The latest crazy far right Obama worries about his “back to school” speech is symptomatic of lots and lots of different things. I think part of it is about race because the crowd who is afraid to have their children exposed to the president while in school is (basically) the same ones who are worried about Obama’s death committees, who don’t believe Obama was born in the United States, and, back in the campaign, the same ones who said that Obama was an Arab Muslim and dangerous man. But I also think these folks would say crazy stuff about Obama’s plans if he was a white guy, too. Part of it all is rooted in legitimate concerns and differences of opinion, though anyone who thinks that Obama’s plan is somehow like the Nazis and who fears the impact of the government being involved in health care in this country doesn’t know anything about the Nazis and they are unaware of the extent to which the government is already involved in health care via Medicare, Medicaid, the CHIP program, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Besides all that, I think this stuff is an example of my dissertation work, which was about the ways in which rhetorical situations become problematized as the result of technology. Basically, I argued that communication technologies– radio and television immediately come to mind given this example, but I focused more on internet technologies like email and the web– skew previous notions of both “rhetorical situation” and kairos. I used the term “immediacy,” because things that are “immediate” lack clear boundaries and are close together, and “immediate” has both connotations of quickness and confusion, of intimacy and chaos.
A simple example: last night, on the NBC news, they had a story about Obama’s indoctrination message stay in school speech that featured a snippet of video of a couple who were terribly afraid of what the president might say to their children about gay marriage. It was only a few seconds, but in those few seconds, those parents– who were both crazy and wrong– were given an enormous platform to play the part of the rhetor, and were thus able to either change or confuse the message for a large segment of the audience.
Now, NBC was showing these people in the name of “objectivity” and “fairness” in that journalistic tradition of showing “both sides” and they did follow up the few seconds with these parents to quote from Obama’s speech, which, in a sense, discredited them. This of course presumes it is even possible for journalism to be purely “objective” and “fair,” and it is also presumes a reasonable method for approaching objectivity on a topic is to simply present “both sides,” even if one of the sides is completely and utterly wrong (in this case, parents afraid Obama will talk to their children about gay marriage). But let’s just table that for the moment.
In a conventional rhetorical situation, these fringe elements would not have the opportunity to voice their arguments at all. But in a rhetorical situation heavily mediated by technology, rhetorical situation become immediate and fraught with challenges. The Rush Limbaugh-types on the radio, the Bill O’Reily-types on the television, and the thousands of bloggers, emailers, and other (inter)network communicators flatten the dimensions of a rhetorical situation to allow a chaotic mish-mosh where the definitions between rhetors, audiences, purposes, and messages themselves all exchange roles. Health care reform becomes about death panels, and a president talking about kids staying in school becomes a socialist indoctrination favoring gay marriage.
Now, it’s not as if rhetorical situations were ever that clear; in the classic “egg versus chicken” debate that is Bitzer and Vatz, it seems clear to me that rhetorical situations both occur and thus demand discourse to fill them (Bitzer notes the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but I would also add the speech atop the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11 by George W. Bush) and are created by the rhetor with discourse (Vatz notes the Viet Nam war, and I would add the war/debacle in Iraq). But what the Internet, talk radio, and the 24/7 cable news cycle has done is sped all this up, making already potentially dangerous and chaotic moments even more ripe for miscommunications and misunderstandings.
And in my own narrow way of looking at things, this is all the more reason why I ought to think about going back to that dissertation project and maybe writing something about it.