Sentences — September 10, 2008, 3:26 pm

Our Blunted Rhetorical Daggers

“Why is civility so essential? Is negativity not one of the conditions of criticism?” The questions come late in “Against Integrity,” Leon Wieseltier’s latest Washington Diarist column from this fortnight’s issue of The New Republic. Those who have already read Wieseltier’s essay know that the larger context for his comments (politics) is incompatible with the concerns of my department here (letters).

Even so, and though I intend to elide completely Wieseltier’s subject–for if I were to begin to treat it at all, in print, I would likely precipitate the irreversible decline of my equanimity, which the news cycle is already assaulting hourly–I do feel that Wieseltier’s two questions, even taken out of context, suggest a larger error that applies to any contentious domain, whether political or poetical.

Wieseltier’s paired questions–”Why is civility so essential? Is negativity not one of the conditions of criticism?”–suggest that negativity negates civility. “Civility” derives from the Latin civilis, meaning “relating to citizens.” The term denoted the state of being a citizen and thus behavior compatible with living among one’s fellows. I would agree with Wieseltier that one element of citizenship, one of the very most important elements, is to be able to voice dissenting views or, for our purposes here, to venture criticism of such a community, and therefore to risk negativity. As such, negativity would be an essential element of being a citizen and, metaphorically as well as literally, of civility.

“What is said counts more than how it is said,” Wieseltier argues, and again I would agree. Except that in his formulation, Wieseltier makes it seem as though the fact that content matters more than style licenses the writer to ignore style altogether. If one is on the right side of fact, one should feel free to say anything, any way, regardless of civility. This is rhetorically shortsighted, and implicates Wieseltier in the same shortsightedness to which many partisans on either side of the wide American canyon are subject.

We would do well to recall, in this season that drives us all toward arrogance, fury, and the thrustings of our blunted rhetorical misericords, Aristotle’s “Three Appeals,” the trio of distinct yet complementary rhetorical modes by which one, historically, sways an audience. The Rational Appeal (logos) sways through reasoning; the Emotional Appeal (pathos) through feeling; and the Ethical Appeal (ethos) is meant to establish credibility. It does so through a display of intelligence, virtue, and goodwill. To sway, writers need attend to all three. If so, civility and negativity can coexist within this framework, however forgotten, cast out, shouted down, and ignored.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
Rebecca Solnit on silencing women, a Marine commander returns to Iraq, the decline of PBS, and more
Article
Cassandra Among the Creeps·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On silencing women

Astra Taylor discusses the potential and peril of the Internet as a tool for cultural democracy

Photograph © Sallie Dean Shatz
Post
Ending College Sexual Assault·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is not a fable about a young woman whose dreams were dashed by a sexual predator. Maya’s narrative is one of institutional failure at a school desperately trying to adapt.”
Photograph © AP/Josh Reynolds
Article
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Astra Taylor discusses the potential and peril of the Internet as a tool for cultural democracy

Photograph by Benjamin Busch
Post
Astra Taylor on The People’s Platform·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Taking back power and culture in the digital age
“There’s a pervasive and ill-advised faith that technology will promote competition if left to its own devices.”
Photograph © Deborah Degraffenried

Chance that a civilian who died in a 20th-century war was American:

1 in 62,000

A physicist calculated that mass worldwide conversion to a vegetarian diet would do more to slow global warming than cutting back on oil and gas use.

“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today