Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Rhetoric of Identity (and how to Identify that Rhetoric)

The answer to our country's problems isn't to return to some mythical past when all was well and everything was right (or left) in the world. The New Deal, the Great Society, the Reagan Revolution, Compassionate Conservatism, or even more recently, Yes We Can, are all but dim reflections of their times, broken as they are, each in their own way.

But neither is the answer to ignore all of these previous attempts to make things better. The rhetoric of each of these political and cultural movements were aspirational, even if rather transparently manipulative. But it's in this strange confluence of aspiration and manipulation that we need to analyse where we've come from and how we've gotten into the predicament we're now in.

Why do these rhetorical appeals work? In the ten Presidential campaigns I personally remember, along with many other campaigns for various products being sold to us, we've been sold an identity, a sense of who we are and our place in the great movement of history. We're told that if we join this campaign or buy this product, we'll find our true meaning and purpose for our lives. But if we don't come alongside this great movement of history and instead choose to go down another path, we're consigning ourselves not only to insignificance, but we're separating ourselves from the common identity that exists among our family and friends (or so the ad and campaign execs say).

And who wants that? In some way or another we all want to belong. It's a part of our being human that we join ourselves to various groups so that we can identify ourselves as a part of some larger whole. Even the lone wolf exults in their identity as a lone wolf because of the pre-existing myth of the lone wolf. Myths don't exist in a vacuum. They always serve a purpose.

But the question before us today is this: in light of the fact that we're being told that if we don't do....(pick your side)...all hell will break lose economically, politically, and possibly even cosmically, how can we step back and analyse the rhetoric being used and how it's being used so as to conflate the aspirational with the manipulative? In other words, how are we being bullshitted?

The classic bullshitter knows how to combine flattery with fear of failure, and hope with a sense of impending doom. Juxtaposing each in such a way that the voter has their emotions massaged to work up the response the purveyor wants from them. Either a vote, a sale, or a believer. Any will do. As long as they give their feasance to them. Or more importantly, to the ideal.

Can we cut through the deep rhetoric? Can we see beyond the silly semantics of salesmen telling us what we need before we know it ourselves? Can we recognize that all of this exists in us too as we see others behaving this way? Can we recognize ourselves as the bullshitter in chief before we accuse those we don't like of being the chief bullshitter?

You see, this is the Augustinian side of me coming out. It makes me a Christian skeptic, especially of myself. And I think it's my democratic side coming out too; in that I'm pretty sure we all have this in us. I could be wrong of course. But I doubt it. Only time will tell. And time seems to be telling.

1 comment:

Paleocrat said...

I rather enjoyed these reflections, John. Sadly, I don't see humankind moving beyond this identity crisis anytime soon, if at all. The "need" for collective identity is well engrained, finding it's fullest expression and sense of purpose in political and religious enterprises. Were "lesser," "lower" or "local" institutions and enterprises (i.e. family, labor associations, city/village, etc.) to be perceived as anything but "lesser" and/or "lower," I believe we would be free (and far better prepared) to answer the the questions you pose in this post. Until then, we have the same old song and dance... and the same old insistence that everyone has a sacred duty to put the lyrics to memory and the steps to motion.