Interview with Andrew R. Cline

The Civic Honors Project got to interview Andrew R. Cline who is a former journalist. Andrew R. Cline is a rhetoric scholar and adjunct professor of English at Park University near Kansas City, Missouri. If you are a frequent vaster of The Rhetorica Network you know of its unique perspective that comes from the interdisciplinary focus on both English (Rhetoric) and Political Science. If you have a chance to look around Rhetorica make sure to check out the Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2004 and the Critical Meter.

  1. Looking at idea criticism and how issues are compared and deconstructed, do you think the ideas of civic engagement and participation within civil society are only compared and not deconstructed?

Deconstruction is a scary word for some people because is suggests to them a kind of post-modern relativism. Instead, we may think of it as a method of critical thinking–specifically of looking at the historical situations, power relationships, and contradictions, of a message. We might also use the term “breaking down” as a catch-all description for any deep analysis of how something–a text, an idea–works.

That “works’ part is where rhetoric comes in. An idea or message must be accepted in some way in order to work as the speaker intends.

Okay, now let me consider the question. For the most part, yes, discourse in the public sphere about civic issues mostly engages in comparison. Such discourse compares the ideology of an idea so that it may be classified in a particular socio-political slot that is acceptable to the culture, e.g. “Civil unions for gays is a moral issue” versus “Civil unions for gays is an economic issue.” Or the discourse may compare an idea to expected socio-political outcomes, e.g. “A tax cut will stimulate the economy” versus “A tax cut will hamper the economy.” Such comparisons can be mapped to standardized ideological positions, i.e. liberal versus conservative.

Rarely, however, do we find discourse in the public sphere that attempts to break down ideas, i.e. to get at the heart of social/political/cultural assumptions and questions them. We take it for granted, for example, that people of other cultures will embrace our form of economy and government if only they have the chance to try it.

  1. How is rhetoric important in talking about an issue like graduation with civic honors, does the presentation of the message really matter?

Any change you want to make in the world has to be sold. For the idea of civic honors to mean anything–to students, to faculty, to employers, to civic leaders–the value of it will have to be created and then sold. So the presentation means everything because it is part of both creation and persuasion.

  1. Does using rhetoric techniques enhance the ability to communicate a message to the masses on a topic like volunteerism and should that message be focused at the volunteer or the media?

I’m detecting in this question a couple of misconceptions about rhetoric. First, there is no zero-grade rhetoric. In other words, all human messages carry at least some minimum rhetorical energy. I would argue from that assertion that all human utterances are fundamentally rhetorical in that some persuasive intent exists in all messages.

Second, too often rhetoric is thought of merely as style, i.e. the dress (tropes and schemes) one uses to make and present a message well. Rhetoric is so much more than that. There are five canons to rhetoric according to the ancient system, and style is just one of those five.

The focus of a message, in terms of the audience to be reached, must be determined based on the persuasive intent. So there is no way to choose a volunteer audience versus a media audience until one knows what one wants to achieve.

I think it’s safe to say that both audiences are important and will require message crafted to specifically for each.

  1. Can programs aimed at benefiting society present a message that resonates with individuals within the community or have such messages, crafted to spur volunteerism or generate support for programs, been desensitized through overuse?

Well, that’s one way to state the problem all PR and advertising professionals face: How do we make the same old thing seem new? Actually, I think selling the idea of civic honors benefits from our current political situation. We’re hypersensitive about patriotism right now. What better way to sell a beneficial program than link it to civic pride, patriotism, and enduring values/symbols?

  1. How important is the community advocate in spreading the message of a program to the community? Without a strong advocate can the message still get out?

This is a question about ethos–the appeal to character. This will remain a strong appeal in American society as long as we look up to heroes. It would be impossible to sell $200 sneakers without Michael Jorden. I think it’s difficult to sell a program without a balance of appeals, including ethos. So, yes, I’d say a strong community advocate–someone well-known and respected–is essential to any such message.

In the absence of such an advocate, such a message can certainly get out. We should be speaking in terms of messages, i.e. multiple appeals to multiple audiences.

  1. With revolutions in technology bringing people together every day will this technology increase civic participation or simply contribute to fragmentation of it?

I think the most accurate answer to the question of the impact of technology on civic participation is: We don’t know yet. We do know that the introduction of a technological advance in moving information creates a space that needs to be filled. When the first telegraph wire was strung between Baltimore and Washington D. C., no one was sure what to do with it. By the end of the first week, news was traveling at light speed between the two cities.

We can see now how radio and television have changed the way we get and use information.

As for the internet, we’re just at the early stages.

I think there is some evidence that the internet increases civic participation. These include:

1- Collecting campaign contributions and soliciting volunteers.
2- Vote swapping.
3- Blogs and other forms of online talk.
4- Government sites that offer once hard-to-get information.
5- Inter-active government sites (“Ask the White House” for example)
6- E-mail lists.
7- Grass roots organizing.

Will such things fragment participation? Almost surely. But I’m not sure that’s saying much. Fragmentation is a phenomenon of our post-modern age. It’s difficult to imagine how we might operate today in a homogeneous environment.

  1. What is the best way to measure the change a program makes within the community?

Good ol’ fashioned policy analysis and performance auditing.

  1. Is it important to have a positive message when dealing with the topics of volunteerism and civic engagement?

That depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

For example, the North Kansas City School District just lost another tax levy. I contend they lost, and have lost several times, because the campaigns they run are too nice. Their opponents run “dirty” campaigns and win most of the time. By “dirty” I mean they are not shy about sticking it to the opposition, spinning facts to suit their needs, and using emotional appeals to scare their constituents into voting against further taxes. To counter this, the NKCSD has to get tough–run a hardball campaign. But they won’t do it. I’ve actually had members of the Citizens Committee in charge of the campaign tell me that they don’t want to make anyone angry. Sheesh!

In this case, civic engagement means getting your people to the polls and, if possible, suppressing the opposition’s vote. You can’t do that with positive message alone.

As for volunteerism, I think the great example of how to use a positive message well is the Kennedy administration’s selling of the Peace Corps.
Get them to feel good about themselves. Get them to feel patriotic. Great tactic.

But I can see how a negative message could work, too–one aimed at some evil force that needs to be thwarted by volunteer action. Many of the Save-The-Children type programs operate this way–with veiled bad guys and emotional appeals to help before disaster strikes.

  1. Do you think allowing students to graduate with civic honors for volunteering in the community is a good idea?

I think it’s an excellent idea. My only reservation is this: What percentage of students will merely see this as a resume-building opportunity? Not that there’s anything wrong with resume-building. But it seems to me that such a program should aim for higher goals in results, i.e. encourage volunteerism and community service as life-long activities and positive values in their own right.

The Civic Honors Project would like to thank Andrew R. Cline for bringing persepctive to the issue and more importantly, the ideas that The Rhetorica Network has inspired.

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