More Summer Reading: Humanism and the Holocaust

Posted: July 9, 2009 in Uncategorized
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The next two articles I’ve looked at for the summer of exam reading (part one) are Carolyn Miller’s A Humanistic Rational for Technical Writing and Steven B. Katz The Ethics of Expediency. Both of these I have read about, and even blogged about before. But that was then, and this is now. So let’s start with Humanism and move to the Holocaust. All page number references are from Central Works in Technical Communication.

When I went to reread this article, I found that the things interesting to me the first time were also interesting to me the second, but for different reasons. When Miller says “Technical and scientific rhetoric becomes the skill of subduing language so that it most accurately and directly transmits reality” (48), I initially thought that was important, but obvious. Now I’m not so sure. The purpose of rhetoric seems to be one of moving. Moving other people down a path of reasoning or of action. So now I disagree. Technical and scientific rhetoric is not a skill of subduing language. It’s a skill of using language to transmit the reality that the writer sees.

This could be back to my philosophy roots, but I’m starting to doubt that reality can be directly transmitted.

On page 51, Miller says that “We encourage students to see writing as a necessary evil, necessary primarily because it is an amenity occasioned by the conditions of employment in business or industry.” I don’t think she believes that it is good to encourage this view, but she has a point that many teachers of writing do present it this way. Personally, I like to present writing not as a necessary evil, but rather as a close friend that is actually far easier than the students have ever been led to believe. But that’s just my pedagogical style.

There’s also the comment “audience adaptation too often becomes an exercise in vocabulary” (51), which earlier I said made sense to me and reminded me of the students who use big words in order to ‘sound smart.’ But on second glance, I don’t think that’s what Miller is saying. Different audiences have different vocabularies, individual vernaculars. There are a group of people that I can say “transhumanism” to, and they will know exactly what I mean. Groups that I could say “Obfuscate is the legacy of the Nosferatu” and receive nothing more than looks conveying that I just said something incredibly obvious. It’s not about talking down to people, nor about using words to sound smarter. Any given group has its own language. This is a discourse community thing, a matter of coins of the realm. Different disciplines will use different words, and a communicator needs to know how to communicate with other groups. Which does often amount to a vocabulary exercise.

Towards the end of the article, I find that Miller feels the same way I do about the initial representation of rhetoric. Miller does write that “Good technical writing becomes, rather than the revelation of absolute reality, a persuasive version of experience” (52), meaning that rhetoric is moving ideas and actions. And if we don’t see it that way, Miller warns that “If we pretend for a minute that technical writing is objective, we have passed off a particular political ideology as privileged truth” (52). So there is no transmission of truth. We’re not going to take a stand beside any ideology, but rather try to move people with the technical rhetoric. I like that much better.

Again, though, I don’t like Katz’s article. It’s not that I have anything against Katz or even against what he says. I just don’t like talking about or thinking about the holocaust. Thankfully, it’s not hard to look at this article without thinking about the context against which Katz set his ideas.

He writes that “All deliberative rhetoric is concerned with decision and action” (199), a pretty obvious restating of Aristotle. He goes on to tell us that “The problem in technical communication and deliberative rhetoric generally, then, is not only one of epistemology, the relationship of argument, organization, and style to thought, but also one of ethics, and how that relationship affects and reveals itself in human behavior” (199).

I think this links back to Miller very well, or at least to the idea of rhetoric being something that moves the audience. Katz is warning that deliberative rhetoric has the strongest affect on moving audiences. This makes sense, because deliberative rhetoric is dealing with the future (what we should do), whereas epideictic deals with the present (Are we doing the right thing) and forensic rhetoric with the past (what happened). So affecting what will be done should have a greater effect in the long run. So, Katz is telling us, we need to be careful and look at what we are doing in ethical terms as well as in terms of knowledge and understanding.

Katz furthers this argument when he writes that “we must always look at rhetoric in the context of historical, political, social, and economic conditions which govern the nature and use of rhetoric in culture” (206). Rhetoric is a powerful and dangerous thing, and we are responsible to consider how that power will affect things when we use it. I can agree with that. No claims of innocence if we don’t at least try to look at rhetoric in its context first. And, as Katz says, “We no longer have the luxury of considering ethics outside of the realm of rhetoric” (208). Ethics is part of rhetoric, and needs to be considered when using rhetoric.

I like that. It’s saying that rhetoric is a powerful and dangerous thing, and we need to be sure to be careful with it. It’s a weapon; and like any weapon, if we’re not careful we can hurt people with it. But used properly, it’s a tool for the greater good.

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