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Subversive Rhetoric: The Poison in the Well

Despite a storm of voices asserting the primacy of one issue or another, two very troubling situations have dramatically taken center-stage in America’s political dialogue: the unrest of social activism and the growing threat of attacks against the police. In many cases, these issues are two sides of the same coin, and most disagreement seems to hinge upon which is the cause and which the effect.

"Social Action" groups tend to claim that their opponents fear-monger against minorities and ignore blatant injustices within a corrupt system. Those opposed to such movements often respond that people need to “get back to reality” and leave behind their paranoid complaints. No one would be likely to deny that the rhetoric in such "discussions" tends to be extremely high-temperature. As a result, frustration and provocation have become the order of the day, leading people to play out the frightening polarization in the public square between the ever-righteous “us” and the ever-oppressive “them.”

It is the great tragedy of contemporary public discourse that rhetoric has devolved into jargon, catchphrases, and insults. It is no longer the science of persuading others that your case is valid, but has become a system of cheap rally cries and insults used either to enflame followers with the emotions of action or to mark one’s targets with a demonizing label. It is the same tactic once used by French revolutionaries, who categorized enemies merely by how they dressed. “Sans Culotte”—literally, “without breeches”—was the term for a fellow radical, since no one who was lower class could afford fashionable clothing like breeches. As a result, anyone who was not “Sans Culotte” was considered fair game for the guillotine merely on sight. The sentence of anyone who did not fit the phrase was declared before the defendant even knew he stood accused.

We seem to have forgotten how dangerous language becomes when it embodies mindless prejudices and possesses the power to instigate condemnation in advance. No dialogue can take place when both sides use words that presuppose perfect knowledge of the problem. Life in common—be it in the city or in the home—requires that we occasionally step outside our own points of view so that we can try to understand the perspective of our neighbor. It’s the “simple trick” that Atticus Finch taught his little girl in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “‘First of all,’ he said, ‘if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

There is a desperate need for men and women to step outside the common rhetoric—the poison in the well—and to be willing to respond with both charity and prudence to the fiery claims made by others. Until that happens, frustration can only breed more violence, and the anger between groups will only create deeper hatred between individuals.


Michael Gonzalez is currently a third-year undergraduate student at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He enjoys reading and discussing a wide variety of works—especially Homer's epics and Willa Cather's novels—and hopes in the future to pursue graduate studies in legal and political philosophy.

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