Frye on Rhetoric, Mobs and Ideology


Glenn Beck exhibits his brute talent for race-baiting and incitement to violence

Frye in Words with Power:

When the rhetorical occasion narrows down from the historical to the immediate, as at rallies and pep talks, we begin to see features in rhetoric that account for the suspicion, even contempt, with which it was regarded so often by Plato and Aristotle.  Let us take a rhetorical situation at its worst.  In intensive rhetoric with a short-term aim, there is a deliberate attempt to put the watchdog of consciousness to sleep, and the steady battering of consciousness become hypnotic, as the metaphor of “swaying” an audience suggests.  A repetition of cliche phrases is designed to bring about a form of dissociation.  The dead end of all this is the semi-autonomous monster called the mob, of which the speaker is now the shrieking head.  For a mob the kind of independent judgment appealed to by dialectic is an act of open defiance, and is normally treated as such.

We spoke of the endlessness of argument in the conceptual area, but rhetoric has an ad hominem or personal weapon available to stop argument.  One may be told, “You just say that because you’re an atheist, a Communist, a Jew, a Christian, or because you had a castrating mother,” etc., etc.  Such verbal weapons are illegitimate in the conceptual mode, where an impersonal  basis is assumed.  But they play an important role in ideology–not always a sinister or violent role, as one may also be led to examine one’s position to see what limitations are built into it.  (CW 26, 32-3)

That last point is subtle and reassuring.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with ad hominem arguments in the right context — we may indeed be called upon to rethink our stand on issues in light of personal biases.  Satire, of course, completely depends upon the ad hominem affront, and it is perhaps the most direct assault on the inadequacies of ideology that literature affords.

And that’s the difference I see between left and right in the most readily available public discourse.  The left tweaks the nose of the right with fact-based mockery, and the right responds with death threats and talk of “second amendment remedies,” which predictably leads to violence.  The left has Jon Stewart whose satire is usually most devastating when running a piece of footage that provides a missing piece of crucial information; the right has Glenn Beck whose involuted paranoid fantasies seem only intended to leave his audience unmoored and waiting for him to tell them who to hate next.  While it’s true that you don’t want to mess with Matt Taibbi, he’ll  never threaten you with violence or unleash a horde of angry minions upon you.  But if you cross Sarah Palin, she’s capable of putting a target on you while barking “RELOAD” to an already irrational mob.  One is acceptable and enriching civilized behavior, the other is psychopathy.

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2 thoughts on “Frye on Rhetoric, Mobs and Ideology

  1. Warren

    You know, a friend of mine in the dextrosphere has noted that there is a group that this guy’s rhetoric seems to fit:

    Interestingly, this would even include the Meno — LaRouche is apparently big on using the “doubling the square” bit to boggle young minds.

    Again, what matters here is that a crazy, evil person did crazy, evil things, as people have done since time immemorial, but the insistence that we’re being controlled by grammar, the hard currency obsession… it checks out with LaRouchers.

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      Meanwhile, the Palin camp is doing what it does: denying the intentions of its Facebook cross-hairs map despite lots of verifiable evidence to the contrary. Today a Palin aide said that “We never ever, ever intended it to be gunsights. It was simply crosshairs like you’d see on maps.”

      But this is not consistent with Palin’s own behavior and statements. On March 23 Palin tweeted her supporters to direct their attention to the Facebook crosshairs map, saying: “Commonsense Conservatives and lovers of America: ‘Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!’ Pls see my Facebook page.” Palin herself provided the “RELOAD” analogy to the crosshairs imagery. After the midterm election in November, Palin boasted about defeating 18 of the 20 members on what she called her “bullseye” list. Of the 20 districts targeted by Palin, Giffords and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) were the only two candidates to win over her PAC’s chosen Republicans.

      This is why I find it so offensive that there will be — and of course there will be — any effort to suggest that the assassain is a “left-wing nutjob.” The cues to violence were always from the right, and at the high end too. Palin’s effort to scrub her sites of this material is akin to wiping down the scene for prints. She knows very well what all of this means, which is why she scrambled yesterday to make it all go away. As always, she’s going to deny what the facts unequivocally reveal while casting herself as the victim.


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