Barney Frank’s refusal

In Rhetorical Refusals, John Schilb discusses how some rhetors have refused to meet audience expectations about the norms of discourse or genre; usually, this refusal is deliberate, and rhetors draw upon higher principles to justify their refusal. Often, in rhetorical refusals, the rhetor is attempting to persuade their audience to make a judgment about another audience. His primary example: a review of a performance in which the reviewer hadn’t seen the performance (definitely breaking the norms of the review essay). This review attempts to convince its readers to make judgments about those who enjoy the performance.

Barney Frank’s most recent rhetorical refusal is a great case in point. This video is everywhere online now, partially because I think everyone who can think critically is quite annoyed with the assertions that Obama is like Hitler and expanding health care is Nazism or Socialism. And Frank, rather than engaging and defending his support of health care reform, refuses the norms of question and answer sessions. In effect, he is asking his audience (others in the room, viewers of the YouTube video) to make a judgment about another audience: those who believe the radical misrepresentation of health care reform promoted by certain right wing pundits. Rather than trying to engage these folks, as many of us desire to do, we should judge them as the type of person with whom civil dialogue and persuasion on the topic are impossible.

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7 Responses to Barney Frank’s refusal

  1. I think what irritates me the most, if there were to be such a thing, is that the assertion that said expansion of health care would be a socialist maneuver are the folks who are alleging their own critical thinking. I suppose that’s part of the problem: Critical thinking in and of itself is not necessarily quantifiable or equal among different groups.

  2. Michael says:

    Agreed, Michelle. “Critical thinking” is such an amorphous, ambiguous term that really it’s a way to elevate one’s own position (i.e., I’m thinking critically) and degrade someone else’s (i.e., you’re not thinking critically).

  3. AL says:

    Actually, there are some basics to critical thinking and it is less amorphous than you has suggested. For example, simply asking,”is this true,” would dramatically alter the health care debate, e.g. Unless one believes that anyone can see whatever they want in a congressional bill text and claim what they see is there, then asking whether x is there or not is,in fact, critical thinking and there’s nothing amorphous about it. See for example the analysis of John Stewart and the person who originated the claim of “death panels.” When pressed and she couldn’t find any such text, she claims it was removed to embarrass her. Could this be true, that there was once some text made public that now has completely disappeared. I doubt it.

  4. Michael says:

    Thanks, AL. I didn’t mean to suggest that the term is meaningless or pointless. Rather, it gets deployed in certain ways to have certain appeals of ethos: I can claim to have critical thinking skills even when I don’t. Additionally, I’m speculating that there are different ways to think critically that are valued in some communities that are not valued in other communities that value a different type of thinking. But ultimately, you are right, I believe, in suggesting that we can develop (and have developed) criteria for critical thinking.

  5. Dennis says:

    To put it another way, the term ‘critical thinking’ can be used as shorthand for for something akin to “your argument is such crap I don’t even have to explain why.” It’s a dismissal, a refusal to engage the argument being made on the merits. And since it’s a such a trendy term, one’s not supposed to really delve in to how to define critical thinking – everyone is already supposed to know what it means.

  6. AL says:

    If someone misuses a term for persuasive purposes, they have misused a term that has meaning (otherwise there is no misuse). From where I stand, no one can just claim x is critical thinking if it’s not and expect the bare claim to make it so. However, if someone thinks there is no such thing as meaning then nothing has meaning and we should all just be quiet. Otherwise, if someone says x is critical thinking and it isn’t, then they are wrong or mistaken. If there is no meaning, then no one is wrong or mistaken, which means no one can be correct either. Why talk, especially about politics?

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