What is “violent rhetoric”?

As someone who teaches rhetoric, I can only say that I’ve been profoundly disappointed in the quality of the conversation about the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords.  Despite all the condemnation of everyone else’s “violent rhetoric,” I’ve yet to see one post in which the term itself is defined.  It seems to mean, in the current political vernacular, anything said by someone else that involves anything even remotely violent.  Katrina Trinko’s attempt to tu quoque Keith Olbermann is particularly enlightening, as it describes a number of angry statements by Olbermann that are neither violent nor rhetorical, e.g.

In 2007, Olbermann called rival network Fox News “worse than al-Qaeda … for our society” and said the channel was “as dangerous as the Ku Klux Klan ever was.”

Neither of those statements are rhetorical because neither of them attempts to call its audience to action.  For them to be rhetorical, as per Aristotle in On Rhetoric, they would need to be intended to persuade.  Moreover, they would need to be intended to persuade a particular audience to undertake a particular action.  This is the rhetorical triangle:

Rhetorical_triangle

Note the interconnectedness of the speaker and audience.  The general problem with discussing rhetoric in the current media environment is that the particularity of the audience is absent.  Anyone can read or watch or listen to anything without regard for their relation to the intended audience and without reference to the action whose commission the rhetor intends.  In such a situation, it is not surprising when the mode of persuasion favored by speakers is the one that is most effectively general.  To quote Aristotle again:

The first [mode of persuasion] depends on the personal character of the speaker [ethos]; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind [pathos]; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself [logos].

Though pathos is typically translated as an “appeal to emotion,” it is better understood as an “appeal to imagination.”  Anything that stokes the imagination, be it an image or a narrative, fits the bill.  It goes without saying that the majority of political rhetoric in America is, in this technical sense, pathetic.  This is simply because most politicians have questionable ethos and very few have speechwriters sufficiently talented to produce persuasive logos.  But it is also because most Americans are too suspicious of political motives to allow politicians to establish an ethos and too untrained in the literary arts to understand an appeal to logos.

Typically, then, we are left in a situation in which politicians, as rhetors, design speeches whose pathos is general enough to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.  It stands to reason that if we want to understand what “violent rhetoric” entails, we must focus on whose images and stories are stoking whose imaginations and to what effect.  Pointing out that Keith Olbermann associated Fox News with terrorist organizations foreign and domestic does nothing of the sort because the audience and intended effect of his statements is unclear.  How unclear?

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