Lisa S. Villadsen
Doxa and Dissent
Two Examples of Connected Criticism in Politics and the Entertainment Industry
Ingår i: Shadows in the Cave. Revisiting Mats Rosengren’s Doxology. Erik Bengtson, Karl Ekeman, Mirey Gorgis, Louise Schou Therkildsen & Alexander Stagnell (eds.), Retorikförlaget 2022.
Artikel s 123-140
Lisa S. Villadsen is Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. 0000-0003-2467-0570
In his award-winning book, Norms of Rhetorical Culture, the American rhetorician Thomas B. Farrell asked: “May rhetoric be liberating?” This question, a “shamelessly modern one” by the author’s own admission, wonders if it is possible, with rhetoric, to grasp “issues and experiences outside our normalized, received opinion, our doxa? And […] can it do this through received opinion and the traditional resources of rhetoric?” The question goes to the core of contemporary rhetorical studies with its commitment to the interconnection between democratic politics and rhetoric, in its embrace of rhetoric’s status as located in the contingent, and finally by virtue of its thematization of the issue of rhetorical agency – how and by what means is rhetoric a form of action? Rhetoric’s situatedness compels rhetors to negotiate the double challenge of opportunity and constraint; if too outrageous it will be dismissed and ignored; if too conventional it will be dismissed as trite or as complicit in reigning power structures. How does one articulate social change in the same language and idiom that undergirds the status quo?
In an historical moment where there is a growing tendency toward polarization of the political landscape in many countries, and where digital media have proven a volatile and problematic arena for public debate, one of the biggest challenges for rhetoric is to study and theorize strategies for keeping public debate alive and to provide guidelines for promoting public debate that is suited to finding common solutions across different views and values. The paradox that Farrell’s question involves – that new insight or a new perspective may be gained through or by means of received opinion and the traditional resources of rhetoric – also speaks to a central theme in Mats Rosengren’s work on doxa: How do we account for the role of doxa as a basis for social action?
While Rosengren primarily focuses on the epistemological aspects of doxa, I here pursue the question of doxa’s role in public discourse, and I approach the topic as a rhetorical critic with a particular interest in how two rhetors through doxastic positioning articulate messages that challenge commonly held assumptions and alliances without these messages amounting to a full-fledged dismissal of the overall structure in which these assumptions live. My purpose here is thus to analyze the employment and attempted remolding of doxa in authentic rhetorical discourse.
Accordingly, the focus in this chapter is on examples that, I wish to suggest, illustrate rhetoric’s resources for supporting active, critical, and constructive citizenship through doxa. I approach this inquiry through a reading of two current examples of public rhetoric focused on remolding familiar identity categories and common notions of gender equality for the sake of fostering awareness, resistance to oppression, and a sense of common purpose and mutual dependency. By looking at examples of rhetors who from positions of opposition and oppression articulate their experiences and views in ways that propel their circulation far outside of their original setting we stand to gain a better understanding of rhetoric’s potential to be an active force in societal change – even with relatively undramatic means. There are thus two possibly constructive take-aways from this project: A better appreciation of particular instances of dissensual eloquence; and inspiration for a more general awareness of rhetorical interruptions from rhetors who use their established ethos in one institutional context (here: party politics and entertainment respectively) to promote ideas not usually associated with that context (here: gender and sex discrimination in education and the workplace respectively).
To set up this chapter’s focus on doxa as both a resource and the subject of modulation in contemporary rhetoric I pair it with the concept of dissent as a key critical term to help position the discussion in a larger framework of democracy and public/political debate.
Dissent as a noun refers to “a strong difference of opinion on a particular subject, especially about an official suggestion, plan or popular belief”. The dictionary suggests “disagreement” as a synonym, but – probably due to the suggested degree of conviction (“strong”) – quite often the word ‘dissent’ is used interchangeably with ‘protest’. However, equating dissent with protest obstructs appreciation of matters of the degree, form, and aim of disagreement. Here I follow the premier dissent theorist in rhetorical studies, Robert Ivie, who has worked extensively with the notion of dissent, and I use his more specific use of the term. He discusses dissent as a point of difference that does not see itself as in complete opposition to the prevailing view, but which aims to challenge or destabilize it for the sake of more nuance. In other words, dissent is best conceived of as neither so fundamentally opposed as to constitute protest nor as so concurring as to approach consensus. It hovers in a middle region between “stability and change, cleavage and consensus, politics and revolution.”
Ivie’s main interest with the notion of dissent is to argue for its crucial role for the health and vibrancy of democratic debate. For Ivie, the Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe is a source of inspiration. He thus wholeheartedly promotes her distinction between antagonistic and agonistic debate, favoring the latter as also an expression of a truly rhetorical approach to democracy as one in which opinions are in contest, but not bent on eliminating their opponent. Where Mouffe falls short, according to Ivie, is in her rather conventional and limited understanding of what counts as “rhetorical” means in deliberative practice. In a manner of speaking, Ivie discusses dissent and its conditions in deliberative democracy as the proverbial canary in a coalmine. If citizens’ incentives for raising doubts and reservations about dominant political views are limited or rendered unappealing because of, for example, social backlash, then democracy risks being eroded. Ivie suggests that the rhetorical tradition, especially its republican heritage, offers a model for agonistic debate where ideals of consensus are bracketed and replaced by acceptance of the fact that a democratic polity will never agree completely and that the challenge therefore is to develop constructive ways of managing disagreement.
With the US public debate in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 2001 as his reservoir of examples, Ivie discusses how that situation and the general political climate at the time made it all but impossible to raise reservations or challenges to the political mainstream. This had the effect, by Ivie’s analysis, that the notion of “democratic dissent” was rendered “oxymoronic”, i.e., an internal contradiction. The contradiction – or paradox – Ivie refers to is the dynamic where dissent from the dominant political stance, e.g. absolute support for “the war on terrorism”, was registered not as ‘mere’ political disagreement but much more ominously marked and “placed on a continuum of lawlessness leading to terrorism, a continuum in which protest was perceived as disloyal, as the unpatriotic act of the enemy within, as a threat to the safety of the polity – in short, as anti-democratic.” In other words, a political climate with room only for monolithic views and restlessly enacting George W. Bush’s infamous statement “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This attitude toward political disagreement makes it difficult to question even particular details, because it entails the risk of not just having one’s opinion dismissed, but even being viewed as a threat and accused of disloyalty. The dynamic Ivie identified is, obviously, not exclusive to the US; one can find it even in multi-party systems like Denmark. In an earlier study I thus showed how a high-ranking Danish politician, a party leader, on occasion of a terrorist bombing of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan was denounced as a “traitor” by other members of Parliament after having raised as an issue for consideration that Denmark might want to reconsider its foreign policy approach away from being primarily activist. More recently, the Danish right-wing politician Marie Krarup drew intense criticism and was called a “Putinist” when she, after the February 2022 Russian attack on Ukraine, criticized the West for indirectly bringing the war about. She further opined that the overwhelming majority reaction of supporting Ukraine was hypocritical because the Ukrainian system is no more democratic and no less corrupt than the Russian one, and that the rush to support the invaded country had more to do with people in the West’s desire to pose as do-gooders than a serious and mature political analysis of the situation. Perhaps in a rush to keep the support for Ukraine intact, political opponents and other commentators took Krarup’s point as an expression of support for the Russian aggression (which it manifestly was not) and ignored the criticism of Danish foreign policy which was its central point.
It is important to note that Ivie’s project is not merely a lamentation of a dysfunctional US debate climate. Part of Ivie’s project is also to suggest that rhetoric can be a constructive resource for resisting the suspicion against dissenting voices and even for developing strategies for introducing such voices in public debate. Ivie points to rhetoric’s tradition of ingenium (combining the classical rhetorical canons of inventio and elocutio to craft material) to find ways to rearticulate political debate culture because this must involve “strategies for thinking imaginatively, freshly, or somehow differently about reified, literalized, naturalized, conventionalized, or otherwise privileged formations of discourse operating within a life world.” He also reverts to American rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s point that without identification, there is no persuasion. A key challenge if we want productive interaction across political and other differences is thus to train ourselves in acceptance of being “consubstantial rivals”, that is, parties with different wishes and needs – but in it together. Ivie therefore suggests that an “appropriately flexible rhetoric which purports to correct error by critiquing a prevailing perspective is far more conducive to managing the human divide constructively than a rigid rhetoric of good versus evil.” The potential benefit to public debate and democratic society of this form of dissent is that while it has “a solid footing in public culture” it also has “a sharp edge for cutting though political orthodoxies.” On several occasions Ivie has discussed options for language critique to transform cultural meaning. With the concept of language critique, he refers not just to rhetorical criticism as an academic contribution to society, but also to actual rhetorical practice engaging in ways of wedging surprising or challenging ideas into discourse committed to interaction with the opponents. Rhetorical practitioners may assume the role as dissenters through the topos of ‘complimentary difference’, i.e., a position that allows them to challenge dominant views while also stressing points of concurrence and interdependency between themselves and the broader public or through appropriating meaning of existing concepts and creating new concepts. In Ivie’s own words, the “dissonance of disruption requires a reassuring embrace of that which is recognizable, understandable, and sanctioned by social convention.”
To better identify the ways in which dissent can play out as a non-combative confrontation we turn to the concept for “that which is recognizable, understandable, and sanctioned by social convention”, namely doxa.
The concept of doxa is not exactly clearly delimited. It’s fair to say that a precise and definitive definition of the concept is difficult to find beyond a broad characterization as a term for a collection of opinions, values, traditions, and beliefs of the community. The term doxa comes to rhetorical studies from the ancient Greek verb dokein meaning ‘to appear’, ‘to seem’ (i.e. relating to common perception) as well as ‘to think’, ‘to accept’ (i.e. relating to opinion or valuation of something). Two main strands of interpretation seem relatively well-established: One in which doxa is understood as the counterpart to episteme and which involves discussions of what counts as knowledge and truth (the Platonic tradition); and another in which doxa is understood as linked to phronesis and appealing to the audience in terms that resonate with them (the Isocratean tradition). Mats Rosengren has engaged both strands, the former in his work on “Doxology”, and the latter in his work on social meaning.
Among Mats Rosengren’s most important contributions to Scandinavian rhetoric studies counts his continued integration of continental philosophical thinking, and particularly his work on francophone thinkers such as philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Cornelius Castoriadis, sometimes in combination with philosopher-rhetoricians Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. In a 2013 article on social meaning he draws on precisely these authorities to suggest the need and basis for rhetoric as a scholarly discipline to study broader formations of meaning than just situational communication. By learning from philosophical anthropology, Rosengren suggests, rhetoric would be perfectly positioned to study “social meaning” and the processes by which it is formed. With Cassirer, this would invite questions about the function of symbolic forms, and with Castoriadis’ emphasis on the autonomy of human beings, rhetorical theory might better account for the ways in which rhetoric is social action, as also the American rhetorician Kenneth Burke would have it, i.e., an ongoing process of meaning-making, and thereby complement traditional rhetorical notions of doxa and doxastic meaning production. While I will desist from attempting a Castoridian analysis here, I believe the overall purpose of my discussion here aligns well with one of Rosengren’s key projects, namely to be able to explicate rhetorical processes.
In his book Doxologi. En essä om kunskap, Rosengren joined the otherwise mainly American based discussion of the epistemic status of rhetoric and challenged the dichotomous approach to epistemology inherited from the Platonic tradition. Instead, he outlined a view that situates knowledge as something emergent from and reflective of the human condition as it involves interpretation and rhetorical practice. Rosengren’s radical response is that a relevant human epistemology must take its starting point in what is just that: relevant to humans, namely doxa. A similar point is central to his article ”Doxa och den nya retorikens kunskapssyn”. Here, Rosengren thematizes the concept of doxa by means of the fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes and elegantly suggests that we should take more from it than the obvious exposure of the power of socially constructed “truths” by the child who yells “But he has no clothes on!” As we identify with the child, we should also, Rosengren suggests, remind ourselves that our convictions about what is a fact and what isn’t are similarly the result of humanly constructed meanings. Rosengren continues to outline three characteristics of his “rhetorical philosophy.” First, it involves acceptance that there is no objectively given truth, but that persuasion must take its starting point in doxa. Second, that rhetorical argumentation must be adapted to its audience and draw on the doxa relevant for that group; and finally a rhetorical philosophy must take as its starting point that all knowledge, truth, facts, etc. are contingent in the sense that they may change over time because they have their basis in human reality and thought which is in a constant state of change, albeit often very slowly. The point is that the human lifeworld is humanly, that is rhetorically, created, and that we go to great lengths to promote and protect doxa as it has been institutionalized, e.g., in the legal system, education, public institutions, etc. Rosengren ends the article with an observation which is particularly relevant for the present project. Writes Rosengren, “[w]hat may be unique to rhetorical theory is that it focuses on how facts and truths can be applied and transformed for the purpose of upholding or debunking doxa”. Below I will try to demonstrate through two examples, one from US political culture and one from Danish popular culture, how rhetors attempt to counter a presumed doxa by using themselves as a sort of living disproof. While I do not draw explicitly on Rosengren’s work in my analysis, I believe it is in line with a latent invitation for rhetorical criticism in his views on doxa, for surely rhetorical criticism is one way in which we can explore doxa’s workings, or, as he states it, how “every truth must start from or take into account, or counter, confirm, develop, criticize, etc. the always already existing truths and beliefs within the domain.”
Doxa and dissensual argumentation
Rhetorical theorists and critics of the twentieth century have mostly followed Aristotle’s more pragmatic approach to rhetoric and valued it because of its orientation toward the collective life of the polity. As noted by Ellwanger, to Aristotle, doxa is simply a prerequisite for effective communication, and as extensions of doxa, topoi function as commonly accepted and recognizable ways of structuring and inventing arguments crafted from generally accepted ideas. Ellwanger points to the enthymeme as the perhaps clearest illustration of how doxa works in rhetorical practice, namely in rhetorical argumentation. The enthymeme is a condensed argument which relies on the audience to complete it with their preexisting views and values. The enthymeme thus owes is effectiveness to its reliance on doxa to provide context and reason to a statement. Ellwanger’s rationale is that since doxa is mostly silent or unstated, our access to it goes through rhetorical analysis of practical argumentation, primarily through enthymemes. He explains that because the topoi making up doxa are presumed to be universally held and accepted, there typically seems to be no reason to mention them explicitly, “enthymemes work by inferring agreement on topics that ostensibly require no discussion”. In fact, if spelled out, there is a risk that this renders the rhetorical performance stale or redundant to the audience, who, thanks to doxa, are perfectly able to infer and supply the missing part on their own. Ellwanger notes,
As ideology, doxa remains unstated because it is precisely the subject’s unconscious acceptance of doxa that transforms him into an alienated object of oppression. In the communicative model, doxa rarely is explicit because it operates not as the subject of our conversation, but below it – doxa as shared belief serves as a precursor to communication.
Doxa is therefore perhaps most visible to us as critics when it is mobilized with a dissensual twist: When an otherwise recognizable claim is made through unsuspected use of common conceptions or taken for granted values or when the doxa itself is brought up for consideration or even criticism.
More recently Thimsen has explored the dilemma further and suggested that dissensual democracy requires both the use and the critique of doxa. Thimsen’s work is valuable to the present discussion for its thematization of two themes mentioned briefly earlier: doxa’s role in the link between public argumentation and democracy and to the issue of rhetorical agency. In a study of an American citizens’ organization, Move to Amend (MtA) that works for changing the law that enables corporate personhood, she discusses how their slogan “Corporations Are Not People” at once critiques a particular kind of technical doxa (that corporate personhood has become ossified as a notion in legal institutions) and appeals to a more general doxa by making arguments that stress that people are made of flesh and blood and that the people must possess the sovereign power in a democracy. She points out that whereas the reference to ‘the people’ is an example of using doxa to appeal to identification and values of the general public, the slogan’s disassociation of corporate personhood from anything human holds doxa out for criticism and challenges prevailing thinking in legal discourse. The movement behind the slogan thus both enacts democratic doxa and critiques the way doxa can “reproduce power and misrepresent what corporations actually are – tools of capitalism rather than persons.” In a discussion of how doxa as a concept has been treated by Aristotelians and post-ideologues respectively, Thimsen makes the point that democratic dissent is eventful and is realized in a tension between doxa and episteme. Says Thimsen, “the dissensual twist between anti-doxastic critique and demonstrating democratic doxai is what produces a sense of democratic event” and later that, “the paradoxical sense of these doxai is produced as the dissensual event of the appearance of a transformative collective subject.” By this I take her to mean that the act of voicing criticism obtains its significance as a democratic manifestation (the eventfulness) by virtue of enactment of a democratic ethos, or in Thimsen’s words: creating a ‘sense of doxai’ in ‘a transformative collective subject’. In other words, the rhetorical act of critiquing an ossified concept as doxastic (meaning: a matter of tradition and opinion, rather than fact) allows the dissenting citizens to experience themselves as a collectivity that through democratic doxai raise criticism of something and thereby also to see themselves ‘doing’ democracy. She puts it this way, “[i]f we retain the larger, more complex version of the concept of doxa in which the gesture of epistemic critique is about attempting to change the political order and not just subjective beliefs, we can see how anti-doxastic democratic dissensus produces the event of a sense of democracy.” In this way, Thimsen argues that MtA’s political rhetoric is an example of how critiquing and demonstrating doxai can enable democratic dissensus. As we now turn to two contemporary examples, the purpose is to observe how they each make arguments that at once draw on doxa for their point to get across and hold out doxa for criticism. My contention is that by constituting the audience by means of references to common values, both rhetors make it possible for the audience to critically examine commonly held views, and in this way, they enable a democratic dissensus.
Mallory McMorrow in the Michigan Senate
On April 22, 2022, state Senator Mallory McMorrow (D) rose to the podium in the Michigan Senate (US) in response to allegations raised against her by a fellow senator, Lana Theis (R) who ran on a platform of ‘family values.’ Theis supported Republican efforts to ban teaching with reference to LGBTQ+ issues and America’s history of racism (also referred to as ‘critical race theory’). A few days before, Theis had been charged with the honorable task of opening a session of the State Senate, a so-called invocation, during which she had turned the tradition of saying a collective prayer into a more partisan event, saying that children are “under attack” from “forces that desire things for them other than what their parents would have them see and hear and know.” This prompted four Democratic senators, including McMorrow, to walk out. In a subsequent campaign fundraising email Theis referred to this incident writing, “These are the people we are up against. Progressive social media trolls like Senator Mallory McMorrow (D-Snowflake) who are outraged they can’t teach [sic] can’t groom and sexualize kindergartners or that 8-year-olds are responsible for slavery.”
McMorrow’s reply in the Senate immediately went viral with more than 11 million views in a week. The 4 1/2 minutes long speech begins as a speech of self-defense: “I didn’t expect to wake up yesterday to the news that the Senator from the 22nd District had overnight accused me, by name, of grooming and sexualizing children,” a clearly angered McMorrow begins, and then goes on to explain “who [she] really [is]” by sharing information about her personal background, including growing up as a Catholic with a single mother who was active in their church as a Sunday school teacher and volunteered in a soup kitchen. “My mom taught me at a very young age that Christianity and faith was about being part of a community, about recognizing our privilege and doing what we can to be of service to others, especially people who are marginalized, targeted and who had less.” She further claims to “stand on the shoulders” of Father Ted Hesburgh, former President of The University of Notre Dame (her own alma mater) who was active in the civil rights movement and who recognized his power and privilege as a white man, faith leader, and an influential leader of a respected institution, and who reached out to support Martin Luther King’s struggle for black Americans’ civil rights. “So who am I?,” McMorrow asks. “I am a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom who knows that the very notion that learning about slavery, redlining, or systemic racism somehow means that children are being taught to feel bad or hate themselves because they are white, is absolute nonsense.” The last word, “nonsense”, stands as a half-way point conclusion to McMorrow’s flat denial of the character attack against her. For the remaining part of the speech (approx. 2 minutes) she shifts the focus from the personal attacks against her to the more general social, ethical, and political principles undergirding her politics, and she also turns the attack back against Theis and the Republicans. In addition to an implicit charge of hypocrisy leveled specifically at Theis (for describing herself as a Christian in her Twitter profile in spite of her lack of tolerance for minority identities) earlier in the speech, McMorrow accuses her opponents (Theis and the Republicans) saying, with increasing anger in her voice and emphasis on each syllable in the middle passage (here marked in italics), “[w]e cannot let hateful people tell you otherwise to scapegoat and deflect from the fact that they are not doing anything to fix the real issues that impact people’s lives.”
“I am a Straight, White, Christian, Married, Suburban Mom” as Dissensual Doxa
As McMorrow’s speech was circulated on the internet, it was interpreted as a response “going on the offense” and referred to as “blasting”, “rebuking”, “a slam” and as “firing back.” This is in many ways a precise characterization, and the fierceness with which McMorrow defended herself and her views was doubtlessly the reason it became so popular. There is no denying that the speech was given in a clearly contentious and antagonistic political context, and the likelihood that it was persuasive to McMorrow’s political opponents is small. Calling them “hateful” and suggesting hypocrisy and political passivity are hardly the way to gain their trust. Still, I want to suggest that the speech is interesting for its mobilization of a doxa that runs across the political divide. I am particularly thinking of the phrase “I am a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom.” McMorrow uses this rather long list of identity positions twice in her relatively short speech, and I believe it speaks to a core message for her: That identity positions are significant in politics (because they often significantly determine an individual’s access to influence over their own life); that they can entail a big responsibility (for people with various types of privilege); and most importantly: that they do not define one’s politics in any “commonsense” interest-borne way. McMorrow speaks to all three points, but the latter is most closely related to the issue of how doxa can be leveraged for political change. This is done by way of enthymematic argumentation for two unstated claims: Theis is wrong to cast McMorrow as somehow very different from herself and the things she values. In fact, they are both straight, white, Christian, married, suburban moms. They also share a deep commitment to the education and responsible fostering of their own and others’ children. They disagree vehemently on how this is best done, but by listing the many ways in which they are in fact similarly positioned in society (in virtue of being straight, white, Christian, married, suburban moms), McMorrow suggests that underneath their political differences, there are shared values, e.g., with regard to religion as being important.
McMorrow’s listing and repeating the list of her own identity markers may, I submit, be considered an instance of doxastic dissent as it serves three rhetorical purposes: It destabilizes a prevailing mindset, i.e., a doxa that “her kind” of person feels threatened by LGBTQ+ people, to allow for some degree of revision (since clearly she does not feel threatened); it nudges dissent out of the category of rejections (i.e., the notion that sympathizers of LGBTQ+ are dangerous to society) and into the category of revision (“people like me who are straight, white […] can feel connected and a sense of responsibility to those less privileged than us”); and finally, it leaves dissent with an edge to cut through political orthodoxy instead of becoming alienated from the mainstream of public culture (“We can’t constantly ask the community that’s targeted to defend themselves. I am not marginalized, and it’s going to take a lot more people like me to take the hits,” she said. “If we keep taking the hits, people like me, we take away its power. We owe it to our neighbors and our friends who are just trying to live.”) McMorrow thus says both things to the effect that, “I am a straight, white, […] mom” with no plans of changing any of that and, “I want my child to be open and curious and embracing of difference.”
I am not suggesting that McMorrow’s approach is persuasive to Theis or her Republican Senator colleagues, but I do suggest that her holding up for consideration doxai regarding common expectations about the connection between social standing and identity positions on one side and political views on the other is a form of enthymematic argumentation that has thought-provoking potential for a general public who are not as politically entrenched as the two protagonists; that it represents a form of doxastic dissent in demonstrating that supporting minority rights can coexist with identifying with a mainstream form of life for oneself.
Sofie Linde at Zulu Awards 2020
In August 2020 a video clip from a recorded tv award show to be aired the following month made headlines in Denmark. The clip showed the 4-minute speech by the show host, Sofie Linde, a popular tv personality, best known as the friendly and supportive host on the Danish version of a singing competition, X Factor, and prior to that from different tv programs for children. The Zulu award show celebrates standup comedy. As was fitting for the occasion, Linde’s speech was humorous and mimicked aspects of standup comedy with its mix of personal, self-revealing anecdotes, references to well-known public figures, and an element of societal critique – all presented in a casual, conversational manner. Still, the speech had unusual bite and drew more attention than any other public speech in Denmark had for years. Due to its explicit account of Linde’s experience with sexual harassment as an employee of the Danish Broadcast Corporation (DR) by one of her superiors, the speech is generally considered the trigger for the second, and much more consequential, #metoo wave in Denmark. The renewed focus on #metoo related problems led to numerous investigations of sexual harassment in media corporations and other big companies and left multiple high profile male media personalities scandalized and fired on grounds of sexual harassment of female co-workers. Linde’s speech is remembered as focusing on sexual harassment, but in fact it had a second theme, namely women’s career opportunities and lack of equal pay. For reasons of space, my comments will focus on the latter aspect of the speech since I have discussed the former elsewhere.
In Denmark, a common perception is that the country is world-leading when it comes to progressiveness and women’s rights; yet, paradoxically, feminism is still considered a radical position by many, and it is newsworthy if a man declares himself a feminist. In the public’s eye, Linde’s prior reputation as a media darling typically tasked with securing that everyone feels comfortable therefore made her an unexpected proponent of feminist causes, but arguably also meant that her message was in fact listened to more than if it had been presented by a person known for their feminist views. I want to suggest that Linde’s ethos as “the nice girl” on tv worked for her as a doxa of identification as an “all-Danish mainstream person” which she used as basis for debunking other doxa, namely the common perception that Denmark is a frontrunner when it comes to equal rights between men and women.
The topic of women’s lesser career opportunities is introduced in her speech in a few deceptively casual comments. To begin, Linde’s initial expression of being happy, even “wildly proud”, to be hosting the awards show comes off as conventional until she turns oddly factual; “I am the second female host in 14 years.” Next, inserted in otherwise happy banter about how she has dressed up and made herself beautiful for the occasion and revealing that she is pregnant, Linde says, as an aside, “[a]nd then there is all the practical stuff, which, as you know, is that when you get pregnant as a woman you just get set back, you just do”. She goes on to say that she has in fact been prepared for this for years and recounts a 10 year old episode when she negotiated her wage and asked for the same amount as her male co-worker – only to be told that as a woman she was not dependable labor and therefore deserved less pay. She comments that at the time, because the boss was a man and older than her, she actually accepted that as somehow reasonable. Then she adds that since then, she has systematically been paid less than her male counterparts, including for the present show. She repeats, “I am also [underpaid] right now. And it has NOT gotten better”. This is followed by a couple of jokes mentioning well-known men in the entertainment industry and their much better pay, and then she says, “[y]ou know, what I am trying to say is that, sure, we can pretend that there is no difference between men and women in Denmark. We can play that game. It just isn’t true. It just isn’t true. I think that what’s going on is that here in this country we like to be amiable and on good terms, and we would prefer not to ruin the mood.”
These last words – about a national collective self-illusion that there is gender equality in Denmark – quite clearly constitute an example of doxastic dissent: Linde addresses a societal problem from a basis of common perceptions and then gently (by calling it a “game”, likening it to fantasy and children’s play, and mentioning a seemingly positive driving impetus for its continuation), but unmistakably, asserts its existence and criticizes its unjust consequences. With Ellwanger, we can say that her personal anecdotes constitute enthymematic argumentation about systemic inequality and sexism in the Danish society as she confronts the audience with a problematic doxa (that gender equality is established in Denmark, that sexual harassment is a rare occurrence, and that feminists are ugly, belligerent, and bitter women) and implicitly calls on their sense of justice and ideals of equality to reach the conclusion that there is a problem to be addressed.
Linde’s speech obtained its immense notoriety by virtue of the searing accusations it contained, but I suggest that its powerfulness as doxastic dissent not only relied on Linde’s words, but also her ethos as a carrier of doxa. As I have tried to convey, the speech obtained its nerve by constantly switching back and forth between jokes and serious topics and accusations. This was underscored by the way Linde destabilized her own ethos as a pretty, funny, and likeable girl. More than once she thus alludes to her own responsibility for securing a pleasant atmosphere and then mentions something that jeopardizes it. In so doing, she hovers at the brink of being a “killjoy” in Sara Ahmed’s sense by exposing sexism in the media industry, insisting on its presence in various forms, and only half-heartedly joking about it. As with the McMorrow example Linde’s doxastic dissent serves three rhetorical purposes: It destabilizes a prevailing mindset (that Danish women and men are treated the same and enjoy the same career opportunities and equal pay); it nudges dissent out of the category of rejections (Linde’s ethos as popular and her funny and conventionally feminine appearance and comportment renders her promotion of a feminist agenda less threatening); and it leaves dissent with an edge to cut through political orthodoxy (the surprising and courageous nature of Linde’s revelations of sexism dramatized the relevance of #metoo to a wider public).
While the cases discussed here each clearly speak against oppositional, and even dominant views, they arguably are not the most obvious examples of political dissent in a narrow sense. Mallory McMorrow’s speech is foremost a response to the allegations raised against her by her political opponent and thus has a clear element of apologia, a speech of self-defense. But while the speech is not formally part of a specific political deliberation, it is presented in a political context (the Michigan Senate) and addresses political colleagues from both sides of the isle on issues that are highly politicized. To claim that it is not relevant to or addressed at democratic political deliberation would be false. My reading suggests that McMorrow relatively quickly modulates the focus of her remarks from a matter of self-defense towards a more broadly oriented discussion of an expected relation between socio-economic position and other identity markers on the one hand and commitment to particular social and political issues on the other. In so doing, I suggest, she engages in democratic dissent manifested in a critique of doxa regarding who cares about which issues in society and how. In this way, her speech is an interesting, albeit short and highly context-specific, contribution to a wider societal reflection on the relation between party politics, social issues, and individual and group identities. She challenges the common assumption that politics and social solidarity is about promoting the interests of the particular segment one ‘belongs’ to and that sympathizing with or supporting recognition of other socio-economic, racialized or religious groups somehow undermines or negates one’s own identity or group membership. By saying that being a white, Christian, married suburban mom does not prevent her from sharing a concern for minority groups and that she, by virtue of her belonging to the socio-political elite, in fact feels a strong obligation to speak for those who are less privileged than herself, McMorrow engages doxa on how personal circumstances influence one’s politics, both confirming that such personal circumstances are meaningful and valuable (also to her) and critiquing the notion that identity and politics are inescapably connected and a zero-sum game of protecting one’s own way of life at the expense of others’.
Much the same can be said of Linde’s speech, so I will use her example to highlight how a common trait for the two speeches, the active use of their own ethos and identity as a starting point for doxastic dissent, is played out differently by the two rhetors but to the same effect: they attempt to overthrow a presumed doxa by using themselves as a sort of living disproof. With Linde we see a speaker who thematizes her gender in ways that seems almost parodically conventional when she, in a child-like parataxical form, lists all her preparations for the big evening, “I dressed up in a new dress and put on high-heeled shoes and spray tan and shaved my armpits and had brunch and made a baby.” Yet, as we have seen, this hyper-gendered behavior does not stand in the way of Linde later protesting the sexism she had been subjected to. By promoting feminist perspectives while embodying conventional femininity Linde is living disproof that one excludes the other. Similarly, McMorrow shows her listeners that being a “straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom” is compatible with being concerned with race and LGBTQ+ issues. Unlike Linde whose argumentation is from the concrete to the abstract (her own experiences mentioned to garner support for feminist causes), McMorrow employs general group identity markers, e.g., “white”, as her starting point for making the argument that topics such as slavery, redlining, or systemic racism are important for all Americans to learn about.
My contention is that both rhetors position themselves in relation to their audiences in ways that draw on respective doxai about identity and gender and use themselves as living disproof of the “naturalness” or necessity of the narrow conceptions of what a white mother thinks of the need to learn about redlining or how critical a young female tv personality can be of institutionalized sexism. In this way they not only demonstrate disassociation of conventional assumptions of what particular kinds of people hold as their values but also hold the underlying assumptions out for criticism. In each their context (geographical, institutional, and cultural), the two rhetors thus suggest the possibility for the audience to critically examine commonly held views, and in this way their rhetoric may enable a democratic dissensus. The audience may or may not take up that challenge, but the invisibility and the taken-for-grantedness of these doxai has been altered, perhaps even destroyed, thus making room for more active reflection on the issues.
Another point of discussion concerns the general socio-political orientation of the chosen examples. Both speakers argue for what might be considered progressive ideas and they critique views that would commonly be associated with political and social conservative positions. My discussion of the cases as examples of democratic dissent is clearly normative, both in the sense of attributing laudable democratic potential to what they say, and in my choice of these two specific instances. Could a similar argument about statements uttered from the opposite side of the political spectrum be made? It certainly is possible to find examples of right-wing political dissent, rhetors who rather than merely express their disagreement and resistance to a left-wing policy address its weaknesses in terms that are ideologically relatable or normatively compatible with left-leaning convictions yet still challenge particular policies or goals. The aforementioned example of Marie Krarup’s criticism of the West’s ostentatious support of Ukraine might be one. And it is equally likely that such instances would exemplify interesting rhetorical maneuvers aimed to inspire second thoughts on the part of the majority that could inspire a modified framing of the issue or even policy adjustments. It is also likely that some such examples would involve doxa, but perhaps less likely that they would involve critique of doxa as Thimsen theorizes it and I have tried to illustrate here, simply because doxa as a repository of common sense observations, expectations, and valuations built over a long time is conservative in the sense of what has been thought before, what we know to work, what we do not question. On the contrary, conservative argumentation is likely to promote received doxa and make claims to the effect of “if something worked before, why change it now?” or actively resist changes in doxa by dismissing, ridiculing or making out to be dangerous ideas that would go against the cultural mainstream. Such forms of dissent obviously also call on rhetorical critics.
I have shown how the concepts of dissent and doxa are mutually useful in two examples of rhetorical criticism of public discourse. To grasp Ivie’s point of dissent as a non-conforming gesture of connectedness – a provocation softened by its continued commitment to the larger issue – the notion of doxa is perfect to describe the shared horizon between the dissenter and her audience that both supplies the matter for contention and the framework that is left unchallenged. At the same time the notion of dissent is useful in the study of doxa because of doxa’s tendency to be invisible and go unrecognized until the moment it is challenged – as for instance when someone holds a common assumption out for critique.
I offered McMorrow’s and Linde’s speeches as short-hand examples of how doxastic dissent can play out and suggested that in these cases, both rhetors appealed to commonly held assumptions about gender and identity as a basis for offering critique of related doxa regarding the link between identity and gender and socio-political positions. More could be said about them, but I hope to have made clear how my reading aligns with the Isocratean tradition of associating doxa with the process of constituting audiences and their identities and where the function of doxa is to “support and promote […] auditors’ self-understanding as civic agents.” I thus present this study as an exploration inspired by the question by Thomas Farrell that opened the chapter: whether rhetoric can be liberating. In some ways the question is superfluous: We have plenty of evidence that rhetoric can be part of emancipatory projects. But the opposite is also the case: There is ample evidence that rhetoric can be utilized for suppression. Important critical work is being done to warn against this. But criticism and debunking cannot stand alone. Rhetoric as an academic field with both a theoretical-critical aspect and a practical one has a special obligation to also point to affirmative examples and practices worthy of learning from and emulating. Rhetorical action that arguably is constructive and positive for the debate it is part of therefore deserves our attention. The interesting part of the question is how to create something new out of what could seem like a closed system, the doxa. I tentatively suggest that a focus on dissent helps us appreciate advocates’ ability to use doxa to interrupt or disrupt what is commonly accepted as a critical – and potentially liberating – component of rhetorical art.
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