Our Better Angels: Rhetoric and Human Dignity

Our Better Angels: Rhetoric and Human Dignity

Just a few things I’ve stumbled across in recent weeks, I’m not sure if it really makes sense to stick them all together. But I keep thinking about human dignity and about how the way we speak can tear down or build up the dignity of other people. In my mind at least these three bits all fit together, like pieces of a still incomplete jigsaw puzzle. And put them together, too, with Chris Pratt’s acceptance speech.

“They knew beyond doubt that they were valuable”

First, I underlined this passage from East of Eden, which I’m reading for the first time and am completely in love with so far:

John Steinbeck writing about the early settlers of the Salinas Valley in California:

“I don’t know whether is was a divine stupidity or a great faith that let them do it. Surely such venture is nearly gone from the world. And the families did survive and grow. They had a tool or a weapon that is also nearly gone, or perhaps it is only dormant for a while. It is argued that because they believed thoroughly in a just, moral God they could put their faith there and let the smaller securities take care of themselves. But I think that because they trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units– because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back. Such things have disappeared perhaps because men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.”

Anticipating the Inner Life of Children

And then there is this lovely piece in the Atlantic about Fred Rogers and how to talk to children. Mr. Rogers was a man who understood dignity in a deep way. He respected children as individuals and he took care to study and understand child development deeply, to see the world as a child sees it, to anticipate childish misunderstandings and fears. He knew children were worthy of respect and they had a dignity which needed to be cherished. He knew children are not just little adults, and understood their developmental needs. And of course his understanding of the dignity of children was rooted in his deep faith in God.

What I loved about this piece is the examination of how Rogers used his understanding of and respect for the dignity of children to shape the way he spoke to them. Carefully, respecting their humanity, but also respecting their littleness, their particular way of seeing the world, their inability to see quite like adults see.

As my friend Nicole says, “The particular beauty in his method of constructing communication for children is how truly rare it is for children to be considered capable of understanding and even feeling. He clearly understood children to be rational beings who were simply in need of additional guidance because they didn’t have full knowledge and understanding yet.”

Rogers’s placidity belied the intense care he took in shaping each episode of his program. He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children—the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience—tend to hear things literally.

As Arthur Greenwald, a former producer of the show, put it to me, “There were no accidents on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He took great pains not to mislead or confuse children, and his team of writers joked that his on-air manner of speaking amounted to a distinct language they called “Freddish.”

Fundamentally, Freddish anticipated the ways its listeners might misinterpret what was being said. For instance, Greenwald mentioned a scene in a hospital in which a nurse inflating a blood-pressure cuff originally said “I’m going to blow this up.” Greenwald recalls: “Fred made us redub the line, saying, ‘I’m going to puff this up with some air,’ because ‘blow it up’ might sound like there’s an explosion, and he didn’t want the kids to cover their ears and miss what would happen next.”

Rogers was extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go. For instance, in a scene in which he had an eye doctor using an ophthalmoscope to peer into his eyes, he made a point of having the doctor clarify that he wasn’t able to see Rogers’s thoughts. Rogers also wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” because he knew that drains were something that, to kids, seemed to exist solely to suck things down.
In 1977, about a decade into the show’s run, Arthur Greenwald and another writer named Barry Head cracked open a bottle of scotch while on a break, and coined the term Freddish. They later created an illustrated manual called “Let’s Talk About Freddish,” a loving parody of the demanding process of getting all the words just right for Rogers. “What Fred understood and was very direct and articulate about was that the inner life of children was deadly serious to them,” said Greenwald.

Per the pamphlet, there were nine steps for translating into Freddish:

1 “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street.

2 “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.

3 “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”

4 “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.

5 “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.

6 “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.

7 “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.

8 “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.

9 “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

Rogers brought this level of care and attention not just to granular details and phrasings, but the bigger messages his show would send. Hedda Sharapan, one of the staff members at Fred Rogers’s production company, Family Communications, Inc., recalls Rogers once halted taping of a show when a cast member told the puppet Henrietta Pussycat not to cry; he interrupted shooting to make it clear that his show would never suggest to children that they not cry.

Attention to the little things, sweating the small stuff. Care for the smallest and weakest. Mr Rogers understood human dignity in a very deep way and worked to make us all better people. He understood the importance of words, how we speak and how our words affect other people. If only we could all speak every word with such care and concern for those we are speaking to.

Mr Roger’s rhetoric is exquisitely crafted for its intended audience, preschoolers. I remember as an older child being quite offended at the babyish way he was speaking. I felt condescended to. And indeed to speak to an older child the way he spoke to a younger child would be very condescending for older children are not so literal and do not need things spelled out for them, they delight in being able to understand bigger words and more complex speech. Freddish is perfect for its intended audience, but the deeper lesson, it seems to me, is that Mr. Rogers took the time to know his audience, to understand them and the way they think, the way they feel.

How, then, can we apply those lessons to know how to speak with adults?

Our Better Angels: Rhetoric and Right Behavior

So finally we come to another favorite teacher of mine, a great teacher of literature and rhetoric. Dr Scott Crider was one of my favorite professors at UD, though I only had him for two classes, those were two of the greats. He taught me how to read Shakespeare and Jane Austen, two of the great writers of moral fiction. If I am capable of reading carefully and deeply and of writing clearly and persuasively, it is due in large part to him and to other professors at the University of Dallas.

Anyway, I love this Decalogue of Civil Society that he offers to University of Dallas alumni, and I think they are universally useful advice for all people, whether you are a UD grad or not:

In the disciplined leisure of pursuing wisdom, truth and virtue together, we find ourselves guided by our better angels.

How might we be guided by them in public life after and beyond that wonderful season of disciplined leisure that characterizes the UD education? Allow me to offer 10 ways to put one’s UD liberal education to public service, a Decalogue of Civil Society. Every one of these laws might arouse an educational memory of your time at UD — in a Core class, in Rome, in your major — a memory of your better angel.

1. Thou shalt determine the issue at hand. During undisciplined arguments, it is often easy to miss the issue at hand, that precise question that must be addressed to make progress, so we flail about and confuse issues, often talking at cross-purposes about innumerable, undetermined issues.

2. Thou shalt study the issue. In our post-fact world, we often allow ourselves to assume things in a determined issue without having studied it sufficiently. Although we all must rely on experts, there is a general level of study required of each of us to support our opinions about the issue, sifting evidence and reasons, not by whether they agree or disagree with us, but by whether they are strong or weak. This requires a varied intellectual diet of reading and viewing.

3. Thou shalt define terms. A determined issue requires defined terms — consistent words or phrases for understanding and judging arguments about the issue — terms we and our opponents can hew to for progress.

4. Thou shalt decide what the best position on the issue is. That decision is reflective: one needs to think before arguing, giving oneself the leisure to weigh and decide what the best decision is.

5. Thou shalt make arguments to defend that position. It is not enough to assert a position on a placard, a bumper sticker or a tweet; one must defend it by offering arguments in its defense.

6. Thou shalt listen to people who disagree with you. Smart, honorable people do disagree, and we need to listen to one another, not for hasty dismissal, but for the possibility that the other is right about something we have missed.

7. Thou shalt distinguish between being mistaken and being evil. Too often we assume people on the other side of an issue from us are not simply wrong in an opinion, but immoral in holding it. Our opponent may simply have failed in the difficult act of sifting good and evil — and so may we have.

8. Thou shalt remember a time when you changed your mind. When in heated dispute, we often presume that there is no possibility of conversion, that we are who we are and they are who they are, but people change their minds all the time.

9. Thou shalt treat your opponents as you would have them treat you. Think of your own frustration when someone ignores or misrepresents your argument — or even dismisses you as beneath recognition or respect. If you want them to attend to and respect your argument and your person, then attend to and respect them and theirs.

10. Thou shalt love your enemy. Don’t take my word for it. The double command of love of God and neighbor is arguably the Christian mandate, and although it is difficult to see your opponents as your neighbors, they are and must be treated accordingly.

Of course, every UDer remembers Aristotle’s point that one can know the good without doing the good; that is, we might nod in agreement at the above list — remembering moments in our UD education — then ignore it and re-join one of the ignorant armies clashing by night. And, granted, it is easier to be dialectically lawful in class. Even so, we are free to remember and act upon what we know how to do — to behave like Socrates and Jesus. That is, after all, the freedom of a liberal education.

To behave like Socrates and Jesus. To lead people to wisdom and truth, but to do so in a way that respects their human dignity, their freedom, their right to be wrong…. this is a challenge in every age. But we are the ones who must face it today.

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