[Sentences ]Our Blunted Rhetorical Daggers | Harper's Magazine

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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.

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