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The power of rhetoric in the wake of 9/11

Tuesday, September 11, 2018 - 10:04am
Alan Flurry

In Angry Public Rhetorics, Distinguished Research Professor in the department of Communication Studies Celeste Condit explores emotions as motivators and organizers of collective action—a theory that treats humans as “symbol-using animals” to understand the patterns of leadership in global affairs—to account for the way in which anger produced similar rhetorics in three ideologically diverse voices surrounding 9/11: Osama bin Laden, President George W. Bush, and Susan Sontag.

These voices show that anger is more effective for producing some collective actions, such as rallying supporters, reifying existing worldviews, motivating attack, enforcing shared norms, or threatening from positions of power; and less effective for others, like broadening thought, attracting new allies, adjudicating justice across cultural norms, or threatening from positions of weakness. Because social anger requires shared norms, collectivized anger cannot serve social justice. In order for anger to be a force for global justice, the world’s peoples must develop shared norms to direct discussion of international relations. Angry Public Rhetorics provides guidance for such public forums.

"The attacks on September 11, 2001 were a shock to many people," Condit said via email. "I was at home, but when I saw the planes fly into the towers, I drove to UGA and went to the classroom where my husband was teaching, just because it seemed to be what I needed to do. An irrational reaction? Yes, but there seemed to be so much “irrationality” involved. As a scholar, I’d been trained to prize rationality and promote it. But I realized perhaps what we needed to do was to understand what we call “irrationality” better. So I started listening to the emotion in which people’s “ideas” or “reasons” or “beliefs” were cast. I started studying how different academic disciplines described emotions. And I listened to what different disciplines had in common and where they differed. And then I added what was common across many studies and perspectives to what I was trained to look at: public discourse. 

"While many emotions were important to how 9/11 unfolded, I was surprised, not at how common anger was, but at how their anger was so similar regardless of what the different advocates were saying. It looked like anger was driving behaviors that were very similar, regardless of one’s beliefs. If human anger routines are driving our actions as much as our beliefs do, then understanding how we share anger seems crucial to changing how we react to each other on the global stage. And, the book argues, once we understand anger there are some things we really should do if we want to change how our anger routines are driving international relations. I was helped in this by my colleagues at UGA, by my students here, by my editor, and many others." 

Published by the University of Michigan Press in its Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics series, this new scholarship on public discourse surrounding 9/11 "expertly draws upon and synthesizes a wide range of psychological, philosophical, and rhetorical theories." Seventeen years later, Americans are still trying to make sense of that day and what has happened to and in the country since. Great work and important insights from Condit at the nexus of social sciences and humanities.

The "Tribute in Light" memorial in remembrance of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, first held in March 2002. Photo from Liberty State Park, N.J., on Sept. 11, 2006, the five year anniversary of 9/11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Denise Gould)

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