Gods, Devils, and Today’s Political Rhetoric

Gods, Devils, and Today’s Political Rhetoric

There’s certainly been a lot of talk of god and devil in the midst of the castle-storming and descent-into-barbarism themes that have dominated national politics in 2021 so far. And even when “God” or “Satan” aren’t explicitly referenced by any of their many names, allusions to them abound. 

When thinking of politics and political communication, it’s useful to also think of religion — not because they are or ought to be the same, but rather because it’s useful to keep in mind their similarities in the communication styles, worldview construction and argumentative logics. Religious discourse has shaped large swaths of human history and during many points in time, politics and religion were essentially interchangeable. Our collective memory still struggles to differentiate between the two, to whatever extent is possible. 

Recognizing this is important because religious thinking and discourses vary greatly in ways that alter their impact on politics. One person’s chosen religious discourse might be very hardline, very old school, uncompromising and even warlike; their politics may be this way as well. This is the religion that tends towards “othering”, creating “enemies”.There is also that religion that seeks to redeem everyone — and there are analogous political strategies to this type of thought as well. 

Two 20th century rhetorical theorists can help us understand this. The first is Richard Weaver, whose major work occurred in the 1950s. A conservative, Weaver was nevertheless critically reflective of his own belief system and others’. Weaver’s introduction of “god terms and devil terms” has become the core of what we would now call religious form, god-and-devil form, in political communication. Weaver described god terms as those words and phrases that were so positive that they “overpower” other language. In America, “freedom” is such a term. Devil terms, in contrast, were overpoweringly negative in connotation; for example, the word “communist” when Weaver was writing (and, some may argue, today), and the word “terrorism” decades later.  

The second theorist is Kenneth Burke, a remarkable and esoteric writer who also believed religion was imbued in form, and that such form was used in nonreligious communication too. Many have written in detail about Burke — I will not be. Important to this discussion, however, is Burke’s distinction between the comic and tragic frames. 

In the comic frame, we are imperfect beings trying to be better, believing we can be so and, thus, are redeemable. In the tragic frame, battles must be fought between good and evil, with one side or the other inevitably vanquished and, thus, only some of us are redeemable. The others are irredeemable.

For example, in his book The Rhetoric of Religion, Burke “refigures Augustine’s Confessions as a Platonist comedy,” instead of a tragic story of a sinner. “Tolerant charity” and “humble irony” can be read from Augustine’s Confessions, suggesting that we can all “confess” and be better people, and look back at ourselves with bemusement at how far we have strayed from the people we ought to be. What is dangerous, in Burke’s view, is treating that “tendency toward perfection” as a quest for order — which can quickly suggest the beginnings of fascism. “Burke warns us against this principle, which functions as much in the rhetoric of politics as in the rhetoric of religion.” 

The important point here is that ideological change, rejection of ideas or theories or various partisan sides, often retains the same forms, shapes, patterns, and most importantly methods, from past ideologies. You can be a hard-right MAGA supporter and use god/devil form, and you can be a left-wing revolutionary and also use god-devil form. This is one reason, though certainly not the only reason, why you see totalitarianism creep up on both the right and the left and sometimes (as was the case in 20th century Europe) at the same time. The conditions that favor god-and-devil rhetoric generate such rhetoric on both ends of the political spectrum.

The form of communication we choose (consciously or unconsciously) will influence the way we resolve, debate, strategize around issues. If you’re a socialist who wants to overthrow capitalism, but you frame the conflict as apocalyptic where the capitalists are in need of redemption or destruction, your speeches, pamphlets and social media posts will reflect that “tragic frame” or commitment to spiritual (manifested in this case as theoretical and political) warfare. 

There’s a vast difference between political activism that says someone is evil if they disagree with you and a more (engaging) activism that suggests we’re all in this together, we’re all imperfect, and want you to help us make the world better. 

This more redemptive frame doesn’t cast off the metaphysics of the past that inform our current approaches to political communication; but it can be far more effective for movement building. 

I think this ultimately justifies the kind of “deep canvassing” approach to on-the-ground political activism and campaigning, and the use of technologies by canvassers and organizers to update and remain in communication with voters, volunteers and organizational recruits. When technologies are used for listening and building from diverse experience rather than division and judgement, the resulting campaigns and organizations are dynamic regardless of their “success”. 

There is a potential for deep canvassing to literally “talk someone out of bigotry.” In 2018 in Massachusetts, a referendum on whether to keep an antidiscrimination law inspired some LGBTQ rights advocates to enter into nonjudgmental conversations with people they encountered in their door-to-door work who exhibited prejudice. This is based on a “comic,” universal-redemption frame rather than a “tragic” evil-must-be-eradicated frame. When voters chose to keep the antidiscrimination laws, some of those activists believed that the deep canvassing helped. Communicative frames, like elections, have consequences. 

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