Seeing Language and Rhetoric – even poets need this insight:)

23 Jun

“Almost daily, we hear and read that someone somewhere is being rhetorical. The claim is a code, a signal that we should take a particular pronouncement for what it ‘really’ is – irrelevant, duplicitous, or embellished at the cost of substance.
It is worth pondering whether this code needs to be broken. As a quick and dirty way to ignore what we don’t want to hear, our deeply rooted aversion to rhetoric impoverishes language. It condones a world bereft of poetry, conflates impassioned advocacy and propaganda, and naively reduces the articulation of opinion to ideology.”

I use FB and follow the pages on gender, women and the Khoisan / ‘coloured’ discussions.

These are groupings that not only need support and unity (in diversity) amongst themselves, but more broadly.

So I suggest on one page that instead of just saying that we should support gender activism, that we should perhaps be more definitive:

R: Which is why its so great that “awareness campaigns” are so important, and if supported more can become the “beginning of the end”!

  • Jeanette Hess Let us be definitive. How should it be supported? What should the program be? Who should carry it out? When? Where? How will it be funded? By whom? Saudi women can not go anywhere alone and may not drive a car. Many are married off as children and have children as children. I taught them.
  • R: … and what exactly did you teach them Jeanette Hess? Their plight is not different to that of millions of women across the world! Its a pity that you expect someone else to come up with something definite… what are YOU doing about it? Perhaps some of us can “support” your definite programs / actions? The more women and men fight to keep gender and prejudice based violence on international platforms of dialogue (including FB), the more courage women and other survivors will have to speak out and fight back!

  • Jeanette Hess I worked in Saudi for a while as a teacher. The questions are open and part of any discussion that has focus on support for women against abuse. Although I do not need to prove anything R:, I have a long history in the field, started programs, created structures, organized and ran workshops, supported women and children through court cases, helped them find shelter, and trained as a trainer of gender trainers (with GETNET)
  • R: Wow that’s amazing Jeanette Hess … you seem to be defensive for no reason, some of us can benefit greatly from your knowledge and experience, so instead of posing questions, perhaps we should explore feasible possibilities?

  • Jeanette Hess While most women on FB will be experiencing abuse of some sort and sometimes really bad abuse, there are millions of women, right here in South Africa, that have no access to FB and other international platforms. For women such as that I would get boxes of condoms and take these to them in the squatter camps and organize literacy classes and they would hide their books from the men. Sometimes they would leave their books with a friend or just hide them in a bush and pick them up on their way to class. They would pretend that they went shopping or were delayed at a char job. Life is tough at grassroots.
  • Jeanette Hess R: – learning and development can only start with questions; with exploring them and the proposed answers. All answers to such questions have value.
  • R: That’s very true… so I salute ALL women and men who make it their personal responsibility to bring about change, whether it is at grassroots level or on social media for those who have access and need help, and those who have access and can give help. For me, being an agent of change is starting with making a difference in your immediate areas of influence. This is not a competition, its about having as many people as possible using their knowledge, skills, experience and resources to bring an END to violence, amongst many other social ills.

  • Jeanette Hess Quite. It is also about exploring root causes and getting to these. We must deal with the immediate and obvious outcomes of the root causes such as the physical and other violence. People can not be left to bleed while we sort out systemic issues but if we do not address the systemic societal constructs that perpetuate this violence, we will only be putting on band aid.
  • R: I agree.

  • R: does not see that
    … and what exactly did you teach them Jeanette Hess? Their plight is not different to that of millions of women across the world! Its a pity that you expect someone else to come up with something definite… what are YOU doing about it? Perhaps some of us can “support” your definite programs / actions? The more women and men fight to keep gender and prejudice based violence on international platforms of dialogue (including FB), the more courage women and other survivors will have to speak out and fight back!”
    has elements of animosity.
    In a previous comment another group member felt it necessary to say to R: that she had attitude that could be considered rude. … The post was deleted eventually.
    Noticing similar episodes on other pages where unity should be paramount, I was trying hard to gain some clarity but the many different aspects kept getting muddled in my head.
    Then looking for something else I found the document below which I now share together with my FB post to which I am still waiting response:).

Seeing Language and Rhetoric
Recent discussions (and deletions) have set me thinking – not in a particularly clear way, but more about the need to think about and to begin to define how we silence others or divert thought processes and the development of ideas and discussions- neutralize the very things and people that we purport to support.
I do not think that we do this deliberately. I do not think that we plan to cripple our own efforts for development and liberation.
We are just conditioned by the society that we live in; by its habit to maintain the status quo. We do it without thinking.
We do not think about the language that we use. We do not think about tone. We do not think about sensitivities. We do not think about our differences and how these might affect interpretations of shared communications. We do not think enough …
not about how we can truly reach each other with focus on purpose but from a holistic perspective.
So much of this is about LANGUAGE.
It was with deep bemusement that I opened a document on my pc and found direction for my scrambled thoughts and feelings:)

Neville Alexander  and Erik Doxtader together with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation were thinking of the broader socio- political and developmental discourse for redress and social cohesion but the principles apply to gender and the status of women as we engage with the world that we live in and with each other.

For now my struggles are very involved in this area of language and communications. I think that it is a critical area. The piece that I attach here references Marikana and though we tend to think of men going down into the mines and killing each other in battle, Marikana and other such related events deeply affect the lives of women and children.

How do we communicate?
How do we listen?
How do we interpret what we hear and read?
How do we respond?
Do we facilitate participation?
Do we find it necessary to say: ‘I am alright; it is you that I want to enable?’ and create separation?

As women we can none of us ‘be alright’.
As women we all live with gender discrimination that affect all spheres of life.

The fact that the discrimination and abuse might be more subtle, more sophisticated does not alter the reality of that discrimination and abuse.

We think in pictures. We understand in pictures. This is why a blind person will say: ‘I see.’ to indicate understanding and this is why any of us will say: ‘I see.’ to similarly indicate understanding although we were listening to the spoken word.

So let us see what Neville Alexander was sharing with us and what Eric Doxtader tries to draw our attention to.

The question of an unspoken poverty
(Institute for Justice and Reconciliation)

In memory of Neville Alexander, by ERIK DOXTADER

Language does not appear to lack for employment. If this seems a curious thing to say, it is worth remembering the myriad ways in which we are surrounded, inspired, stymied and provoked by words. It is also worth remembering that political, social, and cultural life depends heavily on our individual and collective capacity for expression, a power that begins to wither the moment it is taken for granted.

While words are in ample supply, the actual wealth of language feels increasingly unsatisfying. Quantity holds no assurance of quality. Opportunities to speak are not distributed equitably. More and more, it seems that our words are not getting the job done. The effort needed to make them work seems less and less worth the dividend.

Do we have enough of the ‘right’ words? Are the important things being said? Are we saying them well? Who has the power to speak in ways that matter? Who does not? What does the constitution’s promise of free expression mean if no one is listening? Why do so many arguments and so many debates strike us as violent?

At the risk of saying something that very few want to hear, these questions are rhetorical questions. This does not mean that they are unimportant or that they arrive without an expectation of reply. A rhetorical question asks us to reflect on our individual and collective experience of language. Its answer emerges through imaginative, critical and practical reflection on the condition of language, the terms of its power and its role in human life.

If our capacity for speaking and writing distinguishes us from the animals, it is more than a bit ironic (and dangerous) that rhetoric is neither widely understood nor trusted. By and large, we are taught to ignore this ancient art. We are taught to discount its call to grapple with our fragile capacity for expression and the ways in which it defines the human condition.

Seduced by schools of philosophy that reduce language to a possession and a tool whose ‘proper’ purpose is to insert my idea into your head, we are taught to be deeply suspicious of rhetoric, along with the empty, fine-sounding words and obfuscating jargon that it is thought to sponsor. Many of the media’s opinion-makers encourage and deepen this presumption.

Almost daily, we hear and read that someone somewhere is being rhetorical. The claim is a code, a signal that we should take a particular pronouncement for what it ‘really’ is – irrelevant, duplicitous, or embellished at the cost of substance.

It is worth pondering whether this code needs to be broken. As a quick and dirty way to ignore what we don’t want to hear, our deeply rooted aversion to rhetoric impoverishes language. It condones a world bereft of poetry, conflates impassioned advocacy and propaganda, and naively reduces the articulation of opinion to ideology.

More troubling still, our dismissal of rhetoric betrays a kind of self-loathing. As Theodor Adorno put it, a disavowal of rhetoric sets society in league with barbarism it literally renders us mute and strips us of the capacity to embrace the creative possibilities of expression.

There is nothing glib about Adorno’s thesis – he wrote the argument in the wake of the Holocaust, an event that is frequently held up as definitive proof of rhetoric’s capacity to engender evil.

The risk that our words will perform and legitimise violence is not overcome by standardising and enforcingrules of ‘proper expression’. It is not overcome with the fantasy that language is simply ours to master. It is not overcome with a refusal to recognise that language remains an open question, a mysterious power into which we are thrown and that works in better and worse ways.

Neville Alexander recognised all of this – and quite a bit more. In his trenchant book, An Ordinary Country, Alexander maintains that South Africa’s future rests heavily on the ability of citizens to foster new forms of expression, talk about their common and divergent experience of language, and cultivate a national discourse that weaves together their many mother tongues.

As he put it, the pervasive temptation to ignore the question of language risks forgetting the essential ‘relationship between the formative aspects of language and social transformation’.

In the wake of Marikana, this warning is altogether relevant, not least as the terrible events at the mine overwhelmed discussion of the National Planning Commission’s report and its call for citizens to define and debate the terms of a ‘formal social compact’.

Rhetoric is another name for thinking, gathering and expressing the formative power of language. Both theoretical and practical, as Aristotle observed in his often overlooked treatise on the matter, rhetoric is an art of beginning. It is a kind of action, an invention and discovery of words that address (and redress) those elements of human life that are ‘in the main contingent’.

Put differently, rhetoric begins as we struggle to find our voice and engage issues that have more than one side and which provoke deep disagreement about what is true and what is good.

Or, put differently still, rhetoric may be most important in those moments when it is difficult if not impossible to know what to say and in those moments when what is said enforces silence or devolves to chatter.

As Alexander understood, political controversy, economic inequality and cultural alienation demand a ‘discourse of process’, a way of speaking that affords opportunities to question and remake the grounds of individual and collective choices about what is good, just and productive. They also demand that we pay close attention to the process of discourse formation –the ways in which the meaning of citizenship and public life are shaped by vocabularies and forms of expression that develop over time and which exceed our control.

All in all, it is an extremely delicate and uncomfortable balance: we assert ourselves with words whose power is not our own. Accordingly, our responsibility for language can feel like a heavy burden. In the call to trouble stable meaning and move without the banister of certain truth, we are presented with a double ‘response-ability’, an advocacy (advocacy: to give voice) that discloses our debt to language at the same time that it invites response from those with whom we might enter into relation.

In this way, rhetoric’s hope lies not in the definition and enforcement of a ‘unifying’ consensus. It is more concerned with the much more difficult question of how to create the potential for productive disagreement, an interaction whose meaning is held in a play of expressions.

To this question, there are no easy or singular answers. But, there will be no answer at all so long as calls to attend to language are condemned as mere ‘talk shops’. Indeed, as it is used to sling accusations of idealism and idle contemplation, the charge that individuals or groups have convened a ‘talk shop’ is a backhanded way of foreclosing rhetoric’s question.

It is a charge that encourages us to dismiss the question of how language works and what it does – to us and for us; it is a charge that deters us from taking an interest in language or advocating for its development; it is a charge that invites us to overlook how both Adam Smith and Karl Marx maintained that the distribution and redistribution of finite material resources rests on exchanging words in ways that allow us to define the conditions of exchange under which we are willing and able to live.

Human beings spend far too much time waffling, stuck between the belief that no one has the authority to tell us that our words are falling short and a deep worry that social, political and cultural discourse has become counterproductive.

If life in such a bind is a form of poverty, which it is, the way out may require that we strive to address what remains unspeakable – the rhetorical questions and the questions of rhetoric that shed light on the work of words. Today, such an effort would amount to nothing less than regathering the potential for reconciliation.

Erik Doxtader is a senior research fellow at the IJR in Cape Town and a professor of rhetoric at the University of South Carolina. He is the author and editor of numerous books on the South African transition, including With Faith in the Works of Words: The Beginnings of Reconciliation in South Africa.

Neville Alexander

Jeanette Hess's photo. Erik Doxtader

Jeanette Hess's photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thanking the Universe for its intervention as I struggled with these nebulous feelings and thoughts:)

Jeanihess Blog South Africa

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