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The Ethics and Politics of Speech: Communication and Rhetoric in the Twentieth Century
The Ethics and Politics of Speech: Communication and Rhetoric in the Twentieth Century
Pat J. Gehrke
Southern Illinois University Press, 2009
224 pp., 42.0

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Craig Mattson

Living Well and Speaking Well

Public speaking and mental hygiene.

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?[1] 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 democracy (hence Gehrke's renaming the Q Question as the Hitler Question). Despite our hopes for speech communication to foster mental hygiene and moral excellence, Gehrke writes, "we always seem deep in examples of rhetorical skill void of such excellence."

The intractability of the Q Question has made speech communication a discipline both restless and resourceful. After the early decades of the 20th century, speech teachers shifted emphases from public oratory to group discussion on the grounds that discussion was more balanced, more objective, and less triumphalist—only to bump, once again, into the ethics/efficacy dualism. As it turned out, mental hygiene, not to mention rational group discussions, provided little stay against the coerciveness of mass-mediated messaging. The result was a shift in speech communication from the quasi-scientific approach of the 1920s and 1930s to the existentialist philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s. But even while challenging essentialist accounts of speech—especially those treating communication as the transfer of meaning from self to self—existentialism ran into its own variant on the Q Question. For all their ethical sophistication, existentialist-inflected speech theories proved just as preoccupied with efficacy as their essentialist counterparts. The final decades of the 20th century only sharpened the irony as philosophical relativists in speech communication behaved more and more like political absolutists.

Gehrke's story makes no claim to be the Authorized Version: "The point is not whether this work is a comprehensive or synoptic account of the history of a field of thought—it is not—but rather whether it carefully documents the possibility of conceiving of that field of thought or the particular questions within that field in a compelling and viable way." In the final chapter of the book, Gehrke shows how the discipline has deployed aggressively postmodern idioms to wrestle yet again with perennial questions of ethics and politics.

First, the ethics. If it is true that speech does not come from the self, but rather the self from speech—and Gehrke believes the discipline's conversations bear out that contention—then such a speaking self must negotiate an "ethics that cannot privilege oneself or what is common between oneself and others but must privilege something that comes before anything that might be shared or common." He calls what "comes before anything" the event of "being-communicating," an ongoing encounter with the Other that is always bringing the self into existence: "However, it is not any specific or particular relationship that brings the 'I' into being but rather the sheer fact that there is any relation at all." Accordingly, being-communicating occurs in encounter after encounter in which the Other enlivens and confronts the self with an endless series of ethical choices for which no certain criteria obtain. This ethic has political consequences: we should not "seek to achieve an end state or to realize an ideal vision" but rather make "small moves within the gaps and ruptures in existing political sensibilities."

Compelling and viable the book proves to be, even for those who disagree with Gehrke's immanentist ethical and political sensibilities. Not least, the book suggests that the routinely despised basic speech course belongs in the curriculum. Simply learning how to deliver a speech well, it turns out, confronts us with vital questions about agency and otherness. Further, Gehrke's history offers a welcome alternative to the worn cardiocentric trope, "It's what in your heart that counts." Shifting moral analysis from the heart to the tongue, he weaves ethics as closely to speech as St. James does. Finally, the book serves as a corrective to those whose "just do it" approach to cultural engagement collapses ethics into efficacy. Gehrke's "small moves" may evoke for some readers what James Davison Hunter calls "faithful presence."[2]

Still, I wonder if it would help to pull at a different seam, not that between ethics and effi-cacy, but rather between ethics and eloquence. Gehrke tends to treat eloquence as a spe-cies of efficacious communication. But what if eloquence is the genus, and efficacy simply one thing that eloquence occasionally brings forth? Eloquence can seem shallow, a matter of surfaces, in contrast with the depths where being-communication is felt. But those depths can also be a place to avoid the particulars of the Other's life and speech, the very particulars that eloquence can awaken us to. This entails more than being pulled up short by an encounter with difference. It is, or can be, a coming-alive to a sense of the Other's capacity to astonish.[3] St. Paul summons the Corinthians to such an awakening when, in his first letter, he writes, "I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling" (1Cor. 2:1-3). What's interesting about this eloquent repudiation of eloquence is that Paul completely sidesteps the Q Question: Does good speaking lead to good living? Of course not. We are each of us too run through with contingency ever to be manageable by speech. Instead Paul's speech is a kind of articulate listening, a bearing witness to an artful word that is also a faithful life. To his astonishment—hence, the weakness, fear, and trembling—he finds that word and life in God's folly whose eloquence groans like suffering and whose faithfulness looks like folly. Gehrke's fine book helps us to appreciate those incongruities but cannot wholly account for them.

Craig Mattson is professor of communication arts at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

1. My discussion of Quintilian's question-begging is indebted to Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 154-156.

2. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).

3. I am indebted for this critique to David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite (Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 20-28. What Hart says about beauty and surfaces, violence and peace, has deeply shaped what I think about eloquence.

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