, most people in our culture are taught to see themselves as objects. If what I have said is accurate, then rhetoric helps create objects and it helps support a system where abusive treatment is the coin of the realm.

I suppose you are wondering what the connection is between the uses and purposes of rhetoric and my stated objective to write about community in this blog.

Consider this: communities cannot be made up of objects; they can only be populated by people! Persons! Souls! And to use more overtly theological language, communities are populated by unique expressions of the divine image! It troubles me deeply that our culture has made people into objects and has made corporations into people.

What do you think our so-called communities would look like if we saw others (and our own selves, for that matter) as persons, not objects? Perhaps this is our generation’s most challenging task:

to believe in the inherent worth of persons (whether we like their politics or not);
to respect persons (whether we think they deserve our respect or not);
to look for divinity in everyone we encounter (including enemies and other “despicable types”);
and to use our “power” in the service of a healthy whole rather than objectifying and abusing people with it. (See Bernard Loomer’s article, “Two Conceptions of Power”)

As I see it, healthy spirituality attends respectfully to connection and mutuality while rhetoric, persuasion, and induction are fundamentally violent because they are objectifying. There is no question in my mind that our culture teaches us to solve our problems either by overt violence or by more subtle induction. It is no surprise to me when overt violence bursts out of a culture that teaches violent communication.

If you’re interested in pursuing this idea further, I recommend the book “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” by Marshall Rosenberg. A lot of work is needed to create healthier communities. Using more life-affirming language in place of rhetoric can only help.

This is how I see it, what about you?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

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