“Civility as Rhetorical Enactment: The John Ashcroft ‘Debates’ and Burke’s Theory of Form,” by Christopher R. Darr

Darr, Christopher R.  “Civility as Rhetorical Enactment: The John Ashcroft ‘Debates’ and Burke’s Theory of Form.”  Southern Communication Journal 70 (2005): 316-328.

Reviewed by Maura J. Smyth, Indiana University

Christopher R. Darr examines how exactly “(in)civility is created through the argumentative process” in senate floor debates and in so doing, addresses the critical perception that “incivility contributes to several significant problems” that hinder the senate’s effectiveness in determining policy (317, 316).  Focusing in particular on the debates surrounding John Ashcroft’s confirmation by the senate of which he had formerly been a part, Darr creates a portrait of an often-uncivil contemporary senate and adeptly uses Kenneth Burke’s theory of form to analyze how incivility works in this rhetorical situation.  In documenting the incivilities of the Ashcroft debates, Darr recasts incivility within a larger Burkean rhetorical frame in which it is fundamentally useful

In order to discuss the ways civility is violated in the senate debates, Darr first establishes what is typically meant by “civility.”  Studies on Congress typically privilege civility as a “norm,” or an “unwritten but mutually agreed upon expectation of how members ‘ought’ to behave” (317).  As a norm, it is characterized by reciprocity and courtesy, both of which presumably lead to cooperation and effective policy-making; violations like name-calling and labeling are “uncivil” not only because they convey an attitude of disrespect for one’s congressional peer, but “because they become substitutes for serious debate.”  Darr cites numerous studies that claim that civility has declined in recent years; rather than buying into the myth of perpetual degeneration, however, Darr fittingly turns to Burke – always attentive to change as transformation as opposed to linear progress or decline – to consider other ways that the “perceived decline” of civility may be understood (317-18). 

Burke’s theory of form, “the creation of an appetite in the mind of an auditor, and the adequate satisfaction of that appetite,” provides the ideal means to study congressional incivility.  Darr offers a clear and lucid summary of Burke’s theory of form, originally and most thoroughly elaborated in his essay “Lexicon Rhetoricae” in Counter-Statement.  Though Darr outlines all Burke’s forms, the ones that prove most valuable to his analysis are syllogistic form, qualitative form, and conventional form.  In the Ashcroft debates, for instance, Democrats repeatedly argued that, “given” Ashcroft’s senatorial record of voting extremely conservatively “as well as the nature of the office to which he aspires, the public questioning of Ashcroft’s character…must follow” (Darr 320).  The syllogistic progression of one event necessarily leading to the next enabled Democratic senators to create “an appetite” for personal attacks on Ashcroft so that, when they come, they are expected.  Similarly, by labeling the presidential election as “divisive and unfair,” Democratic Senator John Edwards prepared the way for a qualitative progression: he first “describes the nation as ‘divided,’ then labels Ashcroft’s ideology as ‘extreme,’ and finally moves on to attack” Ashcroft’s character (322).  The quality of the “‘divisiveness’ of the presidential election aftermath and Ashcroft’s ‘extremism’ prepare the audience for ‘divisive’ and ‘extreme comments about Ashcroft’s personality and character.” 

Finally and perhaps most intriguingly, Republicans countered these syllogistic and qualitative attacks by an appeal to civility as a conventional form, so that, by calling Ashcroft “extreme” and questioning his character, Democrats are effectively accused of violating the form of civility.  Audiences, Republicans argue, approach Senate floor debates expecting “exaggerated personal praise between senators, not personal criticisms” (322).  Criticisms like those the Democrats levy against Ashcroft, then, though they are in line with syllogistic and qualitative forms, violate these audience expectations; they violate civility as a norm, as a form.  By using Burke, Darr is able to show that while Democrats may have violated one “form,” they were adhering to others, suggesting the relativity, rather than supremacy, of civility in congressional debates. 

Even more compellingly, Darr asks the question of both senate parties, “What audience?”—a question that exposes the real stakes of his argument and offers an insightful and important exploration of a subtler point of Burke’s theory of form.  Form “creates” and “satisfies an appetite” in an audience; thus who the audience is changes.  Darr asserts that critical analysis of incivility in various forms including syllogistic, qualitative and conventional, tend to be predicated upon the assumption that only other senators comprise the audience.  However, “the current analysis suggests that senators may violate norms of behavior in order to appeal to external audiences,” a reasonable claim in our intensely mediated times (325).  The audience is always larger than just the senate floor, Darr argues.  C-SPAN has made sure of it.  This reality “illustrates the need for scholars to view audiences of senate debate as fragmented” and the need of “a perspective on civility that incorporates the different audiences of” the debate.  There are, in other words, multiple audiences, not just a senatorial one. 

Given the fragmented audience of floor debates, it does not make sense to privilege civility as the only norm to uphold, Darr argues, especially when it actually might serve only to stifle debate.  In fact, arguably, conventional form is the most contingent of the three Darr examines, as evidenced by the critical throng that laments the loss of civility in Senate debate nowadays.  Perhaps, Darr’s argument implies, the convention of civility has already outlived its usefulness in the current day, which is not something to mourn, but to adjust to.  There are other norms besides civility to consider, such as the audience’s sense of logical progression and that extreme times call for extreme measures.

Darr’s analysis certainly leaves room for exploration.  The potential contingency of conventional forms, for instance, is left as an implication that could benefit from greater investigation.  Moreover, Darr teasingly touches upon the very role of implication in senate debate; Ashcroft is rarely called a liar outright, but such is often suggested indirectly.  Implication seems a particularly fertile area to explore given Burke’s fascination with “attitudes” and “leanings toward” throughout his work.  However, Darr’s article provides a perceptively and carefully crafted springboard for these concerns.  His use of the Ashcroft debates for a Burkean analysis of form is inspired.  As a former senator, Ashcroft left a literal, reviewable record in his wake that thus lends itself to Burke’s formal theory.  Darr widens the rhetorical scope of critical analysis of the Ashcroft debate to account for the audience beyond the senate floor.  Finally and most importantly, Darr’s analysis of the Ashcroft nomination debates addresses a recent event that has irrevocably impacted the nation and the world, underscoring that there may be concerns in such a process even greater than incivility.

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