Friday, September 25, 2009

An Augustinian Perspective

Central to Augustine's theory of rhetoric is the difference between teaching and persuading. Teaching, Augustine maintains, must be done before persuasion. This makes a great deal of sense; when people know the facts, surely they will be more likely to act appropriately. In fact, Augustine says, "perhaps when the necessary things are known, [the audience] may be so moved by a knowledge of them that it is not necessary to move them further by greater powers of eloquence." Of course, this is not always the case, and Augustine understood this. Therefore, he presents his theory of emotional persuasion.

In a recent article in the AFL-CIO's monthly publication, America@Work, an attempt is made to fuse teaching and persuasion in an Augustinian manner. This article, "American Jobs: Going, Going..." by Jane Birnbaum, seems very successful, precisely because of its dual nature. The facts chosen to be taught to the audience are clearly chosen for maximum impact, and the emotions played on to move the audience are equally carefully selected.

Birnbaum's intent, or at least a part of it, truly does seem to be teaching, and from an Augustinian perspective this seems odd. After all, the readers of America@Work are almost exclusively union members who can be expected to already know the subject well enough to know what is right. Surely, to Augustine, all that is needed is an appeal to emotion, not further teaching. This makes more sense when one considers the following quotation from Augustine's On Christian Doctrine: "...for the sake of pleasing, things which are already known are also discussed where attention is given not to the things themselves but to the manner in which they are presented." Simply put, Birnbaum's decision to reiterate facts which much of her audience is already familiar with makes sense from an Augustinian point of view because her audience can be expected to be pleased by further evidence of the rightness of their ideology. Additionally, facts which are presented in this educational style were selected based on their emotional impact.

Examples of "teaching moments" abound in the article, mainly in the form of numbers. The reader is told that, "The US economy has 3.2 million fewer jobs today than when President George W. Bush took office." Bush's complicity in the unemployment crisis is reiterated later in the article, when we are told, "2.5 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared since President Bush took office in early 2001." This is an interesting choice. While it is presented factually, with what seems to be an intent to teach, it is also clearly intended to move the reader emotionally using Augustine's concept of making the reader "hate what you condemn." In total, George W. Bush is linked with numerical data on job loss three times in the article, although it is never explicitly stated that he is the cause of the job crisis.

Bush is invoked a fourth time in the article, although oddly enough this time it is used to lend credence to another appeal to emotion disguised as a teaching moment: "Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union address made clear the danger of access to data by unfriendly foreign operatives..." Clearly the intention is to promote fear here, by drawing a correlation between American companies doing business in countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and China with the US's current relationship with Afghanistan. This relates to Augustine's admonishment to make the listener "fear what you threaten."

Fear and hate are not the only emotions appealed to. A sentence which teaches the reader about "low wage work that pays too little to keep even a small family out of poverty," obviously works on the Augustinian idea of making the listener, "take pity on those whom you place before him in speaking as being pitiful."

This article is very effective, probably because it is able to merge teaching and persuasion effectively. Our emotions are played on expertly, and discreetly. To someone who is not knowledgeable about the debate on outsourcing, this article would likely be even more effective, since the teaching elements would come into play in a more obvious way.

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