International Communications Institute Discusses Politics and Rhetoric

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In the second of the John Cabot University Institute in International Communication’s Summer 2012 series of events, participants examined the role of rhetoric in political agenda-setting and campaigns. Jennifer Asenas (CSU Long Beach) moderated the panel debate and introduced the topic by emphasizing the great implications rhetoric has in our lives and yet the difficulties in defining it.

Karl Squitier (CSU Long Beach) defined “rhetoric” as the art of persuasion, reminding us of its Greek origin rhetoreia, which literally means “public speaking”. Therefore, rhetoric was referred to the act of coming to an agreement or bargain through speech. This agreement was about an “agenda”, which literally means “to put something into motion”. Therefore, Prof. Squitier argued that an agenda refers to something that must be done, and asked: why do we need an agenda? who should carry out this agenda? in whose interest is it to have an agenda? Prof. Squitier explored these questions through the example of the “essential food agenda”, paying particular attention to its sustainability.

Tom Govero (JCU) presented the case of campaigning in Ancient Rome, focusing on Marcus Tullius Cicero’s campaign in c. 64 BC. This occurred during a new era of the Roman Republic, characterized by the “privatization of power”. During this new era, rhetoric was at the center of education, as Romans adopted Hellenism and abandoned their Latin origins. This “privatization of power”, according to Prof. Govero, undermined 500 years of a constitutional system, as new leaders manipulated their power and the military for personal gains. Prof. Govero then discussed Quintus Tullius Cicero’s extremely timely advice: while campaigning, get the backing of family and friends, surround yourself with the “right people”, “call in all favors”, promise everything to everybody, exploit opponents’ weakness, flatter voters shamelessly, and give people hope.

Mike Grace (partner, Grace & Grace, Los Angeles) presented Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations on political rhetoric in the early American republic, by which political decisions are based on passion rather than on careful rational analysis. He observed how Presidents manipulated people’s passion in order to obtain support rather than controlling it, as it should have been his duty. Building on de Tocqueville’s observations, Prof. Grace showed some classic campaign ads, illustrating the techniques of positive and negative rhetoric. These techniques are designed to manipulate the electorate’s emotions and consequently influence their political choice.

Afterwards, students debated whether there are ethical constraints on rhetoric after all, or just political ones. The discussion continued over wine and cheese on JCU’s Secchia Terrace.