Thursday, April 15, 2010

Of Rhetoric, Tea Parties, and Morality: Discussions of Kairos in the Writing Classroom

Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
                       -- George W. Bush (20 Sept 2001)

What a great week for amazing class discussions, provocative questions, and inquisitive students. In my Advanced Rhetoric course this week, we talked about kairos and, on a related note, situational ethics. These were not, by any means, new subjects for the class. What made this week's end-of-the-semester in-class discussion so stimulating was that we began, in a very specific way, to talk about all the classical rhetoric we've learned in terms of the political conversations currently swirling around in the social ether. We considered the social implications of rhetoric that moves to action -- most particularly when that rhetoric is driven by hate, fear, anger, and the assumption that the speaker/writer is justified in using whatever strategies or tactics s/he deems necessary -- all because s/he has decided that s/he is on the side of moral "rightness."

Though the graduate-level Theories of Writing course began with two 40-minute student presentations, the topics (including Chaim Perelman and Martin Heidegger) led us to similar discussions about power, morality, and the importance of recognizing kairos. The end result was that I promised to share the paper (and Powerpoint) that my colleague, Kevin Van Winkle, and I presented at the Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference the first week of April 2010. Our title was "The Rise of the Moral Empire: Christianism, Terrorism, and the Rhetoric of Power in the Post-9/11 'Anti' Campaigns."

We had a very interactive presentation, but because we presented (and created) together, we did write up a paper -- of sorts. The content of this "paper," complete with "CLICK" in each place we forwarded to the next Powerpoint slide and designations of who read what section, is below...


CLICK. In 1821, John Quincy Adams, in his historic Foreign Policy speech, reminded the American people that the strength of America lay not in her military or diplomatic might, but in her refusal to “ interfere[nce] in the concerns of others... Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart… and her prayers... But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”  Less than 200 years later, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, echoed these inveterate American sentiments when he publically proclaimed to Al-Jazeera, CLICK “We don’t ‘do’ empire.” While Adams and Rumsfeld could hardly be accused of having similar political ideologies, both men insisted that America did not have imperialistic aspirations – based on their shared belief that dominance over others is, in some way, immoral. And yet, American colonialism stems from what historian Ian Tyrell calls CLICK the “missionary impulse” – a Christian-centered control over those who are incapable of controlling themselves. In this way, the control becomes a moral imperative – one that justifies military intervention, economic sanctions, and a foreign acceptance of American defined democratic ideals. And though most Americans would be loathe to describe the American dream as embodied within an “evil empire,” in his article “Empire of Denial: American Empire Past, Present, and Future,” Tyrell goes on to ask the American public to consider this CLICK. – he writes, “if it walks like an empire, if it quacks like an empire, then it probably is.”

CLICK. Of course, Tyrell’s observation comes post-9/11, in a world where, as Bush declared “freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other” were now perceived as being threatened by outside forces. He continued, “Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” (“Address to the Nation,” 20 Sept 2001). CLICK. And yet it was not the rhetoric of fear or power that ultimately justified (and continues to justify) America’s presence in Afghanistan and Iraq – it was the rhetoric of morality. Indeed, before the smoke had fully cleared at the World Trade Center, the political rhetoric had begun to shift. CLICK. Over time, political pundits and national leaders morphed from proponents of retribution into bringers of democracy, freedom for the Middle East, and global equality.  And though the language had changed, the methodologies had not. Violence, it should come as no surprise, provided America’s necessary shock and awe. CLICK.  From the scandals at Abu Ghraib to the continuing secrets of torture and water-boarding at Guantanamo Bay, America had embraced the tactics of her enemies. CLICK.


Early in the war on terror, Bush’s administration created a bipartisan culture that, ironically, was embraced across political parties. CLICK.He claimed, “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” (Bush 2001). While some on the extreme left have made the argument that we were as guilty as our enemies, it is important to note that American tactics were deemed – by most Americans --  to be more just than the identified Muslim “extremists”; our violent, terroristic strategies were not just situationally warranted – they were moral and good. Western ideas of morality and “goodness” are wrapped up in complex social systems steeped in Judeo-Christian dogma – dogma that even in John Quincy Adams’ time, manifested itself in specific, action-driven political agendas. In fact, CLICK noted conservative author and daily contributor to The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan, created his term “Christianism” as a counterpoint to the negative, anti-Islamist rhetoric that emerged from the Christian right in the years post-9/11.  He argues, “The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque.” Moreover, while, like Sullivan, we do not seek to draw a parallel between Christianity and the advocacy of violence, we do see a connection between Christian ideals of goodness and the acceptance of  violence  -- as long as it’s in the name of a just and moral cause.

According to Gerard Genette’s seminal 1962 article “Structuralism and Literary Criticism,” all relationships are "systems of latent relations, conceived rather than perceived, which analysis constructs as it uncovers them, and which it runs the risk of inventing while believing that it is discovering them" (86). CLICK. Our suggestion is that if what Genette observes is true, then anti-terrorism, and its relationship to “Christianism,” is actually a socially constructed relationship – a latent relationship that was constructed by the government and perpetuated by the public – rather than inherently interrelated in the years post-9/11, as the American government used “Christian” ideologies and language in its campaign against terror. In this way, we argue that Americans have created an extreme relationship among disparate ideologies CLICK (in this case, terrorism and Christianity). It is one that remains apparent in the extreme bi-partisan, polarized rhetoric of the 21st-century – and one that has bled over into movies, television, and even public service styled ad campaigns.

The Montana Meth Project: History

In 2005, Montana experienced an extreme outbreak of drug usage. By 2006, the rural state ranked fifth in the nation for methamphetamine addiction despite the fact that in the years previous, they remained virtually untouched by the drug epidemics that plagued the rest of the nation. Half of Montana’s prison population was incarcerated because of meth-related crimes. Additionally, the foster care system also experienced a high number of new admissions related to meth. The instant “popularity” and accessibility of the dangerous and highly addictive drug confounded authorities. The devastation meth had on the state was noticed by billionaire business man, philanthropist, and part-time Montana resident, Tom Siebel. CLICK.

In 1996, Siebel created The Siebel Foundation, which, according to their own PR materials, helped grant educational scholarships to the underprivileged, assisted the homeless, and searched for alternative energy solutions. Confronted with the meth epidemic in Montana, Siebel broadened the Siebel Foundation’s scope in January 2005 to include the prevention of meth use. With the help of the advertising agency, Venables Bell and Partners, The Siebel Foundation created The Montana Meth Project (MMP). CLICK. The MMP’s primary goal, unlike “anti-ads” created in the 20 years previous, was no longer rehabilitation through education but prevention through fear – reflected in their slogan “Not Even Once.” The target audience was teenagers, and to reach them, the MMP orchestrated a statewide advertising campaign that included television, radio, billboard, newspaper, and internet advertisements. So saturated was the state’s media channels by these advertisements that the MMP reported that an estimated 70 to 90% percent of Montana teens saw one of these ads three to five times per week. Besides ubiquity, what all these advertisements had in common was a shocking, graphic, and often times frightening depiction of the possible consequences of trying meth.  The stark and unrelenting depictions of moral depravity, psychosis, and physical deterioration brought about by meth use made previous anti-drug campaigns look tame by comparison.  It was this shocking yet seemingly realistic portrayal of the consequences of meth use that made the ads memorable and, supposedly, effective. As a result, other “waves” of advertisements followed. These successive advertisements had different directors and actors in different vignettes, but the horrific depictions of the aftermath of meth use remained the same.

For example, in this clip, we see a “Hollywood-esque” commercial that presents normal teen angst and peer pressure alongside horrific imagery and references to prostitution.

This new breed of anti-campaign – like so much else is our world today, offers proof of the new acceptance Americans have for terrorism – if, as we suggest, this pejorative rhetoric is deemed morally justified by the American public. Indeed, America has inadvertently “Stockholm-syndromed” its way into a believing this increasingly terroristic rhetoric as a necessary step in “educating” our youth about the dangers of drinking, smoking, and doing drugs. And, in fact, these shocking campaigns offer evidence that Americans – in all aspects of our lives – have increasingly begun to embrace the very actions that we once claimed to abhor - violence, torture, and even rape - in the name of a “just” ideology.

And, though the moving imagery of the Meth commercials are shocking, the billboards that dot our own Colorado landscape are equally dramatic and terroristic in nature.

DONNA --- CLICK. CLICK. [Description]

KEVIN --- CLICK. CLICK. [Description]


The MMP claims direct responsibility for lowered rates of meth use among teens and adults, a decrease in meth-related crimes, and a drop from fifth in the nation to 39th in the nation for meth use. Currently, Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Wyoming, Hawaii, and Colorado have all purchased and implemented an augmented form of the advertising campaign. The name of the project changes to reflect the state, but the ads remain the same: grim and terrifying. And, like torture, the efficacy remains debatable.

DONNA [Unplanned open-discussion for this section]

Reality TV increases post-9/11… real life has become so HD that TV has to match it – commercials push these aesthetic boundaries too… the Meth ads build on existing anti-campaign structures and employ the violence and fear that have become so much a part of American life in the last decade.

So what? Where does it end??? Where does this lead next? Fear that turns to action against homosexuality? Race? Gender? All wrapped in warped Christianism? In the flag? Indeed, regardless of your politics, fear and hate-mongering is an issue that affects us all. So, at what point do we draw a line? At what point are these tactics too invasive? Are we paving the way for actions to take the place of rhetoric? It’s already happened in terms of terrorism and right-wing extremism. Sarah Palin’s statements about “picking up arms” – targets on congresspersons…CLICK.

What does all this mean for the future of education?
Future of freedom?
Future of America?


I hope you enjoy this, and perhaps you'll have an opinion or two you'd like to share along the way. In the meantime, use your rhetoric for good and never evil. --DR. DONNA


  1. Whoo! I'm the first one to post! And, I must say, the "CLICK" did invoke a bit of Katherine Glow.
    Our class on Tuesday was highly rewarding for me; between watching meth commercials, hearing about teenagers giving birth on playground equipment, and participating in an active discussion, it was an experience I won't soon forget. There are some very significant paradoxes in America, which make it such a unique place to live. Note that "unique" is not always a quality to be admired. On some fronts, our society is quite open, and allows things like meth commercials and meth ads to be shown before five o'clock on public television, but something that I failed to mention during our discussion, is the extreme secrecy label that we place on the human body and on sex. We build it up in our youth's minds that the human body is a "secret" thing, always finding ways to hide it on television, and it becomes a sort of obsession for many people within our society, because of this secretive phenomenon. Like Sara said, "They're just boobs, you've got them too." We have the strangest method of censuring things we view as obscene; as long as it is an "anti-" campaign, we can air whatever we want on public television, because it is "beneficial," but put some airbrushed Victoria's Secret models on the runway, and you'll have angry mothers calling up the TV station right and left.
    The Colorado Springs Independent just featured an article about sex-education, and the lack of effect the "abstinence training" has on teenaged students. I went through this program three years ago, and I can tell you exactly why it is ineffectual. The woman from the health department used very vague terminology, and when a student asked a question, such as "what is a female condom" or "how do you use a condom," do you know what she said? "Your school district doesn't allow me to talk about that. If you have questions, come down to the health department, and I'll be happy to answer them for you." Please tell me someone else sees the issue here.

  2. Much like we discussed in class, I think these types of rhetoric affect Americans in a negative way. Instead of trying to scare teens out of trying meth, talking to teens about the dangers of the drug and lifestyle seems like a better way to prevent meth use, but that's just my opinion. These types of ads desensitize Americans from the horrifying images and scenarios. Although the MMP has good intentions, I'm not so sure their approach is all that beneficial to Americans.

    When I have children, if I want to scare them out of trying something, I'll take them down to the rehabilitation clinic or even to the streets where recovering and current meth addicts are. I would much rather expose them to the real deal than to have them view these Hollywood versions of it. I think the MMP provokes curiosity. Will that really happen to me if I try meth just once? I don't think I'll end up like that. Hmm...let's see. I'm not saying that I would ever try anything like meth, the ads do provoke curiosity.

    Also, the comment about Palin proves that this type of rhetoric can be dangerous. She had targets on the map of congresspersons--I haven’t seen this, and I am just going off of what we discussed in class. That's pretty serious stuff. I would consider it a threat and unacceptable.

    I completely agree with you in that we should use our rhetoric for good. Not only should we use it for good, after all the MMP has good intentions, but we should also use it effectively! I'm sorry, but showing this romanticized depiction of what could happen to you if you try meth just once isn't very effective. Again, that's just my opinion. Apparently I could be wrong because the stats say that Montana moved from fifth to 39th on the U.S.'s list of highest ranked states for meth use.

    All I know is that I don't think this is the appropriate use of rhetoric. These ads make the consequences of meth use look unreal. The normal looking teens with cell phones, big houses, cute cars, and both parents in the home are not the typical meth users. Show the real thing, or don't show anything at all. What about old fashioned communication?

  3. This powerpoint was amazing. Very influential and eye-opening. Like I said in class, how did America go from not being able to say toliet in public to showing body bags in front of a building in New York?

    People are beiginning to be immune to just the facts, it's time to start appealing to their pathos. The majority of society memebers already know the statistics on how many people die from drugs, but they still take them. They also know that technology is advancing quickly and diseases are being cured, so why not do drugs if your life can be saved later. The media had to find a new way to prevent drug use other than just advertising logos.

    I think these meth advertisements are great. I do believe they will have a damaging effect on the relationship between kids and their parents who are recovering addicts, but other than that they are fine. These billboards and commercials are the best way to show America the consequences, not tell them.

    I'm sure these advertisement tactics were inspired from 9/11. Iraq didn't tell us to stop messing with them, they showed us what happens for messing with them. America needs a wake up call. They need to visual see what happens to one's future when they abuse priveleges, drugs, or anything else.

    Some people may be offened by the modern advertisment techniques, but I praise them. To persuade one of an argument you need to use powerful language, visual language is the most powerful language. Some may call it scare tactics, I call it reality.

  4. Basically, my thought is that it should be the parents responsibility to educate their children. In Ruth's post she brought up the Victoria Secret models and their commercials on television. If I remember correctly it was your sister-in-law who said she felt uncomfortable that her children were seeing these commercials. It is natural: lingerie, boobs, sexuality. Parents should monitor what their children watch if they think it's a big deal. Or they should just explain it to their kids themselves. Our society has become lazy, and has started to rely on media and technology to educate their children, and then parents get upset about it when the only people they have to blame are themselves. I feel the same way about the Meth ads. The meth ads are intense and powerful, but their main point is that it takes only one time, and then your life is screwed up. I kind of really hate that we start learning about drugs and sex in like 6th grade. Parents should be the first who tell you about drugs and sex, not from school and surely not from media and technology. I think it's healthy and natural for parents to have that discussion with their kids. I think with that kind of trust and relationship kids are more likely to respond and to be receptive. There's so much shit in the media and in technology that is cluttering and attacking kids. It's pathetic and disgusting, and what's worse is that parents just let that be their childern's education, yet they bitch and complain later that it's too graphic or to much for their 'little babies'. Overall, I think that the media has slowly overtaken important experiences that parents should have with their kids.

  5. Good points, all. Amanda -- the Sarah Palin media image I referenced in class is the last slide in the Powerpoint. Take a look when you have a minute... and though I don't think, on any level, that Palin's going on a shooting spree, that image is paired with another -- and those folks, I worry, may very well turn to violence if a few major issues aren't addressed soon.

    And, of course, a big problem with this rhetoric is that, quite often, it DOES work. Fear and violence elicit fast results (not always the desired results, of course, but sometimes we just want results of any sort). I remember a fabulous History professor I had in graduate school. He said that anyone who claims that war never solves problems had never history. If you want to redirect a country (or even a child/teenager for that matter), violence and fear evoking tactics will result in almost immediate change. The problem, with war, and with raising children (my prof went on to say), is that the long-term effects are generally devastating and much worse that the problem for which we sought a cure.

    Education. That's my solution. Rigorous debates by people who have taken the time to read carefully, critically analyze their positions, and have formed an opinion. I love debate, but I worry that, as a larger society, we've replaced serious debate (particularly of the political sort) with soundbites, anecdotal nonsense, and hate-mongering misdirection. I'll keep bringing up these issues, but it's you guys who have to keep the "real" debates alive. --DR.DONNA

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  7. Ah I see the slide now. Thank you. Yes, I don't think Palin is going to shoot anyone either. However, the thought of someone in her position doing something like this seems inappropriate to me. It causes others that are influenced by her to think it's ok to threaten violence. These representatives are being targeted. If it were my name on that map, I would consider that a threat. My reaction to it may be influenced by the image that is paired with it. Like you said, those protestors may resort to violence.

    I agree with Ruth that there is a lot of violence and fear tactics readily displayed, but things that are not as harmful such as the Victoria Secret ads are readily criticized. Americans have become too accepting of violence--but that's just my opinion.

    Ruth, I can not beleive the woman from the health department was not allowed to answer those questions. What a disservice! How many of those kids do you think will actually go down to the clinic to have their questions answered. My guess is not many. This leads to unprotected sex due to a lack of knowledge. There is no reason for that. If kids are going to have sex, they should know all about it. They shouldn't be given the just the abstinence speech. They should be informed of all of their options instead of leaving it up to them to find out about it on their own. Again, good old fashioned communication with the parents could be more helpful than the school district providing a disservice to them by ignoring the issue of teaching safe sex.

  8. Hmm, these scare tactics are a new breed of advertising. However, it seems like they are going a little overboard with the ads. So much so that seeing these ads is a little bit obvious now. When I see a billboard with an anti-meth ad posted, I usually do not even look at them. I know they are going to be gruesome, and I know their message will be shocking. I think that by showing these ads more and more, the people will care about it less and less. A good example of this is when my friends did a spoof on these commercials a couple months ago about cheese nips. Usually when a spoof comes out, the original topic does not matter anymore. The rhetoric behind these ads was well thought out (these ads are pretty jarring), but now its all dried up. When there is not a caring audience about the subject, there is no rhetoric.

  9. Herr is the link to that video I was talking about:

    Its pretty hilarious :)

  10. Wow,
    The power of language, of persuasion in the media and elsewhere is overwhelming. We just have to remember that call to take responsibility, to acknowledge that we can be wrong and to look for the good in our search for justice. ala Perelman and the Dali Lama. The Chinese our our friends. Al Quaida is our friend. Sarah Palin is our friend.

  11. LOL!!!!! Oh man , Josh! That commercial was hilarious! I see your point.