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Professor considers ethics of rhetoric

| Sunday, November 23, 2014

Associate professor of English John Duffy examined the quality of American public discourse and its social impact Saturday in his lecture “Beyond Civility: The crisis in American public discourse.”

The lecture, the final installment of the Snite Museum’s Saturday Scholars series, examined both the current trends in American civil discourse and the measures needed to address the problem effectively. According to Duffy, the problem with contemporary public discourse lies in its polarizing and factually questionable nature.

“We seem to have reached the point in our public deliberation in which there is no widely shared agreement as to the nature of a fact,” Duffy said. “There is little place in our public arguments for deliberative language that might express doubt, explore ambiguities, admit errors or acknowledge positions that might depart from orthodoxy.”

Duffy said some of the main factors behind the nature of contemporary civil discourse lay in economics and technology. He said sensationalized, polarizing rhetoric has become more marketable for lucrative corporations and media, while the accessibility modern technology has given to news channels and public radio has created a media climate saturated with misleading and combative discourse from both politicians and media pundits.

“There is nothing new about vilification, but what makes our moment extraordinary is not the fact of our corrosive discourse, rather it’s the technologies that allow us to disseminate the discourse so effectively,” he said. “We’re unique not because of the toxic nature of our rhetoric, but because of the methods we have to liberate the toxins.”

According to Duffy, in order to create a more fruitful rhetoric, we must begin to understand the purpose of argument not merely as a tool of persuasion, but also as a way to engage in a relationship with another human being where opinion is well articulated and respectful of the other’s intelligence. Duffy said this requires a knowledge of “rhetorical virtues.”

“To understand rhetorical virtue is to understand that speaking and writing are not merely instrumental but are fundamentally ethical activities,” he said. “That means we are obliged to answer certain questions of ourselves before we speak or write. How does our speech or writing reflect, say, the virtues of respectfulness, generosity? How does our writing respect the practices of tolerance?”

While many believe the solution to polarizing, ineffective discourse is to encourage greater civility, Duffy said civility is often a “misleading metric.” Since civility is both too vague to define and too limited in its approach to rhetoric, Duffy said what is needed in civil discourse is a better recognition of rhetorical virtue and purpose.

“What the rhetorical virtues offer is something different. They offer a language of assessment and practice of public discourse,” he said. “They call upon us to speak and write, not as Republicans or liberals, Libertarians or Democrats, but as a people committed to an ethical discourse and a common good.”

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