How Rhetorical Epistemology Helps Explain Political Polarization
By Rick Cherwitz, Ph.D.
It is well-documented that the United States is more politically polarized than ever. The question of impeachment is but one more illustration of this reality, with people on each side of the debate being locked into their position. It would seem that there is no evidence or reason capable of moving either camp out of its silo.
This is a problem of great interest to Communication scholars, who for centuries have studied persuasion, exploring the available rhetorical tools needed to find common ground and create dissonance—the necessary ingredients for changing people’s minds.
In the last few weeks, the underlying cause of this problem is becoming clearer. The culprit may be not political but epistemological polarization, a claim that resonates with the thesis of a new book by Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum, A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Let me explain.
For months I have closely monitored media interviews of and statements by Republican House and Senate members. Aside from believing that the Republican leaders seem incapable of defending Trump’s threatening the President of Ukraine, I am amazed about how they conflate “fact” and “opinion.”
On Sunday, December 1, for example, Louisiana Republican Senator John Kennedy could not answer a simple and nonpolitical question asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd following Kennedy’s repeating a debunked conspiracy theory: When does an opinion become a fact? Kennedy was literally dumbfounded by the question. We should not be surprised.
Put bluntly, our country is confronted with a serious epistemological crisis—a problem about what counts as knowledge. This is a subject that I have studied for more than 40 years as a rhetorician and faculty member, and about which I wrote a book (Communication and Knowledge: An Investigation in Rhetorical Epistemology) and published numerous scholarly articles in my discipline’s academic journals.
Based on my research, I contend that, like the ancient Sophists, contemporary relativists, and postmodern thinkers, Republicans in 2019 treat everything that is said as having equal epistemological merit and value—that there is no categorical philosophical difference between “belief” and "knowledge.” In short, if belief and knowledge are not segregated, politicians can indiscriminately claim that their opposition’s “facts” are merely “opinions”—and be successful rhetorically, getting away with such an assertion. Hence, this tendency constitutes a far more serious and inherent national problem from which political polarization may arise.
What Senator Kennedy and many other Republicans are saying provides an example of what some rhetoricians call "consensus theory"—a theory that asserts because there is agreement about something (as opposed to that something being objectively instantiated), it therefore is true. This is a theory I have refuted in my research. My contention is that simply because we “take” or “perceive” something to be true does not mean that it is, in fact, “true.” The “perspective realist” rhetorical epistemology I have promulgated, which is anchored to the notion of an objective reality that cannot be wished away or willed into existence through language, allows us to uncover the important difference; this, in turn, enables us to escape the harmful consequences of continuing to buy into something that in reality is not true and is grounded purely in rhetorical constructions.
Put simply, consensus theory is a useful analytical tool for rhetorical critics seeking to understand why people say and believe what they do; perspective realism is a necessary philosophical tool for rhetorical theorists desiring to discover what is true. Without the latter, the concepts of “perceptions” and “rhetorical constructions” themselves would make little sense, leaving theorists and scholars in an endless regress or what historically has been labeled solipsism.
So how do we escape this epistemological crisis that contaminates the political landscape?
Until people are willing to refrain from knee-jerk political reactions, and to engage instead in a thoughtful philosophical discussion about what counts as “truth,” the nation’s current partisan and polarized state will remain—something which prevents productive debate, progress in solving problems, and restoration of deliberative democracy.
To be clear, I am not calling for a tedious debate among rhetorical scholars. To the contrary. This philosophical (lower case “p”) issue must not be exclusively an academic conversation restricted to the professional Philosophers (upper case “P”) who occupy the ivory tower. It must take place in the public square. Issues about what is true and what isn’t, after all, have always guided the decision making of ordinary citizens and impacted our nonpolitical lives.
I sincerely believe Americans are troubled and exhausted by political polarization, and worried about the hateful rhetoric it spawns. I remain hopeful, therefore, that most of us will be eager to engage in this epistemological discussion—thus extricating ourselves from the current crisis that is stalemating democratic governance.
How wonderful it would be if academics in Communication were to become engaged scholars, participating in and helping lead this national conversation. As I often argue, we must use our expertise to educate the public and promote social good—something that was practiced by the ancient rhetoricians.
Cherwitz, Richard and Hikins, James. Communication and Knowledge: An Investigation in Rhetorical Epistemology. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1986).
Cherwitz, Richard and Hikins, James. “The Engaged University: Where Rhetorical Theory Matters.” Journal of Applied Communication Research, 38 (2010), 115-126.
Cherwitz, Richard and Hikins, James. "Rhetorical Perspectivism."Quarterly Journal of Speech, 69 (1983), 249-266.
Croasmun, Earl and Cherwitz, Richard. "Beyond Rhetorical Relativism." Quarterly Journal of Speech, 68 (1982), 1-16.
Orr, Jack. "How Shall We Say 'Reality is Socially Constructed'?" Central States Speech Journal, 29 (Winter, 1978), 263-274.