Rhetorical Citizenship and Public Moral Argument: Too Quaint an Idea for Neoliberal Times?

Lisa Storm Villadsen (Denmark)

In this talk I revisit Celeste Michelle Condit’s 1987 article “Crafting Virtue: The Rhetorical Construction of Public Morality” and ask whether the rhetorical craft she describes has been rendered impotent in our age of populism, political polarization, and fake news. I place her theory about how an active public morality springs from collective discourse in conversation with Robert Asen and Daniel Brouwer’s notion of ‘modalities’ of public engagement (2001) and Asen’s discourse theory of citizenship (2004). I then introduce Christian Kock’s and my own concept of rhetorical citizenship (2008, 2014) to make the argument that at this moment when despair and ‘tuning out’ can be tempting reactions to a hyper-polarized political climate and alarming developments in areas such as international relations, social inequality, minority protection, etc., we still can and must look to rhetorical practice for hope of improvement, or, in Condit’s words “the possibility of slow, painful, moral resolutions in the public realm”. While it is not difficult to point to issues still far from moral resolution (e.g. abortion) or where political action lags behind a level of basic agreement (e.g. climate change), there are occasional instances of progress. The much-publicized social media driven #metoo movement is a recent and significant example that collective moral reorientation does in fact occur as a result of multiple sustained rhetorical efforts across genres and media. But there are also other examples of arenas for the kind of crafting of public morality Condit discussed.

To exemplify this I outline my theory of official apologies as a particular manifestation of rhetorical citizenship and discuss the potential for crafting public morality inherent in processes preceding them, the statements themselves, and the reactions to them. I thus suggest that such apologies once given are not just potentially meaningful to the wronged group, but that the debate that usually accompanies official apologies also carries importance for the surrounding society in that it confronts issues of social injustice on a collective level by discussing formerly politically sanctioned discrimination or maltreatment of different kinds of minorities as public issues. One particular aspect of this is how differences in race, ethnicity, gender and otherness are reworked rhetorically in the light of conceptions of citizenship and the idea of a global community. At this moment when neoliberalism with its orientation toward the individual dominates many political contexts, rhetorical practices that underscore the interdependence of groups in society, legitimates the complaints from harmed groups, and acknowledges the significance of coordinated action by such citizen formations to the health of the community as a whole warrant our attention because it thematizes relationality.

As rhetoricians we are uniquely positioned to study, critique, and celebrate ways in which public morality is challenged and sought reshaped, be it in connection with official apologies or other kinds of social justice oriented discourse. Few other disciplines study such issues with the same attention to details of argumentation, topoi, etc., and in connection with contemporary theoretical frameworks such ‘traditional’ rhetorical analysis stands to be able to contribute substantively and constructively to a public debate climate that at times seems in danger of spinning into fake news, manipulation, straw men, and mutual accusations of moral corruption and political correctness. Thinking of citizenship as a discursive process calls on us to contribute as teachers and researchers to analyze and evaluate the debate and eventual political reactions to social justice issues such as official apologies because they are public morality in the making. Such analysis and commentary, I argue, is one small but constructive aid to citizens trying to orient themselves in a confusing and frustrating public debate climate increasingly characterized by partisanship and eristic. Rhetorical criticism of this kind of discourse involves questions about rhetorical citizenship in relation to rhetors as well as their rhetorical audiences, and prompts us to, in the words of Thomas Farrell, “decide – quite literally – what sort of public persons we wish to be” (1991, 208).