My colleague at Penn State, Keith Gilyard, was quoted in a November 15th New York Times article on Phil Jackson's use of the word "posse" to describe the group of friends that travel with LeBron James. I don't know much about professional basketball, but I do like how Keith discussed rhetoric in his explanation about why LeBron James disliked Jackson's comment. Keith says,
". . . one of the things that's interesting about rhetoric is sort of the study of who can say what to whom and under what conditions--or can say what about whom and under what conditions." Keith adds, "The word in and of itself is never neutral. It never means the same in all contexts."
Keith's comments reflect a fundamental principle in the study of rhetoric and communication. The idea that where we speak and who is speaking influences meaning is something that we know intuitively when we hear sarcasm. It is also something that we attend to in our intimate relationships of family and close-friendships. But, at the same time, it is something that we ignore in public settings. It is hard to think through the ways in which what we are saying is shaped by who we are, the context in which we are speaking, and the person to whom or about who we are speaking. We tend to believe that our communication is a transparent window to our meaning and that our good intentions are obvious. We think this because human beings assume that our own experiences are universal, that our perspective of "reality" is shared widely even though we acknowledge that differences of opinion do exist. The problem with this way of thinking becomes obvious when civil society is divided.
Here is an example,
When it looked like Donald Trump was going to lose the election and he said, "The system is rigged," Trump was communicating something that lots of Americans feel. Many of us can identify with the sentiment, "the system is rigged," because, in many ways, it is rigged. But agreeing with that statement doesn't mean that we are talking about the same thing. Trump's "the system is rigged" does not communicate the same meaning as "the system is rigged," when expressed by an black woman who lost her car or is going to jail because her city uses traffic fines as a primary means of securing revenue.
This problem of communication gets even more complicated when we consider that one part of Trump's audience may hear, "The system is rigged" and conclude that he is talking about the effects of international trade on the decline of manufacturing jobs while another part of the audience thinks he is saying that the government gives immigrants, undocumented workers, and people of color special treatment over them. The meanings here are different even though they may lead both parties to support his presidency. Furthermore, both interpretations are different from the most direct interpretation of the words. When he seemed to be loosing, Trump believed that the electoral process was unfair. (My guess is that he wouldn't express this opinion today.) Packing many different meanings into one statement is, of course, the power of an effective political slogan. It creates a strategic unity through language that resonates with diverse people for different reasons.
Lots of folks today are asking, "what do we do now to heal the divisions that divide our society?" Well, I don't know about healing, honestly. I don't think that "healing" is what we need if by healing we mean that only one interpretation of the phrase, "The system is rigged" is authorized as true while the other potential meanings of that phrase are excluded. What I do think would be useful, though, is if we start with phrases like, "The system is rigged," and then listen to one another explain what that phrase means in different contexts and coming from different speakers. It might be ethically appropriate or politically wise to exclude some interpretations of "the system is rigged" but that judgment has to be based on a conversation and further communication, not on an election result. That, in essence, is what the study of rhetoric and its practice in social society is all about.