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Real talk on rhetoric in a political year

January 29, 2016

ASU professor says rhetoric does not have to carry a negative connotation

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, where quick soundbytes and images out of context dominate the online realm, rhetoric rules.

In an election year, this is especially so. And with the Iowa Caucus starting Monday, the political rhetoric around the 2016 presidential election is only going to grow.

To the general popular, “rhetoric” is seen as a negative entity; the kind of sentiment built on ignorance or passionate reaction — again, the kind of thing that flourishes in a viral news world. But Elenore Long, a professor in Arizona State University’s Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says that "rhetoric" is more than just the slimy use of language and manipulation. Rhetoric at its best, she says, is the means by which people discover solutions to pressing, shared matters of concern. 

Long, along with English doctoral student Kayla A. Bruce, spoke to ASU Now on the eve of the caucus about the true dynamics of rhetoric, how it can foster understanding and what people should look for in a political candidate.

Women discussing things.
Associate professor Elenore Long discusses the use of rhetoric in accountable and dangerous forms, in her office with doctoral candidate Kayla Bruce, on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Question: How would you help voters identify what’s productive rhetoric and what’s manipulation?

Long: Productive rhetoric has some features, especially in relation to political discourse, as an approach to language. It doesn’t try to clobber difference or squash someone who might have another opinion or ideas. It’s also about a way of thinking about language in terms of the debate open for public discussion as much as the claims that the talk is driving. Another feature of productive political rhetoric is that it’s attentive to peoples’ experiences with policies and practices that come from public policy.

Rhetoric that’s manipulative tries to hide the means by which it attempts to persuade. It knows that that might feel like spin or manipulation if the audience understands how that argument was produced. Rhetoric that’s not manipulative isn’t afraid to open up the ways in which the argument is working.

Bruce: Most effective rhetoric speaks through action or change whereas manipulative rhetoric sort of speaks over groups and experiences and tries to wash everything into a clean, compact element, as opposed to speaking to the variety of the situation.

Q: When during the election process have you observed moments when the terms of the debate itself has opened up in some interesting and useful ways?

Long: During the election campaign public discourse itself has opened up in interesting ways — tragically, after the San Bernardino massacre. The shootings fostered some political candidates (to present a) discourse about Muslims that was overarching and hateful. Other politicians stepped in to interrogate the accuracy of those kinds of claims to think about the consequences of overstating identity politics and misrepresenting billions of people around the world and many patriotic Muslims in the country itself. Attention to the toxicity of the misuse of language, I think, when politicians have done that work, helped to enrich the dialogue.

One of my favorite instances during this political campaign was when two political reporters from MSNBC traded places. The Democratic reporter covered the Republican party and vice versa, and compared on what they saw and what surprised them. Interestingly, that comparison allowed them to try and find the logic of the two parties. It also opened up talk about what the parties care about and what drives voters.

Bruce: Rhetoric is best and works best as dialogue. The recent news of Donald Trump’s refusal to participate in the Republic GOP debate hosted by FOX News underscores the idea that, how can you be effective if you’re not participating in dialogue? I think that for me demonstrates what rhetoric does.

Q: What are some of the attributes we should we be looking for in a presidential candidate?

Long: I believe one of the most important attributes we should be looking at in a candidate is a stance toward problem solving. Someone who thinks about listening to other people as part of an imaginative team who is attentive to the ways that are important and particular in this moment in time. A recent NPR story covered why people are leery of voting — stalled economic progress, terrorism, demographic changes, immigration. Those are matters that goodwill alone isn’t going to solve, but we need rhetoric to employ new and imaginative ways to create different responses to perplexing issues.

Bruce: Attending to dialogues with different groups that might be overlooked or marginalized, I think, starts to get at the issues that Elenore has outlined.

Q: It appears people no longer debate or enter into a discourse; rather, they shout each other down and continue to make their point.

Long: I believe there is truth in that statement. A lot of the ways that the media and politicians structure press coverage, it can look more like a circus than a debate. What’s really exciting right now about the coverage is that there are various and creative ways that people are joining in the messy work of rhetoric. For example, in Chicago there’s a group of ministers who have gotten together to listen to a group of young men’s experiences about police officers; these ministers have started to theorize what’s been happening in these moments of altercation. Before that, the work would go under the radar. I think smart politicians are able to circle back around to those lively and untidy ways people are listening and learning from each other. Experimentation with town hall meetings and other forums are other ways we are benefitting from creative people who are trying to make word and policy work in their lives.

Bruce: That builds on the concept of rhetorical listening as opposed to persuasion, and is a very useful way of engaging.

Reporter , ASU Now

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A pioneer in exploring molecular structure

February 1, 2016

World expert on proteins — one of newest crop of Regents' Professors — was drawn across the globe to ASU's "interdisciplinary science and out-of-the-box thinking"

When Petra Fromme was called into Arizona State University President Michael Crow’s office last year, the caller wouldn’t tell her assistant what the impromptu meeting was about.

“No, I don’t think I’m in trouble,” Fromme told her assistant.

Far from it: Fromme was being named a Regents’ Professor, the highest faculty honor. It’s a group of top tenured faculty who have made significant contributions to their field. With the most recent group — who will be inducted at a ceremony this Thursday in Tempe — ASU has a total of 83.

“They really surprised us,” said Fromme, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the School of Molecular SciencesThe School of Molecular Sciences is a unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.. “None of us had any idea what it was about. ... I don’t know about the other two, but I was totally surprised. I was really happy about it, actually.”

Fromme, a world expert on proteins, has been a pioneer in using new technology to research their molecular structure. As director of the new Center for Applied Structural Discovery at the Biodesign Institute, she leads 12 faculty and their students from different disciplines studying the structure and dynamics of proteins, potentially leading to improved manmade technologies.

“Petra uses the state of the art in X-ray laser technology to explore the structural and dynamical features of biological molecules to understand how they work,” said Dan Buttry, professor and director of the School of Molecular Sciences. “The results will impact fields as diverse as solar energy and human health.”

Fromme’s discoveries and innovative research methods, which incorporate physics and engineering, will potentially lead to new drugs to fight deadly diseases and new methods of creating clean energy.

She feels her appointment as Regents’ Professor will boost the center’s profile.

“I think it will increase the visibility of the center and attract students who would otherwise do their Ph.D. at Harvard or Yale,” she said.

In 2002, when she came to ASU, Fromme had two counter-offers from Germany. One was for the chair of the biophysics department at a prestigious Berlin university and an identical job at a medical school in Münster.

“I turned them both down at this time to come as a normal full professor to ASU,” Fromme said. “All of my colleagues in Germany — most of them, anyway — they said, ‘You do what?? You turn down the offer to become chair of the biophysics department at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin to go to where? Arizona State University in the middle of the desert?’”

The Münster medical school called Fromme a year and a half after she had been at ASU. They had kept the job open for her.

“They hoped I would not like it here and come back and take the position,” she said. “They were very disappointed when I said no, I like it here and I want to stay here.”

ASU’s collegial atmosphere lured Fromme.

“I saw how nicely the people here worked together,” she said. “This actually attracted me to ASU. They had all these independent groups coming from very different backgrounds but working on big things together. This was even before Biodesign was founded. ASU was really great about interdisciplinary science and out-of-the-box thinking.

“In Germany every professor is king in his own ivory tower. They have much bigger groups than they have here, so they have their own empire. They normally collaborate with their colleagues all over the world but not with their colleagues next door, because this is their worst enemy, because they compete for resources. There is never this ‘we’ feeling. … Here the department practically stands in complete unity.”

Her wish list for her future at ASU includes the proposed Biodesign C building, with a compact free electron laser in the basement to peer at molecules.

“We are trying to determine the structure and the function of the building blocks of life,” Fromme said.

If scientists know how molecular structures function at the microscopic level, they can change, tweak or design new functions that could possibly lead to new drugs that work with proteins within the cells to fight cancer and infectious disease.

Part of Fromme’s research involves how plants can adapt to all types of environments, from deserts and hot springs to volcanic lakes and oceans, and how they all conduct photosynthesis in those different environments.

“The big goal is to unravel how plants with visible light split water into oxygen protons and electrons, thereby driving photosynthesis,” Fromme said. “If we could make a system which would be as good as a natural system, but as stable as a man-made system, that would be marvelous.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502