Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Lesson in Spotting Rhetoric

            I started this conversation last week by discussing Plato's anti-rhetoric stance.  Ostensibly I was writing about Phaedrus, but I mostly used it as a jumping-off point.  To be clear, in the Phaedrus, his position does seem more complicated than in some other dialogues like Gorgias.  His message in Phaedrus seems to be that he himself is having a hard time determining whether philosophy can ever be done without any rhetoric at all, while imploring us all to be very, very careful about how we allow rhetoric into our minds and lives.
            An easy way to learn to spot rhetoric is to look at the pro-/anti- propaganda for something that feels obvious.  (Er...one hopes.)  For example, take a look at some of the posters supporting and opposing women's suffrage.
            The message of the first three is fairly simple:  women are supposed to be doing their work in the home, and giving them the right to vote will up-end that.  Suddenly, men will be saddled with all the baby feedings and the cleaning and so on.  I must admit, I rather like the second one; a pity having the right to vote doesn't mean I get to sit around eating chocolate and playing cards with my friends all the time!

            One of the things that feels obvious about these now — and that I think this next one particularly well illustrates — is that now the images feel grotesque in their literal role reversal.  The crude, almost oafish simplicity of the reversal makes you uncomfortable when you realize how natural the reverse of the images felt to the audience.  In other words, it felt totally appropriate to the anti-women's suffrage movement to simply place one of the women in the other room doing the washing, while there were three men sitting around playing cards.  (Presumably drinking beer rather than eating chocolate.  Beer if very masculine.)  I particularly enjoy "Husband's Working Hours 3 A.M. to 12 P.M."  Because those actually are most mothers' working hours.

            The message of all three is:  don't mess with the natural order of things.  If you do, women may very well take their revenge for all those years of oppression.

            This last one is interesting to me because of how complicated it is.  I think it's a valid point how many roles in society women were considered fit to serve in, while the vote was still denied to them.  And I like that "Mother" is included with "Doctor or Teacher."  On the other hand, the list of things "a Man may have been, & yet not lose the Vote" seems problematic.  "Unfit for Service"???  Seriously?  Because a guy is born with a congenital birth defect, or he's been injured in adulthood, his right to vote seemed questionable to these folks?
            And the one that says "Proprietor of white Slaves"...that one's interesting because it links up to a moral panic about "white slavery" — i.e., the kidnapping and forced prostitution of white women.  As it turns out, the panic was largely overwrought; there really weren't hundreds of women a year being forcibly dragged into prostitution.  The situation was tragic, but in a much different way.  There were hundreds, if not thousands, of young women moving to cities with no idea how to conduct themselves in a romantic or sexual relationship in a supposedly Brave New World.  Their parents were terrified a Jew or an Italian would seduce them into slavery, which was a red herring; what might have been useful was an actual education for young women on how to handle modern relationships.  But of course, their parents had no more knowledge about such things than they did.
            The scare over white slavery seems to have contributed to women getting the vote.  Suffragettes — many of them being mothers — were understandably scared about what they were hearing about their daughters in the cities.  They believed that getting the vote would empower them to put issues concerning sexual exploitation on the dockets of politicians.  It's interesting that a hysteria surrounding an only sort-of-real problem is part of what led to women's suffrage.

            The funny thing about a lot of the pro-women's suffrage propaganda is that it appeals to the same norms that are held up in the anti-women's suffrage propaganda.  They proclaim:  women want to do nothing but clean and make babies.  It's just that, politics do actually impact how we do those things, so we should get a say in politics.  The first two below actually affirm the proper place of women, and what kinds of work we should expect from them.  The message seems to be:  don't worry.  It won't be that bad.  Women will still take care of your kids!
            Of course it is true that politics do impact things related to women's work — everything from the ingredients in laundry detergent to breastfeeding in public to gun control laws — but because most of us feel like the statement "WOMAN'S JOB IS THE HOME!" is out of joint with our current time, the appeal feels off.

            The image below alludes to the white slavery panic I mentioned above.  It also uses a great image of a central female figure.  Yes, she's pushing for the right to vote, and that may seem to question the normal division of labor according to gender.  On the other hand, the figure, which is called "Womanhood," resembles a goddess or statue of an abstracted value — Liberty, say, or Justice — which is an interesting strategy.  It doesn't follow the lead of the above propaganda, which says, "Don't worry!  Women really want to stay home and have babies!  They just also want to vote."  It also doesn't suggest a wholly new way of looking at women (which would seem inappropriate; as voting wasn't new, agitating for women's suffrage was hardly a radical notion).  Instead, it reminds people that there are other narratives/images/archetypes for women within the context of the history of the West.

            This last one is just delightful.  Because they've simply adopted the rhetoric of the anti-women's suffrage movement to create a parody.  It does a nice job of showing how you can use language to argue just about anything.  Which is, again, Socrates'/Plato's definition of rhetoric.
            My particular favorite is number four:  "Because men will lose their charm if they step out of their natural sphere and interest themselves in other matters than feats of arms, uniforms and drums."
            Abso-fuckin'-lutely.  I might add soccer in there.  Or would that qualify under uniforms?

1 comment:

  1. That last one is so great! There are riches in all of them, but I'm a sucker for good satire. I once argued in the late 80s that the Navy's Tail Hook scandal was proof that straight men should not be allowed in the military. After all, What Would Jonathan Swift Do?