The public sphere has become awash in outrageous, hostile and inflammatory messages. A late night comic thinks it is funny to make a vulgar rant against the president. Another comedian poses with what is supposed to be the president’s severed head. A cable news host refers to the president as a piece of excrement. Heck, even Mr. Met the baseball mascot made an obscene gesture at fans recently. The list goes on.
President Trump, for his part, has engaged in inflammatory rhetoric over the years, continued the practice on the campaign trail, and remains a rhetorical agitator today in rallies and on social media. Trump’s political foes have responded with their own rhetorical outbursts of four-letter expletives and cheap shots.
Social media sites are flooded with angry and emotional rants. Protesters shout down and threaten speakers they don’t like, and feel justified in pepper spraying counter demonstrators. The angry culture is seen in popular music, some of which promotes violence, drug use, and objectification of women. Prime time television features sitcoms that make you cringe more than laugh, with “jokes” about body parts, bathroom functions and personal putdowns. Violence is a marketed commodity that fills movie screens and television news in increasingly graphic ways.
The nation’s cultural “leaders,” both in politics and media, have provided little actual leadership when it comes to guiding a conversation of civil democracy. It is little wonder the nation is polarized. Divisive messages lead to a divided citizenry. Angry and emotional messages destroy the opportunity for reasoned debate and analysis.
Media platforms are a complicating factor in the spread of rhetorical chaos. Social media outlets allow for unrestrained messaging that would not have entered the arena just a few years ago. Social media outlets make it easy to be outrageous with little fear of repercussion or accountability.
More traditional broadcast and print media have abandoned traditional filters of judgement. Producers and editors obsess over and hype the harshest outbursts from cultural agitators and largely ignore more reasoned voices. Feeding frenzies provide cheap ratings surges and boost hits on media websites, which seemingly is all that matters to big media.
And, sadly, outrage works. Angry radio talk hosts have demonstrated that for years. Stephen Colbert’s late night ratings at CBS have surged as his routine has become more vitriolic. MSNBC’s ratings have caught up to FNC’s by going full attack mode on Trump. Both channels now broadcast more emotion than news, often hammering hot button issues with insufficient context and exaggerated importance.
Engaging in sensationalized and melodramatic broadcasting is easier than developing well-reasoned argumentation. Polarization is exploited in the name of ratings and clicks. Big media’s vacuous corporate bigshots sit idly by and refuse to accept cultural accountability. Media corporations get financially fat while ignoring their responsibility to guide the nation’s dialogue.
Some analysts simply chalk up this communication chaos to the price of living in a First Amendment protected society. That’s a simple but incorrect analysis. Sure, the First Amendment allows for worthless and harebrained communication, but the issue here is rhetorical self-control that allows for a society to rationally engage sociopolitical issues.
The rhetorician and cultural analyst, Richard Weaver, wrote in his 1948 book, “Ideas Have Consequences,” that the world was substituting sensation for reflection. Sensationalism, he wrote, made a virtue of desecration and promoted a sort of cultural obscenity. Such “titillation” has led to what he called the “ravages of immediacy.” Today’s rhetorical and mediated climate is swarming with such ravages.
Weaver called on society’s leaders to engage in “noble rhetoric,” the kinds of messages that improve intellect by presenting people with “better versions of themselves.” John Kennedy’s “Ask what you can do for your country” inaugural did that, as did Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream,” and Ronald Reagan’s “Challenger” speech. Americans yearn for a rhetor to give us a better version of ourselves. Don’t expect such a message from Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, or a television commentator.
The Federal Communications Commission received thousands of complaints after Colbert’s crude comments last month, but for various regulatory and legal reasons, the FCC is powerless to force cultural decency into the public sphere. It is ultimately up to the citizenry to denounce messages and messengers who serve the self-interests and egos of the bombastic. Citizens need to look for and listen to communicators who prioritize concern for the greater societal welfare. The time is now for such messengers to emerge.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University. He is a recognized authority on media and journalistic ethics and standards, having been interviewed and quoted by over 125 newspapers.