Friday, November 2, 2012

Commercialization and Rhetorical Polarization

I don’t know if opinion is more polarized in the US than it used to be.  I do feel, however, that the rhetoric has become more polarized.  Let me explain what I mean.

Rhetorical strategies depend on the intended audience.  An effective strategy begins with identifying this audience and divining its initial cognitive and emotional state.  This makes possible an appeal whose style and content are tailored to produce the best possible reception.  There isn’t a single optimal rhetoric because there isn’t a single potential audience.

Broadly, we can distinguish between two types of rhetorical strategies, those that appeal to an audience already disposed to agree and whose purpose is to heighten their sense of identification and disposition to take action, and those that reach out to as yet unpersuaded audiences, where the goal is to bring them closer to accepting your own position.

The impression I get is that we are seeing a lot more of the first set of strategies than the second.  This means more use of emotive adjectives and appeals to shared identity, along with less use of a sympathetic voice to express opposing points of view (to convey a sense of fair-mindedness).  The cumulative effect is a cacophony of parallel echo chambers, lots of hectoring and very little listening.  I don’t mean to imply that this phenomenon is symmetrical across the political/intellectual spectrum, much less that it is universal and represents how every one of us is communicating—just that the balance has shifted overall to rhetorics more suitable for stirring up the believers.

Now for an explanatory hypothesis: perhaps this is due in significant part to the increasing commercialization of political discourse.  More and more political expression is undertaken in a for-profit context, where return is a function of market share.  Talk radio is a pure example: the pay of those in this business depends on audience size.  If an announcer loses his or her ratings mojo, the show is pulled and it’s time to find another line of work.

If so, however, we face the problem that identifying and selling to market segments leads in most cases to the adoption of an intra-tribal stategy, reinforcing what people think they already believe, rather than one of outreach and persuasion of the differently-minded.

Can we test this hypothesis?

And, if we think it’s true, can we rebuild a space for political discourse whose incentives are not tied so closely to audience size and enthusiasm?