05 June, 2013

Burke, Breadwinners, and the "Rock of Certainty"

We've all heard this narrative on the "news" channel of our choice: "America is too polarized, they refuse to work with us, we are going to Hell in a handbasket, and it's all their fault." Depending on which flavor of media you prefer, you'll have inserted different values for "they" and "us," but the story is in general the same. And you know what? It's kinda true. Depending on where you're standing, either they are standing in the way of progress, or we are standing up for tradition. Or both, all at once. Or...something. It's disorienting to the point of becoming nonsensical, and maybe that's the part that really makes sense. As with nearly everything else humans do and say, this one can be explained using rhetorical theory (you knew I was gonna go there, right?).
Kenneth Burke. Source: http://www.natcom.org/VBCrable/
He also looked like my grandpa.

Enter Kenneth Burke. Burke was a rhetorician who was interested in...well...pretty much everything. The ways people use symbolic language to communicate and persuade, the ways dramatic and narrative conventions can be mapped onto persuasive speech, the ways things change, and the ways things stay the same. Of interest to me, today, is a wee little section in his book Permanence and Change, in which he discusses a phenomenon he describes as "The Rock of Certainty."

According to Burke, "[w]hen a superstructure of certainties begins to topple," in other words when things we always took for granted start becoming a bit...ambiguous, people start getting similarly disordered. This makes sense, from a Burkean perspective, because for humans, "language is an implement of action." What we say, we do, and more than that, we are. And in times when everything is going pear-shaped, many of us will start saying (and therefore being) the most stable things we can think of.

Burke says that "our very concepts of character depend on the verbalizations of our group," and with that mindset, things start to make a lot more sense: The more polarizing our rhetoric, the more we distance ourselves from that which we are not. The more we seek a common enemy, the more we reinforce the bonds that make us, us. And meanwhile, Eris (the Greek goddess of chaos, not the baby planet) laughs, because the more we seek the margins, or more accurately the more we marginalize anyone who doesn't agree with us, the less possible consensus becomes.

Why on earth would we do such a ridiculous thing, at a time like this? Things, empirically, are bad, and seem to be getting worse. Poverty, unemployment, war, bloody revolution, rape culture, homelessness, famine, food contamination, we're adding new horsemen to our common mythology every day. Surely now, more than ever, we need to pull together. Right?

Wait. What now?
Yeah, wouldn't that be a world? But here's what actually happens. When the proverbial fan starts getting all splattery, people "naturally begin to look for some immovable 'rock' upon which a new structure of certainties can be erected." This how you get from statements like "I just read that 40% of American households with children have a female breadwinner. Things sure are different than they used to be; I wonder how that affects family structure," to "[L]iberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, when you look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role."

Erick Erickson, in addition to having one heck of a catchy name, is giving us an excellent example of what Burke was talking about. He's watching a paradigm he's accepted likely all of his life get turned on its head, and it's scary. It is. Change is scary, y'all, especially when it leads us into unknown directions. And most especially when those unknown directions might challenge our primacy as the dominant group. So Mr. Erickson does just what Burke describes: he tries "to salvage whatever values, still intact, maybe serve as the basis of new exhortations and judgments," in this case a somewhat specious understanding of science, underpinned with a healthy dose of misogyny.

Fox News, the network on which this statement was made, serves as an excellent example of how these paradigm shifts lead to polarization. See, Burke describes a situation where, "[s]ince extreme statements were more likely to attract an audience than better balanced ones," anyone who wanted to reach an audience had to hang out on the fringes. Modern media is competing for the attention of folks who have lots to do, lots to worry about, and lots of options where media consumption is concerned, so they have to be as noticeable as possible. They do that by putting forth their version of the facts in the most stark, black-and-white, and above all radically inflammatory terms possible, finding what Burke describes as "mental colored-spectacles" so that a viewer could see, everywhere he looked, "evidence of this one color."

And here's where we come full circle, back to the concept of language as "implementation of action" and a way to define and create our concepts of self. As a liberal feminist myself, I define myself every day by what I am and am not, and I am emphatically not a consumer of Fox News because that's not me. On the other side of the spectrum from me, there are people who can't even stand the idea of sitting down and watching Rachel Maddow because she is not a representative of who they are. I want to make clear that we are all guilty of this to some extent, at all positions on the political spectrum. It's a tendency of humanity to become entrenched in ever-more-polarized ideologies when things get wacky, and things, empirically, are wacky.

I am in general a fan of radicalism. Maybe at some point I'll write about why, about Socrates and the "gadfly" effect and the general nature of humanity to stagnate somewhere in the middle. But today, my message is, if not centrist (that not being who I am), at least consensus-focused. If we can't start agreeing on some terms and figuring some things out, we'll be riding our ideologies into the abyss.

1 comment:

  1. I hope you do write about radicalism. I think that could make for some interesting discussions :D