Subscribe to Christianity Today
The Ethics and Politics of Speech: Communication and Rhetoric in the Twentieth Century
Pat J. Gehrke
Southern Illinois University Press, 2009
224 pp., $38.00
Living Well and Speaking Well
Pat Gehrke's brief history of speech communication has a good eye for oddity. Take, for example, his account of speech teachers' claim, early in the 20th century, that public speaking fosters good mental hygiene. Hygiene? Oratory as the cognitive equivalent to flossing twice daily? These teachers, Gehrke explains, were seeking to curb a discipline given to aggressive metaphors—defeating arguments, turning tables, and overcoming audiences—by claiming that their courses would foster psychological wellness. They were groping for scientific legitimacy; they were also positing a connection between speaking and living well. Reviewing hundreds of speech articles in a century of rhetoric journals, Gehrke demonstrates that a discipline seemingly obsessed with efficacy has continually, if unwittingly, touched on questions about what it means to be human, how choice operates in a seemingly impersonal cosmos, and how generous community takes shape. The dark correlations pundits now ponder between public rhetoric and mental imbalance—remember the criticisms of talk radio in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting?—suggest these questions register perennially.
What connection does living well actually have with speaking well? The Roman rhetorician Quintilian defined the orator as a good person speaking well. But because it's unclear that virtue actually does breed eloquence, or eloquence virtue for that matter, Quintilian evades what Richard Lanham calls the Q Question: Is the good speaker necessarily a good person? Gehrke locates places in liberal democratic discourse where the Q Question makes incongruous appearances—such as the federally sponsored "Four-Minute Men" making congenially propagandistic speeches to U.S. theatergoers. The connection between supposedly hygienic rhetoric and military action became especially troubling when Allied rhetorical strategies against fascism proved nearly impossible to distinguish from fascist rhetoric against ...