Conventional “charismatic” speech, in service of the Zeitgeist
Richard Stivers on how the rhetoric of democracy invites tyranny
Sociologist Richard Stivers has been a guest on the Journal on four occasions, the most recent being on Volume 151 discussing his book The Media Creates Us in Its Image and Other Essays on Technology and Culture. On Volume 96, he talked with me about his book The Illusion of Freedom and Equality (State University of New York Press, 2008). The penultimate chapter in that book is titled “The Reality of Freedom and Equality,” in which the following paragraphs appear.
“Freedom and equality are now meaningless terms. When the reality of the quality a term signifies contradicts it, then the term loses common meaning and becomes a tool of power. Richard Weaver uses the phrase ‘charismatic terms’ to denote terms that do not refer to anything in the real world. They have lost their ‘referential connections’; instead their use depends upon ‘common consent’ or the ‘popular will,’ which confers upon them charismatic authority. They become purely rhetorical terms. He suggests that politicians with the assistance of the media impose these terms on the public who more or less willingly accept them without reflecting on the appropriateness of their use. They have become the common coin of propaganda. If one were to expand his discussion to include advertising and public relations, the full range of propaganda would be included. The sad fact is that all organizations, private and public, employ propaganda to influence and control us. They are unwitting agents of the technological system.
“Writing [in The Ethics of Rhetoric] over 50 years ago, Weaver identifies freedom and democracy (equality) as today's charismatic terms. If these terms have been severed from the referential contexts and yet ordinary people still invoke them as often as politicians and administrators, they must mean something. Indeed they have become irrational symbols.
“We can best understand the functioning and meaning of charismatic terms by comparing them to ‘plastic words.’ This is Uwe Poerksen’s term for a category of words that aspire to be scientific or technical but end up amorphous in meaning. Plastic words go from being words in the vernacular to being scientific terms; but subsequently return to the vernacular. Science and technology, economics, administration, and the entire range of applied human sciences are the source of plastic words. He has identified 43 words as plastic words without pretending to having a definitive list [see Plastic Words, Penn State Press, 1995]. These words include: communication, development, education, function, future, growth, information, model, modernization, planning, progress, relationship, trend, and value.
“Plastic words are all abstract nouns and imply an aura of scientific factuality. As abstract nouns, they destroy precise discourse, leaving behind the most general and hollow meaning. Like other abstractions, plastic words are elliptic sentences that imply a predicate. The plastic word ‘planning’ implies a sentence like, ‘One plans for the future.’ Abstractions sometimes turn predicates into substantives (nouns). The result is a world peopled with nouns, a material world closed to human intervention and human qualities. Plastic words as well contain ‘frozen judgments,’ concealed under the aura of science. ‘Progress’ and ‘development’ seem factual and thus neutral, and appear to be a consequence of technological innovation. The frozen judgment here is that technology is our sole hope for the future. Plastic words are tacit symbols that stand for continued technological growth.
“Plastic words are used for propagandistic purposes. They manipulate us to embrace the torturing of the natural environment and to accept the fragmentation and stress technology imposes upon culture and personality. Plastic words ‘provide security and perform exorcisms.’ Experts who talk plastic discourse ‘cast a spell’ of calm in a world buffeted by permanent anxiety.
“If plastic words leave us under the aegis of experts, charismatic terms appear to leave us on our own. They are not owned by experts and flatter us that they are under our control. Charismatic terms are the necessary complement to plastic words. We want to have it both ways — a world in which expert advice rules and a world of democratic participation.
“So what do freedom and equality symbolize if only in an irrational or unconscious way? Charles Weingartner brilliantly concludes that both words symbolize ‘more.’ ‘“Freedom” means more — more latitude in avoiding responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences; “rights” means more — more, better, easier access to largely material comforts if not luxuries, and equality means more access, easier access, to the rights and freedoms that heretofore were privileges.’ His argument [presented in a 1981 article titled ‘Three Little Words,’] is slightly oversimplified, but he is on target with his declaration of the basic American belief: ‘More is better.’ In an interview Philip Rieff, when asked what Americans believe in, responded, ‘More.’”
— from Richard Stivers, The Illusion of Freedom and Equality (State University of New York Press, 2008)