“We are all of us preachers in private or public capacities. We have no sooner uttered words than we have given impulse to other people to look at the world, or some small part of it, in our way…That is why I must agree with Quintilian that the true orator is the good man, skilled in speaking — good in his formed character and right in his ethical philosophy.”
– Richard Weaver, Language is Sermonic
American conservative scholar Richard Weaver (1910–1963) believed that Ideas Have Consequences and that good rhetoric speaks to both transcendent ideals and “historical man” in the moment. Weaver argued that rhetoric was an “ethical as well as an instrumental discipline.” It is an argument worth visiting in the wake of Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I disagree with a lot of Weaver’s politics (for example he wrote that “The re-establishment of woman as the cohesive force of the family, the end of the era of “longhaired men and short-haired women,” should bring a renewal of well-being to the whole of society”) but his premise — that rhetoric matters — deserves our attention.
Candidate Trump’s blithe nod-and-wink at white supremacists and Nazis helped create the current public face of violence and hate. Former Klan leader David Duke said he was in Charlottesville to “fulfill the promise of Trump,” something he could only do because Trump never made it clear he did not want Duke’s support (Duke also politically threatened Trump after the President’s flaccid tweet saying “it was white Americans who put you in the presidency”). Trump’s condemning “hate, bigotry, and violence on many sides” was reportedly seen by at least one fascist group in America as Trump’s being OK with their violence.
Conservative commentator Kevin Williamson wrote of candidate Trump that his “Godzilla stomp across the ideological landscape of organized conservatism in pursuit of whatever it is he is in fact pursuing has left this bedrock principle of the Right — that ideas matter — cracked.” The stomping continues and has moved onto other cities and towns.
It is time for Republicans, indeed anyone who participates in politics, to take seriously Weaver’s premise that words matter. You don’t have to agree with Weaver’s agrarian views or longing for the Old South to embrace the idea that what you say may impact those to whom you say it. As such, when you speak in the public square you may have an obligation to that public space. Saying whatever occurs to you next, or whatever you think will lead to your private gain, may simply be wrong. Further, it is worth considering that political leaders have an obligation to speak up for core values and to put those values in a current context. This is what President Reagan did in his brilliant “Tear Down This Wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate. It is what Trump failed to do yesterday. And it is something I hope everyone who talks politics takes seriously.