A Rare Example of Responsible Rhetoric

In college and graduate school I studied the art and theory of rhetoric. I am something of a nerd (shocker, if you read anything on this blog), and so as a fresh young student I was surprised and delighted to discover that the subject occupied the minds of great thinkers stretching back to Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and St. Augustine. I just had no idea it was the object of systematic treatment in the ancient world.

Simply put, rhetoric is the art of persuasion, or what Aristotle called “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” Now, if you understand nothing else about persuasion, you must understand that persuasion happens almost whenever, and wherever, there are words and symbols. You persuade your coworkers to use this solution instead of that one. You convince your boss you deserve a raise. You bicker with your friends over who is the best character in Game of Thrones. (It really is Jon Snow, but I digress.) You argue for the merits of one interpretation of a text over another. Kids do it, adults do it, everyone does it. It is so ubiquitous that it is often completely unconscious. Even the harshest critics of rhetoric—e.g., your neighbors who believe it is nothing more than fancy smoke-blowing—use rhetoric to denounce it.

Deep stuff, right?

The problem, of course, is that not everyone uses rhetoric well. Even those who spend much of their lives sharpening their rhetorical skill (public speakers, authors, journalists, etc.) struggle mightily to be fair and humane in their use of it. Plato in his Gorgias dialogue was concerned that rhetoric would be used to flatter and manipulate. In his monumental Institutio Oratoria, Quintilian argued that the rhetorician must be “good man” before he or she can “speak well” or “justly” at all. Joseph Williams, in his book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, presents an ethical framework for writers, exhorting them to write as they would be written to, and to read as they would like to be read. That framework is perhaps somewhat simplistic and naive (couldn’t one reply that morality is relative, that the only goal that matters is to “win”?), and yet I do find it useful as a reference point for the more noble-hearted practitioners out there. What Williams is saying (and, I think, what Quintilian is saying) is that the responsible rhetorician should have the strength of character to do justice to the complexity of whatever topic he or she addresses: to represent opposing views fairly, and engage in honest debate without resorting to bad faith assumptions and ad hominem attacks. This is unfortunately a rare thing in the industrial revolution of social media shaming, but sometimes it happens, and when it does, it is glorious. And I believe I have recently witnessed such an example.

In his July 2022 newsletter, Matthew Lee Anderson responds to an essay called “Dobbs and Fetal Personhood” by theologian Cathleen Kaveny. Kaveny’s essay is a patient and nuanced defense of the so-called “just abortion” position. She actually takes the time to describe the sanctity of life perspective of pro-lifers, as well as the sanctity of bodily autonomy perspective of pro-choicers, without belittling either of them. The central point in her argument is this:

Insisting on the humanity of the unborn, most pro-lifers describe abortion as the intentional killing of an innocent person–which, in their view, is always morally prohibited. But a key conceptual problem with abortion is that this is not the only moral description that applies, even if the fetus is a person.

One can also describe the act of abortion as the refusal of the pregnant woman to provide bodily life support to the person growing within her. This is what distinguishes abortion from the vast majority of cases of intentional killing. Carrying a child to term is not an insignificant physical burden. Moreover, unlike caring for a very old, very young, or very sick person, the physical burden on pregnant women cannot be shared. In the United States, at least, the risk of death from childbirth is significantly higher than the risk of death from abortion. Arguments that run in this direction have been more or less sidelined in the public discussion. Pro-lifers frame their arguments around how abortion intentionally kills an innocent person, while pro-choicers assert that a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy affects a potential life, not a person.

I find this to be a respectful and even compelling argument. Pregnancy is hard, and abortion does seem to be a unique sort of action, the choosing of which ought to fall solely within the domain of the woman whose body is directly affected. Of course, the impulse of the “culture wars” dynamic would be to respond with vicious animus, but Matthew Lee Andersen refuses to entertain that dynamic, offering instead a careful reading of Kaveny and an equally patient and responsible rebuttal. Here’s one of his first observations:

Kaveny rightly notes that the pro-life position rests upon seeing the embryo as a person, and so protected by an absolute norm against intentionally killing the innocent. Kaveny suggests, though, that we might also “also describe the act of abortion as the refusal of the pregnant woman to provide bodily life support to the person growing within her.” The peculiar facts of pregnancy make abortion an odd case of killing: because it is uniquely burdensome, highly risky, and cannot be shared with anyone else, pregnancy has a special status that demands an alternate description for the act of………..

Well, of what, precisely? The “refusal of the pregnant woman to provide bodily life support to the person growing inside of her” requires some sort of performance. In that refusal, someone does something to someone. The refusal in this case is not simply a non-action, a sitting quietly while one’s next-door neighbor starves to death. This refusal still involves a termination—of a pregnancy, yes, but also of the embryo whose life began that pregnancy. 

I agree with Andersen here, but whether I or anyone else should agree with him is beside the point I am trying to emphasize, which is that Andersen is not casting aspersions on what may or may not be Kaveny’s ultimate motives. He is actually grappling with Kaveny’s analogy on its own terms, seeking clarity and specificity, examining the implications, pointing out weaknesses and flaws. This is very hard to do in any highly-charged, complex culture wars issue. It is even harder to do in a social media milieu where the overwhelming desire is to resort to slogans and insults while spouting lofty abstractions about what it means to be human. Look closely at just about any of the viral snippets shared on social media, and you will notice how little time is spent defining one’s terms or bothering to explain why one has arrived at a given conclusion in the first place. The debate over abortion rights is no exception. Some pro-choice activists, for example, recently stated that the question of whether a fetus counts as a human being is a red herring, a distraction from the main issue (bodily autonomy), an irrelevant concern. But then they failed to give a single reason as to why. Such a stance is not an argument, it is a brute force and ultimately meaningless assertion.

This indeed is one thing that is so endlessly frustrating and irresponsible about social media discourse in general. When it comes to all the angry chatter about this or that issue, most of what people say on Facebook and Instagram amounts to little more than verbose moral grandstanding with the predictable, exasperating result of being utterly vapid and useless. Congratulations, you have a platform on which to tell people what you think without being required to engage seriously with any specific counterargument! What the deuce is the point other than to signal your membership in a tribe that already agrees with you? Oh, I realize there are other possible motives. Maybe you think it’s fun. Maybe you feel like you’re part of some meaningful protest. But do you really think this a recipe for actually winning over a skeptic?

Here’s more from Andersen:

There are other reasons, I think, why a pro-lifer might reject analogies between pregnancy and the case Kaveny puts out. For one, they might argue that it is not “bodily autonomy” as a principle that keeps the state from coercing parents to give organs to dying children, but rather the inability of the state to coerce anyone to rescue those in need. The analogy suffers from the outset, as it presupposes that the embryo in the womb is there for the same tragic reasons that the child stands in need of an organ. 

Even if we set that aside, Kaveny’s description of the pro-life position ends up subtly distorting it, by dividing “consent” and “nature” in ways that break their necessary continuity. Her first analysis of consent suggests that consent for the pro-lifer includes the “natural consequences.” Such a description depends upon some theory of nature—but invoking a theory of nature cannot, ever, mean that questions of consent become immaterial to how we understand what has been done, and what is to be done, as her second reading implies. Such an account would mechanize women, dehumanizing them. While Kaveny suggests that this is true of “many” pro-lifers, though “not all,” I wonder who—really—she has in mind.  

So while Andersen is grateful for Kaveny’s mostly fair description of the pro-life view, he argues that it is not wholly fair or complete. In fact as he dives deeper into Kaveny’s metaphor, noting other layers and distinctions, he identifies dangerous conceptual consequences (i.e., that Kaveny’s account actually dehumanizes women) that are easy to miss without a close analysis. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but whether you do or not, my second point is simply this: Responsible rhetoric is often slow and complicated. No wonder it is so rare.

(I should note a disclaimer, which is that I don’t believe responsible rhetoric and humorous or even harsh critiques are necessarily mutually exclusive. Sometimes people make very stupid arguments; sometimes the best refutation is to lampoon stupid arguments. Sometimes people make very dangerous arguments; sometimes the best response is a scathing, prophetic denunciation of wickedness. Can this be done responsibly and without crossing over into meaningless ad hominem? I think so, but that is a post for another time.)

Quintilian teaching rhetoric. Source: Wikipedia