Through consolidating numerous resources examining rhetoric in politics, the media, and comedy, I hope to be better knowledgable in my future discussion of the way in which politically-interested people of different backgrounds and occupations (myself, pundit Bill Maher, and Hunter College English Department Head Sarah Chinn) analyze and narrate the same presidential debate in real-time through live-tweets.
My exploration paper, which examined how political discourse has transformed through the use of social media as a rhetorical channel, was based in large part on my own live-tweeting of the first presidential debate between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump. To more effectively explore the source material available to me, I have organized the resources as: The rhetoric by/surrounding Hillary Clinton as a political candidate, the rhetoric by/surrounding Hillary Clinton as a public official, the use of rhetoric in digital media, and the use of humor in rhetoric.
The Rhetoric By and Surrounding Hillary as a Candidate
For some, it is easier to understand Hillary Clinton as a politician with two personas: that of Hillary Clinton the candidate, and that of Hillary Clinton the pubic official, or leader. To analyze Clinton’s own rhetoric as well as the way in which people speak about her, one must consider both the Hillary who runs for office and the Hillary who leads in office.
The posts From Spouses to Candidates, What Hillary Wants, Conservative Ideas or Conservative Rhetoric? and The Election that Changed Everything for American Women do not so much discuss Clinton the public servant as they do Clinton the campaigner. All but the last source listed write intensively about Hillary as the spouse of a politician, someone who was initially First Lady before entering into politics herself. In examining Hillary’s role during Bill Clinton’s campaigns for public office, in which she was implicitly also a candidate (as her public image often impacted his success in elections), “What Hillary Wants” and “Conservative Ideals or Conservative Rhetoric?” examine how Hillary has had to change her public image over time, soften and feminize her look to be more appealing as the first lady of a governor and a president. These changes, however, have for many contributed to the rhetoric of deeming Hillary as someone who is untrustworthy and disingenuous, who flip-flops on policy positions in the hopes of gaining public support but has no true values of her own.
The Rhetoric By and Surrounding Hillary as a Leader
Though Clinton has devoted decades of her career to public service endeavors, she remains on of the most unpopular presidential candidates to date. Ezra Klein’s piece The Gap examines what he sees as the chasm between how Hillary Clinton is perceived by the general public and how she is regarded by those who have worked with her or met with her personally. The gender issue raised by Klein’s work is further discussed in the exploration paper Gender and Visual Rhetoric, which points out that the characteristics that cause Klein’s “gap” in how people view Clinton is reinforced by gender roles pervasive in politics.
While several sources discuss Clinton’s specific actions as a leader [What a Hillary Clinton Nomination Means for the Middle East, Predicted Success for President Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East] and others strive to attach specific labels or characteristics to Clinton as a public figure [Hillary Clinton as Archetype, Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Hearing Coverage], the academic paper Rhymes with Rich: ‘Bitch’ as a Tool of Containment in Contemporary American Politics succeeds in analyzing both. The work considers the ways in which gender impact how women in the public sphere, particularly in politics, are perceived by the public. Author Karrin Vasby Anderson wonders:
“how does a woman in a public position of power cultivate an image of competence and leadership without being dismissed as a ‘bitch’?”
Anderson goes on to state that to understand how Clinton has been viewed as a public figure, the reader must think about the idea of being a “bitch”, and to consider the rhetoric that is used to contain women in politics and constrain them as confident, powerful leaders.
Rhetoric in Media
Next, in analyzing the rhetoric of live-tweets of the first presidential debates, I must first consider the way in which media impacts rhetoric on political and social issues. The most prominent posts on this topic are Writing Bill Clinton, Cable News Has a Sexism Problem, and Behind the Stare, with each work examining a different way in which media outlets such as television and social networks can demonstrate gendered issues in politics. Writing Bill Clinton takes an academic approach, by discussing how, by framing Bill Clinton as a popular patriarch of the Democratic Party, perpetuates a gendered hierarchy in politics and reinforces the connection between “hegemonic masculinity” (dominant masculinity in society) and the presidency. The Cable News video montage, in contrast, allows the viewer to witness for themselves the perpetuation of sexism in politics on television, as female pundits, journalists, and guests are interrupted and condescended by their male colleagues and counterparts.
The Humans of New York portrait of Hillary Clinton featured in Behind the Stare, however, takes a completely different approach from either of the aforementioned sources, by allowing Clinton to tell her own personal story of facing overtly sexist ridicule as a young woman preparing to take her law school admissions exam. Rhetorically, this narrative is softer and more open, more personable, than many associate with Clinton, and serves to both humanize her as a candidate (as the picture was published online during the presidential campaign) and reveal to constituents the oppression she has endured as a woman throughout her academic and professional career.
“I was taking a law school admissions test in a big classroom at Harvard. My friend and I were some of the only women in the room. I was feeling nervous. I was a senior in college. I wasn’t sure how well I’d do. And while we’re waiting for the exam to start, a group of men began to yell things like: ‘You don’t need to be here.’ And ‘There’s plenty else you can do.’ It turned into a real ‘pile on.’ One of them even said: ‘If you take my spot, I’ll get drafted, and I’ll go to Vietnam, and I’ll die.’ And they weren’t kidding around. It was intense. It got very personal. But I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t afford to get distracted because I didn’t want to mess up the test. So I just kept looking down, hoping that the proctor would walk in the room. I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena. And if I create that perception, then I take responsibility. I don’t view myself as cold or unemotional. And neither do my friends. And neither does my family. But if that sometimes is the perception I create, then I can’t blame people for thinking that.”
As my topic focuses primarily on social media through the written word, particularly through tweets, it is especially relevant that I explore the rhetoric of prose in media, rather than focusing on videos [Do you trust her?, Miss Representation] or pictures. Hillary Clinton, We’d Still Love to Talk to You, Apologies to Hillary Clinton, and The Anti-Trump Endorsement all examine the rhetoric of written journalism and opinion pieces published online. Though these pieces are useful in discussing how media, especially websites like Jezebel and The Atlantic (which demonstrate the popularity of their work through “shares” on social media), their writing is categorically different from that of tweeting. It would be difficult, maybe even impossible, for an entire, articulate apology to Hillary Clinton for misjudging her without carefully considering her entire career in public service to be squeezed into one tweet, or even a series of tweets.
The Use of Humor in Rhetoric
Throughout the election season, The Clinton campaign has tried to portray their candidate as a woman who, despite criticism that she is a stale and stilted public speaker, is actually capable of charisma and humor. The image of a cold, robotic Clinton was subverted on Zach Galifianakis’ show Between Two Ferns [A Deadpan Hillary; The Use of Humor in Politics] by allowing her to express a dry humor that demonstrated her ability to be funny while still remaining true to her usual speaking tone.
While some may persist in the argument that Clinton is not capable of being funny, the use of humor in political rhetoric, especially in this most recent presidential election, cannot be overlooked. From Donald Trump assuring the nation that his—ahem—hands are certainly not small, to Clinton playing a divinely idealized version of herself on Broad City, these campaigns have used laughter as a rhetorical strategy in ways that could potentially either distract constituents from, or aid them in focusing more carefully on, deeper political issues. Even in scholarly analysis of the campaign, students have elected to use comedy, with such intellectually stimulating but lighthearted premises as thinking of Hillary as your own mother or analyzing a gender-bent version of a debate between Clinton and Trump.
Through social media, poorly timed jokes or offhand comments (such as, say, calling your opponent “nasty” on national television), moments in politics that were once fleeting, now are solidified as defining moments in political battles. For example, at the final debate, as Clinton was speaking about entitlement plans, Trump snarkily blurted out that she is a “nasty woman”. This insult sparked immediate ire from viewers, especially women, who were shocked at a presidential candidate’s use of blatantly misogynistic language against a political opponent. The phrase, however, quickly turned into the hashtag #ImANastyWoman, which in turn led to the creation of shirts, pins, and other merchandise proudly proclaiming the words “Nasty Woman”.
While turning the insult into an ironically feminist battle cry may have helped some people to better understand Trump’s apparent lack of respect for women, finding humor in the phrase may have also softened its offensive nature and made the utter nastiness of the very term itself more palatable to the average constituent.
This is what the blog post Coping with Comedy identifies as a potential issue with the use of satire in analyzing and discussing politics. The post discusses both the positive and negative influences of satirizing politics on constituents:
“It makes political discourse more appealing to the American public and thereby allows them to learn who would otherwise opt out of the discourse, and yet it is consistent with the culture surrounding television which can be described as a ‘culture of anesthesia’”.
In comparing and contrasting the rhetoric on social media of students, pundits, and academics, this use of humor as a coping mechanism for many people who have difficulties stomaching political rhetoric as is must be addressed.
My own tweets often turned to comforting shield of humorous snark to articulate frustration at certain comments made throughout the debate that I thought to be misleading or even foolish, and reactionary tweets of other social media rhetors throughout the debate did as well.
Has the rhetoric even of those who aim to carefully consider and be critical of political candidates been distracted by the allure of being funny? Twitter is, at its core, a social platform, not a scholarly one; how much nitty-gritty political analysis is forgotten or lost in an effort to elicit LOLs from followers through edgy, snarky commentary?