Ethos and Stigma

I was discussing argumentation with my frosh this morning, and while most of the class was devoted to Stephen Toulmin’s elements of argument, we spent a little time talking about the Aristotelian idea that ethos — the appeal based on the character of the speaker — is typically formed during the rhetorical act itself. In simpler terms, this is why one should avoid spelling/grammar errors on one’s resume, for example — it diminishes the applicant’s ethos. Likewise, decisions regarding tone and diction impact a speaker’s ethical standing, and thus his rhetorical effectiveness. (Indeed, even my use of his in the preceding sentence marks me to some audiences as an old frump, and possibly sexist in the bargain, even if it’s happening under the radar.) For an example of this, consider the career of Charles Rocket, or more recently, Michael Richards.

But of course, this sort of diminution of ethos can only operate when there are standards or taboos (depending on one’s perspective). This brings us to a recent article by Myron Magnet at City Journal. Magnet reviews the recent kerfuffle between the mayor of Boston and the visual merchandising/display staff at Boston’s Nike Town store on posh Newbury Street:

[A]bove the company’s just do it slogan, were eight T-shirts bearing, in boldly graphic lettering, such messages as “get high”, “f**k gravity”, and “dope,” this one accompanied by an open pill bottle with skateboards spilling out. […]

[Mayor] Menino fired off a sharp letter to the store manager, with copies to her CEO and the press, reprimanding her for her display’s assault on the young and on common sense. He urged her to remove the shirts and remarked that if Nike decided “to take more seriously the issue of drug abuse,” he could point out several successful Boston antidrug programs. With the sulky peevishness of its adolescent clientele, the company refused the mayor’s request, but a week later, at the end of June, a new display replaced the offending garb, though the dope shirt defiantly remained.

While I’m less certain than Magnet that this is a victory for the mayor — window displays change on a regular basis, after all, and the end-of-month timing suggests that this may well have happened anyway — I think he makes some valuable points.

In particular, Magnet reminds us that we have the power to question the hype machine. This is not the same as calling for it to be stifled — and it especially isn’t the same as asking the government to muzzle it. However, if enough of us were willing to point out that stupid isn’t as good as smart, that obvious isn’t the same thing as beautiful, that vulgarity isn’t more authentic than elegance, maybe we could make a more pleasant society. If we could make being these things uncouth in the same way that being a Klansman is, then maybe we could repair the broken windows of our culture.

As Magnet concludes, “Our culture isn’t something we merely consume. We also all participate in creating it.”

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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