J. Rocky Colavito
Department of English
Let rhetoric be [defined as] an ability in
each [particular] case to see the available
means of persuasion . . . rhetoric seems
to be able to observe the persuasive about
`the given' so to speak.
Aristotle, On Rhetoric 1.2
The rule is: Don't say anything that is 'patently indecent' or
offensive to your community. WELL, I LIVE IN A COMMUNITY WHERE
PRIESTS RAPE YOUNG BOYS, WHERE YOU GET SHOT IN YOUR CAR, . . .
WHERE CRACK RUNS FREE LIKE THE RIVER GANGES, AND WHERE MOVIE DIRECTORS
FUCK THEIR WIVES' DAUGHTERS. NOW YOU TELL ME WHAT I SHOULD TALK
ABOUT ON THE RADIO!
Howard Stern on the FCC's rules for talk radio, Private Parts
I'm the bad guy? (Italics added)
Michael Douglas, as D-Fens, Falling Down
While on my way to work just recently, I chanced to hear a radio advertisement for a "Rush Room" at a restaurant in Alexandria, Louisiana. Stressing the presence of this "sanctuary" for the Rush Limbaugh show was the whole point of the advertisement; the breakfast specials at the restaurant were secondary. Mind you now, I've heard of "Rush Rooms" before, and I'm also well aware of other forums and founts of macho propaganda and anger. I've seen Falling Down, have listened to Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern on the radio, and have watched comedy routines by Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay, and Denis Leary. I've not yet, however, seen the presence of their opinions as the major selling point of an eating establishment. Was this use in sales pitches for floundering restaurants perhaps Rush's destiny? Has the business of being an aggressive white male been subsumed in the flood of PC-shaped sensitivities? Are the converted that these rhetors are supposedly preaching to simply small pockets of individuals now collectively circling their wagons? There is certainly some evidence to suggest that even the loudest voices of white male hegemony have been drowned out. The responses to Newsweek's cover story on "white male paranoia" (March 29, 1993), which featured a squinting Michael Douglas as the character D-Fens from Falling Down featured comments from men and women alike. Witness the following:
When there's only one white on the Supreme Court or in the entire Senate, or when the Senate Judiciary Committee comprises only females, then white males can complain. Until then, I don't want to hear a peep. (Hogan 15)
So white males feel the world is against them? Let them live with it! During the centuries when white was right and the entire earth was ripe for the picking, oppressed peoples everywhere longed for the day when the tide would turn. Maybe now it's starting to. (Reed 15)
These missives present a more popular sort of participation in the debate. In the pages of the more academically-oriented Heterodoxy, the now infamous publication devoted to presenting "articles and animadversions on political correctness and other follies," the attacks on white males and their rhetoric are even stronger. In fact, Heterodoxy devotes a full page to the point-counterpoint of this debate played out in the letters to the editor. A selection of some of the more forward examples further illuminates a current tendency to "bash" males (particularly the supposedly white ones who publish Heterodoxy) and other politically incorrect souls:
You fellows have one driving motivation you want to free yourselves from your mothers' all encompassing vaginas. Fear and hatred of females oozes from this publication. It's surprising that my anatomy scares you so. You folks are attempting to turn back the tide of an inevitable social transformation. You won't win. You've already had 4,000 years at the helm and the order you've attempted to create is rotting. It's time for a change. (Nunn 2)
You criticize Catherine MacKinnon extensively. Why? Because she
is strong? Capable? Articulate? And she is infinitely more published
than you? Then you praise profusely Camille Paglia, who sold out
women to get tenure, who secretly wants to dry hump Madonna. The
world is changing. You simply have to put your tiny penises back
in your pants and accept it.
(Another tenured female Harvard Graduate 2)
Along with these examples is a particularly ostentatious example afforded "Letter of the Month" status by Heterodoxy's editorial staff. Marked by a large stain, the letter reads as follows:
This letter is soaked in my own menstrual blood. Does that disgust you? Does it make your wienes [sic] shrink? You pathetic hypocrites. You want to silence us so you can write all over us with your pens/penises. But you forgot one thing; all womyn [sic] make their own supply of indelible ink! You cann ot erase our writings.
And if you try, we'll just have to have an old-fashioned wiene
An Angry Womon [sic] (2)
Judging from the tone of these letters, and any other manner of public or audience-specific discourse, many of these bastions of male aggression seem to be, in a figurative sense, dead. Rush Limbaugh is consigned to late night or early morning television time slots, and Howard Stern is faced with dropping ratings and an exile to a floundering cable television channel. Andrew Dice Clay would have us believe he's been blackballed from network television entirely, and now has to make a living off of Vegas appearances and pay per view "concerts." Aren't these "deaths," perhaps, a telling sign of the fundamental weaknesses in their rhetorical technique?
The answer to the last question is a resounding no. Their rhetoric is no weaker than or different from other forms of propaganda that one can encounter in today's media-determined society. The rhetoric of white-male aggression, much like the rhetoric of backlash, or victimization, or political correctness manifested in the letters, is characterized most pointedly by two levels of awareness. One level is the fundamental awareness of audience; such rhetors speak to be heard by a mixed group of people who already hold or support the ideas being expressed by the rhetors. More importantly, the rhetoric of white male aggression is very canny in its awareness of what the popular media will let the audience know. In a sense, such rhetors do preach to a receptive choir, but it is a choir shaped by informational institutions and sources that stir emotions rather than promote critical thinking and discourse. The audience only knows what the media wants it to, and the audience thus makes judgments and choices about the validity of various positions and people based on how the media presents these incidents or viewpoints. Purveyors of white male aggression recognize this tendency, and capitalize on it in a way that infuses their viewpoints with a semblance of authority and credibility, no matter how rhetorically unsound those viewpoints, and their expression, might actually be.
How might such a rhetoric be characterized? Its fundamental characteristics have actually been at issue for some time, and much critical ink has been spent mapping the differences between the way men and women compose themselves through the written word. Elizabeth Flynn, in an essay originally published in College Composition and Communication in 1988, notes the following about the contrasting ways that men and women write:
The narratives of the female students are stories of interaction, of connection, or of frustrated connection. The narratives of the male students are stories of achievement, of separation, or of frustrated achievement . . . . the men's narratives stress individuation rather than connection. (300-02)
Though Flynn's statements are based on a somewhat limited sample (only four student essays are actually analyzed in this particular study) they do furnish a starting point in determining the fundamental rhetorical characteristics of predominantly "male" rhetoric. It is this dual sense of "separation" and "individuation" that gives the statements of a Howard Stern or a Rush Limbaugh so much strength. They are separate because they fly in the face of everything that purports to be decent, fashionable, or politically correct. Yet, as the epigraph from Howard Stern's book that prefaces this essay suggests, the society in which we live (or, at least, the one that Stern sees) doesn't really furnish us with anything even remotely decent, and what's fashionable or correct seems to be abhorrent. Howard Stern's observations are valid, but they are separate from what polite society and the FCC would like us to hear. In their separateness, then, the comments also become examples of an attempt at individualization, because they come to represent for some the outpourings of what many might perceive to be isolated individuals who are essentially shouting out loud in order to receive attention.
The shouting seems to be working; just when many thought Howard Stern might be dead and buried as a result of his ill-advised appearance as Fartman at the MTV Music Awards, he arises phoenix-like from the ashes of cable exile with the chart-topping, autobiographical best seller, Private Parts. Almost immediately after Private Parts set sales records, Rush Limbaugh's new book, See, I Told You So established new ones. The millions of copies of both texts sold suggests that many are buying what Stern and Limbaugh are selling, and there has to be a reason why writers and speakers of this ilk refuse to be quieted. The answer to this question probably lies in what many perceive as one of the most maligned rights of today, the right of free speech. In spite of Stanley Fish's ideas to the contrary, there really is such a thing as free speech, and it is a good thing, too. These founts of male aggression exceed the conventions of free speech in many ways, pushing the envelope at every turn. It isn't so much that so many agree with what they say, though I'm certain that there are those of us that may occasionally nod with a knowing smile when we hear something uttered by one of these individuals. The agreement, I think, comes with the notion of the first amendment; Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Dice Clay, et al., have a right to say whatever they wish, no matter how abrasive or offensive. And what better way to achieve some semblance of credibility than by using one's constitutional rights? When someone who practices abrasive free speech, such as a Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, is attacked for voicing their opinion, a mechanism is tripped in the minds of some parts of the audience. For those who side with the speakers and their opinions, the hackles come up because an attack on the speaker's viewpoints is perceived as a form of indirect attack on the viewpoints that the audience accepts and holds. Those who agree also cling to their affiliations in appreciation, for their mouthpieces very often have the courage to express these contrary opinions that various outlets of the media or press have deemed taboo. For those in vehement disagreement with the speaker or the opinions, appreciation of the attack results because the audience that is disinclined to accept one viewpoint that it finds bothersome is more inclined to accept an attack on that viewpoint, no matter how unfounded or ill-framed the attack might be. The fence sitters, i.e., those who couldn't care less about the speaker's position, but do care about his right to voice it, however, are the ones who sway the way by which the audience forms itself into ideological camps. This portion of the audience may actually come to accept the (for some) untenable positions simply because of the right of the speaker to speak without fear of reprisal. And, much like the other segments of the audience, may evince a form of appreciation for the speaker who has the courage to voice that which is deemed taboo.
Kenneth Burke calls this occurrence within the audience "identification," noting that "you persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his" (55). In either case, the response seems to be the same. One group identifies with, and thus lends credibility to, the purveyors of white male aggression or anger because they agree with the opinions being presented. Another group, upon noticing the various types of attack heaped upon these rhetors, jumps on the bandwagon because they perceive infringements upon first-amendment rights. Credibility in the latter case is not necessarily attached to the actual opinions, but it is indirectly attached to the speaker who may be perceived as a victim of persecution.
Again, this level of acceptance or dispute on the part of any
segment of the audience is due in large part to what the media
lets the public see and hear. Our information is now measured
out in bytes of sound, print, or vision. For example, many of
us only saw part of the Rodney King beating, but it was enough
to move many to sympathy for him and to anger when his beaters
were initially exonerated. The same is true of the Reginald Denny
video; many thought it certain that Denny's attackers were clearly
marked on film, but the jury remained unconvinced. In another
area, the coverage of the PC wars on college campuses depends
on magnifying small incidents such as the shouting of racial slurs
to the point that the public thinks that campus race riots are
imminent. The aforecited Heterodoxy letters are another example
of this slanted sort of reporting. The readers of Heterodoxy tend
to get a picture of non-readers (particularly women non-readers)
as man bashers. The point here is that the rhetoric of white male
aggression is very conscious of these buttons to be pushed, and
the rhetoric exploits the uses of slanted coverage to gain its
own footholds on credibility. A good example of this can be found
in the Newsweek article on white male paranoia and a response
dated three weeks later. In the feature article
a 36-year-old female trucking-company executive recently told a Pittsburgh paper . . . [that] the white guys who run the business world are 'a bunch of shallow, bald, middle- aged men with character disorders . . . [who] don't have the emotional capacity that it takes to be human beings. The one good thing about these white, male, almost-extinct mammals is that they're growing old. We get to watch them die.' (Gates 49)
The aggressive and inflammatory tone in this passage garnered many responses, the most telling of which was the following:
The 'shallow, bald, middle-aged men with character disorders' whose demise is relished by the 36-year-old female trucking-company executive that you quote are, for the most part, the ones who won a world war and saved 'humankind' from an inestimable horror, before coming home to raise families and build a country without equal. She ought to take a minute, while she's watching them die, to tell them thanks for it all. (Pffeifer 15)
The separation and individuation that characterize the passages is due in no small part to the slanted coverage and expression. The quote from the executive is an isolated example of what many consider man bashing; no other such viewpoints appear in the article. It is individual and separate because of what it comes to represent in the article: an inflammatory viewpoint in an item that purports to be informative and neutral. The response is just as slanted, for it slants away from the context of the quote within the article in its attack. The allusions to patriotism and family values in Pfeiffer's response serve to inflame a different set of passions within the audience. His indignation is perhaps perceived as much more credible than the quote because of these allusions, allusions which many may have forgotten. The fact that Pfeiffer dovetails too much from the original quote is beside the point.
The main point to be culled from all these discussions is simply this. The rantin' and ravin' and carryin' on alluded to in the title are not simply characteristic of the rhetoric of white male aggressions; these qualities are, in fact, to be found in many of the forms of propaganda that the information society presents on a daily basis. The popular press and media both tend to function on a level that promotes aggressive discourse, and the lines between descriptions of various types of rhetoric and written expression become blurred. The examples provided here reveal that written aggression need not be gender specific; pushing buttons with slanted coverage and creating audience identification through emotional manipulation are a product of the time. The tactics sell papers and books, get ratings, and extend our allotted fifteen minutes of fame; no wonder our aggressions come out on paper.
1 Heterodoxy is infamous for any number of reasons, be it pirating
the mailing list of another publication in order to fill the mailboxes
of unsuspecting (and unappreciative) people with gratis copies,
cataloguing at length the activities of the liberal left on campus,
to a full- page interview with "the Naked guy," a Berkeley
student who attended classes in the nude not so long ago. Its
most extreme form of attack, however, was superimposing Katharine Stimpson's head onto the photograph of a nude woman's body and
labeling a "centerfold." Most were not pleased.
2 The "Letters to the Editor" forum is one
of the more entertaining parts of each issue of Heterodoxy. The
editors make it a point to include the letters they receive asking
to be taken off the mailing list (such letters often include pejorative
aspersions to the editors' ancestry and pleasure preferences)
alongside the point-counter point exchanges over issues raised
in past issues. Of course, the letters that take the side of the
editors always seem to be the most lucid; the letters from the
"left" often depict the writer as a raving lunatic.
3 Flynn's article has since been both lauded and critiqued in print and atconferences. The most basic criticism, a valid one I think, has to do with using only four students as a sample. Her contentions about the basic character of men and women as evidenced by narrative writing, however, do seem accurate since society and its extensions, in spite of all their advances, still tends to suggest that men need to "stand out from the crowd" and that women are not complete until they are "connected" with one another. There's still much work to be done in cognate areas that Flynn's piece suggests.
4 At this writing, Private Parts and See, I Told You So are still enjoying great success. Rush Limbaugh's show now runs early in the morning and late at night on local stations in my viewing area, and a movie version of Private Parts is presently in the industry limbo called "the development stage." Howard Stern is angling to play himself in the movie version. It's a good casting choice.
5 Burke is wonderfully adaptable in studies analyzing the popular media and rhetorical practice. Indeed, the concept of identification is part of every day conversation in the form of the stock clich "I can relate to . . . ." Audience identification with a rhetor, concept, or position doesmuch to endow the rhetor, concept, or position with a level of ethical credibility, an important component in the appeal of ethos.
An Angry Womon. Letter. Heterodoxy 1.11 (April 1993): 2.
Another tenured female Harvard Graduate. Letter. Heterodoxy 1 (September 1992): 2.
Aristotle. On Rhetoric. Ed. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
Flynn, Elizabeth. "Composing as a Woman." Rhetoric and Composition: A Sourcebook for Teachers and Writers. Ed. Richard L. Graves. 3rd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann, 1990. 296-308.
Gates, David. "White Male Paranoia." Newsweek 29 March 1993: 48- 53.
Hogan, Eileen Lee. Letter. Newsweek 19 April 1993: 15.
Nunn, Susan. Letter. Heterodoxy 1.4 (September 1992): 2.
Pfeiffer, George. Letter. Newsweek 19 April 1993: 15.
Reed, Charles L. Letter. Newsweek 19 April 1993: 15.
Stern, Howard. Private Parts. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
E-mail the Author of this Essay With Your Questions or Comments
E-mail the Journal With Questions or Comments
Table of Contents
Readerly / Writerly Home Page
ENMU Home Page
Comments or Problems to: ENMURWT@ENMU.EDU