It's Election Season: Watch, Listen, Learn and Vote
Presidential primary races and caucuses are in full swing,
as this shortest month of the year grinds to its leap-year extra day halt.
And the shouts are definitely louder than are the murmurs.
If there is one thing that these early votes are revealing,
it is that Americans do not yet know if they want a shouter or a murmurer to
lead their country, if they want a representative of The Establishment or an
outlier, a Rich Guy or a faithful conservative, an old guy or a young buck, a
man or a woman.
But this voter-hunting season, like every season in our
community-is-the-college lives, can and should spawn at least a bit of academic
thought, including, of course, remarks upon rhetoric and argumentation, efforts
to persuade, and the need to be “liked,” but also reflections upon what
linguists call the “paralinguistic” and “kinesic,” the two-thirds of any
linguistic message that is not just its simple words but is instead the way
those words are said and the way the body behaves as it says them.
In an article written for the Feb. 20 issue of The Atlantic, Michelle Cottle
acknowledges that “It makes sense to score...style points,” holding that “stylistic
judgmentalism speaks directly to a vital aspect” of any job, and particularly
to that of the American presidency.
Many—if not most—community college students are attending
classes so as to improve themselves and their lot, hoping to learn something
useful that will help them to land a (better) job, to improve their earning
potential, to broaden their horizons. As a study reported in the French
newspaper Le Monde has revealed,
although scores in basic literacy, use of language and numbers, and awareness
of simple arithmetic facts may be descending at a rapid rate nearly everywhere
in the world, young people’s interest in and attention to the extra-linguistic
seem to be on the rise, in an almost parallel fashion.
And so, as Cottle writes, although “people can lament how
this should not be so, it is so.” It is the case that “clothes make the man,” that
“POTUS (President of the United States) wannabes are graded on style as much as
substance.” Although “the content of a message matters,” as Cottle admits, so
does “the appeal of the messenger.”
We must educate our students in substance and in style, we
must make them aware of their own stylistics, and we must show them, not just
tell them, how a message can be altered by its delivery, its tonal aural
context, its gestural accompaniments. Mock interviews are good, presentations
before others are nice, and arguments out loud that use varied rhetorical
devices will serve both in the classroom and out.
And notably, since this is an election year, we would do
well to do as Cottle suggests, “weighing the candidates' various
idiosyncrasies...all of the candidates...keep(ing) a very close, critical eye
on all the ‘performer’ candidates...embrac(ing) our inner Simon Cowell.”
Although the meaning of a message may be massaged as it is delivered, it will
remain a signifiant nonetheless. When a candidate uses only
three-word utterances, when he shouts “terrific” and “great” more than a dozen
times in fewer than 30 seconds, when he uses rhetoric to divert or diverge
rather than to divulge, we as educators must be sure that our students take
We can use candidates” stances as literary grist against
illiteracy, we can deploy data as a solution to innumeracy, and we can use what
specialists in zoosemiotics, or animal communication, call the “envelope” of
unspoken meaning to shed prisms of alternative light on the cultural,
extra-linguistic, sometimes-subtle and sometimes less so significance of
statements that may or may not be facts but that must be scrutinized by the
engaged and responsible world citizens of our college community.
Watch, listen, learn, and then vote.