Rhetoric and the Law

This semester I have the privilege of teaching rhetorical theory. It’s so exciting to awaken students to the ways in which rhetoric shapes our reality. I sometimes forget how much I take for granted with trying to explain the relationship between truth, knowledge, and rhetoric. In addition to teaching that class, I am doing two independent studies on jurisprudential rhetoric. In discussions about rhetoric and the law, the gap between rhetoric and truth becomes evident.

For example, with one student I am reexamining Tudor Royal Proclamations (TRPs). I haven’t spent a lot of time with these documents since I wrote my dissertation. As a side note, it’s been fun to remember that they are very interesting and fun to study. Regardless, I’ve been reading them with an eye tcicero quoteoward instruction and working through them with fresh eyes. One thing we’ve started discussing is the need for repetition in the proclamations. Meaning, the monarch issues a proclamation about revaluing coinage and has to issue another proclamation within the same year about the same topic. Why? Because the people aren’t following the law.

If the goal of a proclamation or law is to make people comply, how is this accomplished? The TRPs are quite sophisticated in their rhetorical strategies. Each proclamation begins with an appeal to authority beyond the monarch such as God, the English people, custom, or council. In many cases, Tudor monarchs predicated their authority in divine right. The monarchs of England regularly argued that because they were selected and anointed by God, their authority was beyond reproach. For instance, Mary I (1553) reestablishes the Catholic faith in England by claiming she is divinely ordered to do so: “her majesty, being presently by the only goodness of God settled in her just possession of the imperial crown of this realm and other dominions thereunto belonging, cannot not hide that religion.” On thee other hand, her protestant sister Elizabeth also uses divine authority in her proclamations. For instance, in Elizabeth I (1579) argues the success of her reign was proof of God’s authority: “her majesty hath had so good proof of God’s singular goodness in the continual preservation of her from his first setting her in the crown as his chosen servant to reign as she hath done from the beginning” (2:445). Despite the vacillation in faiths over the century, each monarch claimed divinely inspired authority. The monarch placed an additional burden on those who disobeyed because they defied their sovereign and their God.

In other words, the royal prerogative still needs validation. The US system of laws is supposed to be beyond this. In some ways, our laws still seem grounded in an equally amorphous sense of justice. So, how do we convince people to follow the law here? Do we rely on precedent? While laws assume compliance, they do not produce it. To me, this seems like an essential difference and an important question for rhetoric.

Digital Privacy

I subscribe to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, and a host of other websites that ask me to sacrifice my privacy for their use. They ask me to tag my photos, mark my location, and indicate when they were taken.  My browser tracks my searches and pushes marketing materials to me.  Yes, I looked on Amazon to see if HEPA filters were cheaper there. Now the edges of Facebook alight with advertisements for HEPA filters.

How do I feel about this?  Pretty creeped out. If a human being trackedGoogle my behavior this closely, I would report him to the police.  I’m being stalked.  And yet, I keep using these resources.  Why?  In part, because everyone else is.  It’s how I keep in touch with my friends around the country.  In fact more and more, it’s how all of us keep in touch.  Some articles suggest that sites like Facebook are killing events like the high school reunion. Who needs to go back to a smelly school when a web page can tell you what your high school nemesis is doing?

And with all that, maybe I don’t want everyone to know what I’m doing?  Maybe I want to hang onto an outmoded Aristotelian public/private divide that is no longer feasible in this hyper-connected society we live in. Marshal McLuhan described our increasing interconnectedness as a global village. In Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) he writes, “And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence” (32).  Like a village, everyone knows your business and you depend on them for your existence.

Is this the world we want to live in? Will we all write in Newspeak someday?

Check out Carnegie Mellon University’s privacy grade website to find out how your apps measure up.

Online Violence against Women

It’s crazy coming back from a Conference on College Composition and Communication and trying to readjust to the real world.  While at C’s, I had the privilege of working at the Feminist Workshop and meeting with women at the Women and Working Conditions Special Interest Group. Women from all over the country in a variety of academic positions shared their experiences.

With all of this positivity, I was shocked when I read the news about Ashley Judd’s experience on Twitter. The story begins when, like any other American caught up in March Madness, she tweeted a comment about the success of University of Kentucky’s basketball team. Her tweet was immediately met with a vile and violent response.  She was threatened with rape, called every nasty name in the book, and reduced to a sexual object. Like women calling out other games for sexism in gamergate, Judd became the target of sexual threats.

Judd published a response to the hate in this article entitled, “Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Toward Girls and Women Is What Can Kiss My Ass.” Judd does a great job of cutting through the crap and getting to the heart of the issue – misogyny. She was targeted with sexual threats because she’s a woman.

Some of her detractors claim this is an issue of free speech and that she part of the idea police. However, I wonder if this is a free speech issue. If someone said, “I’m going to rape you” in the real world, the police could take the threat seriously. I think she’s right to question whether a digital space permits any language.  At the same time, I am loathe to infringe on anyone’s right to free speech. Surely there’s a balance?

Public/Private Blog

Today’s Atlantic ran a story about University of Marquette professor John McAdams pubprivwho being stripped of tenure because of a story he posted on his blog. While I am unwilling to weigh in on the validity of this decision or the opinions expressed, I think the medium and genre that sparked this debate has ramifications for digital rhetoric.

If we trace the story back to its beginning, we find an ideological conflict between a graduate instructor and an undergraduate student. The student recorded this after class conversation on his phone without the graduate student’s permission. Does the instructor have some expectation of privacy? Would she have spoken differently if she knew about the recording? Does that matter?

I am struck by the power of a tiny portable device; one cell phone can start a controversy that ends with a faculty member losing his job.

But more than that, I am struck by the role of technology and its mediation of public and private spaces. The cell phone, a technology often used for very personal/private conversations, records a public conversation. And, as we discussed in class, the blog is a perfect example of personal made public. Personal opinions and experiences may suddenly gain a very public readership. Examining the subtitle of McAdams’s blog points to this conundrum:

“This site has no official connection with Marquette University. Indeed, when University officials find out about it, they will doubtless want it shut down.”

He carefully notes that the blog is an independent entity. However, he also notes “when” officials discover it, they will be unhappy. By using “when” instead of “if,” McAdams implies that his blog is provocative and will draw ire. Tragically, his subtitle also suggests that the worst punishment may be shutting the blog down. In fact, he could lose his job and his livelihood.

The networked nature of blogging demonstrate that these spheres do not have rigid boundaries. McAdams’s publicized opinions have dire consequences for his private life.

Access, Access, Activism

Current debates about net neutrality have gone largely unnoticed. Ironically, this is something everyone who uses the web should be marching in the streets about. I think John Oliver sums up the issue quite well here:

Inaction could mean that corporations like Comcast and Time Warner could control how we access information. If we think about the current affordances of digital media, access to high speed internet is essential. Streaming music, video, and cat gifs all require a huge amount of bandwidth.

In his recent article for The Atlantic, Victor Pickard compares current battles for net neutrality to 1940s battles for free radio. Pickard reminds us that our current system in which a few corporations have a strangle hold on our bandwidth is the result of decades of policy decisions:

“As we again set policies that define core power relationships for a new medium, we might look to our past to discern lessons for charting our future. For the media system we’ve inherited—one dominated by a small number of corporations, lightly regulated in terms of public interest protections, and offset by weak public alternatives—was not inevitable or natural; it resulted from the outcomes of specific policy battles, and from specific logics and values triumphing over others.”

In other words, we’ve created a situation in which ISPs have this much control. Now may be our last opportunity to stop their monopoly.

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