Monday, December 19, 2011

Aristotle, an amendment

On our makeshift Christmas Eve last night, my significant other asked me, would I rather sit down and share a meal with Plato or Aristotle? My mind immediately picked Aristotle, as his writings on rhetoric created and have forever impacted my field of study and my own personal interest in rhetoric. There are many aspects of communication and rhetoric that find their roots in Aristotle's writings, but there has always been one aspect of his teachings that has bothered me. I believe my first issue was learning about the distinction between types of rhetoric in my Classical Rhetoric class in undergraduate. Aristotle detailed the separation of rhetoric into four aims or goals: to inform, to entertain, to seek truth, and to persuade. When one thinks of rhetoric, one primarily thinks of the classic, Aristotelian definition: the ability to see and understand in any situation, the available means of persuasion. This prioritizes "to persuade" as the most important and valuable aim of rhetoric. Without going into too much detail on the nuances of rhetoric, this is the aspect with which I have dedicated my education and (I hope) my future career into researching, teaching, and advising about. I began thinking to myself, though, what really separates these aspects? Is persuasion truly that different from informing, entertaining, and seeking truth?

I would like to argue and state here, that persuasion should actually be a heading for all of these aims, an end goal for each of the subsequent three types, with entertainment, information, and truth-seeking as methods and types of persuasion. Persuasion becomes a more generalized term that all three methods of communication have in common: imparting words, meanings, and nonverbal cues to a consumer and receiver with the attempts to create understanding, acceptance, and a desired response. In an expansion of Stuart Halls, "Encoding/Decoding" piece, I would like to amend that words, messages, ideas, are not passed simply for the sake of passing, but that every word, meaning, idea, or gesture, has a purpose in its sending. The addition of a purpose or motivation is not unlike Kenneth Burke's idea of the pentad, in which motivation is a powerful concept. By combining the two, and indicating motivation as an inseparable part of any type of communication, it all becomes influencing and persuasion. For example, are teachers not educators, sharing information with students? But, are they also not trying at every turn to persuade the students that this information is true? That their class is the most important and should be given the most time and attention? That the subject matter and homework is worthwhile to know, to study, to understand? Is this not a type of persuasion that the words and ideas being transmitted to the student are of value? When one is being entertained, whether at a movie, by a story of a friend, or through various aspects of media, is one not being persuaded of a way to feel? An emotion to have? A response to give to the producer? Are we not being persuaded by stand-up comedians that their art is deserving of a laugh? Or that a song by Lady Gaga deserves our dancing along? If we are not convinced a joke is funny, or that the song has a catchy beat, then hasn't the form of entertainment failed to persuade us of its importance? When one tries to seek truth, are they not seeking truth in order to share the truth with others? Convince them that they have finally found truth? This reminds me of the book I have recently finished, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins (see next blog post for a book review), in which the entire book is an argument trying to seek the truth about religion, the creation of the universe, evolution, and the human condition. Is this book in and of itself not a larger argument for atheism, the truth of evolution, and the abandonment of faith? Is not the purpose of the book to persuade the reader to accept this truth?

These points are important to me, as my interest in studying rhetoric is the means of which persuasion occurs, how power is transmitted, obtained, and enforced, along with different categories of situations where persuasion occurs. If rhetoric can and should involve all aspects of communication, then there are many unstudied and little examined paths of inquiry that could benefit from a rhetorical lens. There are examples of persuasion being applied as a method to what might be considered traditional forms of media, such as movies. One that comes to mind is the work of Rushing and Frentz on symbolic convergence theory in movies , notably their 1995 book, Projecting the Shadow, The Cyborg Hero in American film.
 Projecting the Shadow
These crossovers between the three can occur and I believe they should occur more often. There are opportunities for more ideas to be created, overlaps to reveal hidden meanings, and new partnerships in the research in fields of cultural, critical, rhetorical, and political endeavors.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Rape as an aggressor-less crime

Girls legs with panties around the ankles--reads she didn't want to do it, but she couldn't say no
There has been much uproar about the new Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board advertisements to reduce binge drinking in teenagers. The Feministing blog has already published an informational piece about the piece:  Feministing PLCB article

What I would like this blog post, though, is to analyze the image surrounding this message, Burke's pentad, and what it means for constructing feminist forms. From the text and the woman on the floor, the advertisement paints the picture of a party-goer who has had too much to drink and now is making bad decisions that has lead her to this "underwear around the ankle" predicament. The outstanding factor for me is not the relative crudeness of the picture, but about how all of the focus in the text and in the image is on the woman and not the possible aggressor. It is highly unlikely that a woman, even when intoxicated could manage such a position without assistance, whether wanted or unwanted does not matter, for consent cannot be given while intoxicated. Despite the legal hypocrisy that the woman could not "say no" because of her condition, the actuality is that she could not say yes. For, it is a crime, known as "date rape" to perceive drunkenness as consent in any situation. The absence of someone to help her get to this state and the absence of any other person or player in the larger text paint a picture that the woman has done all of these actions to herself and is responsible entirely of her own imminent rape. This removes any blame from the other half of the rape equation and scapegoats the woman as the sole actor.

 It is clear in the text on the poster that the implications of the picture is that every decision made, even while heavily intoxicated and unable to control one's own actions, is the actor's fault. This focus on the actor as is explained above, has interesting implications in Kenneth Burke's pentad, the five parts of dramatism: the actor/agent, the scene, the act, the agency, and the purpose. Focusing or favoring one of these aspects over another leads to a changing lens of victimage and blaming. (Burke, 1945). When the actor or agent is favored as the dominant spoke of the pentad, there is a break away from the surroundings or scene and the mitigating circumstances, but places all of the agent that performs the act. In this scenario, these implications are especially offensive, as this paradigm would allow for the woman to be the performer of her own rape, leaving the aggressor completely blameless in the act. For it was the agent, the woman, as a drinker, party-goer, and bad decision maker that brought her to this point, and thus, she acts as the scapegoat for the crime committed. The advertisement even goes one point farther to implicate the friends of this woman, presumably more women, as agents in her rape for not intervening and correcting her bad decisions. This advertisement tells nothing of the man's responsibility to make good decisions, to not over-drink, and to respect, not rape, women. It says nothing about the man's friends who may have intervened to stop him from committing the act, but instead implicate the females for refusing to do what the law says they cannot: say no. These opinions are standard and can be related to the myth of man sexuality as strong, dominant, and overpowering and that man is weak when it comes to the fairer sex. Women, on the other hand, can control this urge, use it against a man, so thus, in any sexual encounter, the man is acting as expected, the woman is truly the one in control, and thus the one to blame.

If the scene had been the more dominant focus, the ad might have looked like a party, where people were standing, chatting, perhaps dancing, and drinking. The words over the image might have said, "don't let the party get carried away" or a phrase about the party getting out of control, or leading where it shouldn't. That would be an implication of the scenario, the situation as playing a large part in the act. It is the drinking, the party atmosphere, the fun-loving, free-spirited, and trusting nature of trying to have a good time, that leads to the impairment of judgment that can lead to date rape. This is opposed to the agent-focused view where the drinking is a conscious bad decision made by a female that leads to her own victimization.

In terms of constructing feminist forms, the advertisement offers a few conflicting views on the power of women. First, it perpetuates the stereotype of the woman as the Jezebel, as the sexual being that controls sexual encounters, and as the one to blame for her sexual conduct. There is something slightly empowering about the idea that woman are the actors and make their own choices and are not subject to the will of peers, the party atmosphere, or insistent males, but this lens forms cracks when judgment is impaired, for it allows for this same constructive view to destroy a woman's chance of avoiding victimization. Yes, a woman should be in charge of her own decisions, but this is a scenario where choice and judgment are taken out of the equation, and decision-making becomes not an aid, but a hindrance to one's safety. When constructing the feminine form in this ad, it is an obvious focus on the underwear as the only clothing visible. Is the woman wearing nothing but underwear? Or, more likely, is wearing something provocative, so that one might assume that her dress and manner of action is consistent with that of a seductress, an agent with a clear motivation.

In all fairness, this advertisement has been published with good intentions: to limit and discourage binge drinking. This is a goal that one would hope Liquor Control Boards would be worried about controlling. But, the larger issue here is that by trying to cut down on underage drinking, only one half of the equation, the woman, is blamed and scapegoated in a rape fantasy, portrayed by her pose on what appears to be a bathroom floor. Men are not implicated as having control over their actions, as being responsible just as the women are expected to be, but appear to get a pass on being blamed for rape and the guilt that comes from committing such a heinous and damaging crime. One could wonder about the amount of women who believe these fantasies, that they themselves are responsible for their rape, and thus do not report it. Is the production and expansion of these myths of feminine hyper-sexuality and responsibility for rape harming the reputation of women, creating leeway for men to free themselves from blame for committing rape, and destroying the possibility for prosecution of these crimes? I would say yes, completely and utterly yes.

Burke, Kenneth. 1945. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969