During this last week we all received an impromptu lesson in "the Politics of Offense". Eruptions of this volcano are happening often now, but this last week was a loud one. "The Politics of Offense" (PoO) works by deflecting criticism by making the insensitivity of your opponents' comment THE issue. If you are dealing with disciplining your own children, these sorts of issues occur when one does something really heinous (like stealing a toy) and then tries to deflect the needed discipline by claiming that their sister said, "no", when they asked to have it and struggled (perish the thought) to keep the toy when they came to take it. (I speak, of course, only from theoretical knowledge nothing like this has ever happened at my home.)
The PoO really starts to hum along when the charges of "she hurt my feelings" (implicitly "she is an insensitive moron") begin to fly back and forth. We might call this sort of eruption a hissy fit. It is ugly. Sadly, this is what we are experiencing at the highest level of political life in our country today. The attack/protest in the Middle East during this last week are a prime example. The terrorists attacked and quickly the two candidates were embroiled about whose response to the situation was most inappropriate and insensitive. Throughout the week, the hissy fit has continued on both sides. I drove home last night listening to NPR who was covering the response to the attack--not the attack.
Political life that is full of the PoO is one of the reasons why a classical and Christian education is so important. Here are the top three things that a the study of rhetoric does to the PoO:
1. It helps people see that PoO is not an answer to the question. If you are asked why there were not more soldiers guarding the embassy and you say: "How dare you pollute this moment of grief with your insensitive quest to affix blame!" The correct response is: "Answer the question!" This happened to me just yesterday in a debate that I lost to Mr. Hayward in class. One student asked a question, I gave a response, and she responded, "Fine, but you really did not answer my question." We need millions of people like this.
2. The study of rhetoric helps us understand why the PoO is so potent. Aristotle said that there are three parts of rhetoric: ethos (the perceived character of the speaker), logos (the words that the speaker is saying), pathos (the feeling attached to the words). Ethos, the Philosopher said, trumps all. If you can harm your opponents character (or the perception of his character), you have the game won. So, our leaders resort to the PoO. We must not let our picture of the character of a leader be colored by the PoO. We need to make sound judgments rather than sound bite judgments. Most people, however, do not study rhetoric and thus they take the PoO seriously (to the determent of the country).
3. Finally, classical education prepares people to move beyond the PoO--to cut through it. Politics is an entertainment sport today--but it is serious business. We must turn our TVs off and we must remember that the PoO is a sign of weakness, moral ineptitude, and incivility. It is ugly and it is used to deflect responsibility rather than doing what real leaders must do--embrace responsibility, repent (when needed), and lead by answering questions instead of throwing fits.