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Rhetoric Society of America - Board of Directors’ Statement Condemning Insurrectional Rhetoric and Resulting Violence 1/6/21

Board of Directors’ Statement Condemning Insurrectional Rhetoric and Resulting Violence 1/6/21

Scholars of rhetoric have viewed the recent domestic terrorist attacks on the Capitol and the principles of democracy with horror. The events of this week result from years of political rhetoric that has dehumanized individuals and groups, encouraged violence, and eroded the norms of responsible governance. As its Board of Directors and as a scholarly organization, the Rhetoric Society of America is dedicated to the deliberative potential of rhetoric through reasoned disagreement that disavows violence, condemns white supremacy, and exhibits the best ideals of human communication. This includes exchanges among people characterized by honesty, accountability to a shared reality of empirical facts, and a willingness to hear considered opinions that are not one's own. It is only through a commitment to inclusive models of rhetorical interaction and through the censure of abusive, destructive rhetoric that communities of equals are built and sustained.

Rhetoric has long associated its birth as a discipline with the emergent political practice of democracy; however, the historic foundations of both have a disturbing affinity with racism. This embedded and systemic relation has allowed injustices to continue for centuries and cultivated power structures that normalize and justify violences, as grotesquely witnessed currently in the United States, where the mobbing thugs proudly displayed Nazi, anti-Semitic, and white power apparel, where citizens and political leaders led and endorsed a wide range of acts of voter suppression, but most recently in the Georgia elections in DeKalb and Fulton counties where insufficient polling places, proposed roll purges, and accusations of fraud threatened to limit the rights of Black voters.

We affirm our commitment to the process of deliberation and we simultaneously acknowledge the difficulty--if not impossibility--of doing so when people espouse or circulate false information. Likewise, deliberation becomes impossible when politicians embrace the symbolic power of rhetoric but take no responsibility for its immediate consequences or the long term effects of a toxic rhetorical culture that spans years of political behavior.

Rhetoric was conceived of as the art of making persuasive arguments in order to decide “what to do” in the face of uncertainty. It has never been just “talking points,” “hot air” or “empty words.”  Words matter, and when they are used they have material consequences. Being with others requires that we use our words, our language. Admittedly, language is unstable and uncertain, but that is precisely why we need rhetoric: to grapple, collectively, with such instability and uncertainty, to make the best cases for our behaviors, actions, institutions, laws, and judgments. Otherwise there is simply violence.

The Board of Directors of the Rhetoric Society of America joins with other academic associations and concerned citizens to demand that our elected representatives, their surrogates, and the media tell the truth, abide by the law and the Constitution, and take responsibility for their rhetoric and its effects.

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