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The role of rhetoric in the controversy over Bork

Judge Robert Bork will not become a justice of the Supreme Court: On that point the Senate has spoken. As it grinds toward an examination of President Reagan's next nominee - federal Judge Douglas Ginsburg - it has left a flurry of questions in its wake. Was Judge Bork tripped, or did he fall? Did the administration fail to present him properly, or did his opponents mount a campaign of misrepresentation and distortion?

These issues have been pretty well aired. Behind them, however, looms an even larger question: How could a group of senators - few of whom can approach Bork's depth of scholarship, and most of whom have no specialized background in legal affairs - ever have been expected to render a sound decision in such a case?

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This is no isolated question. It strikes at the heart of the processes of representational democracy. Can any group of legislators ever know enough about the highly complex issues now facing the world - acid rain, health care, nuclear power, missile systems, the space program, and hundreds more - to make informed judgments? Can generalists, in other words, ever properly supervise specialists?

In our era of information overload, the fashionable answer seems to be No - followed by despairing assertions that we're all doomed to be governed by technocrats, nerds, and intellectual monotones. So it's refreshing to hear, from a most surprising quarter, a quiet Yes.

That quarter is the intriguing, garretlike office of University of Chicago professor Wayne C. Booth. One of the nation's distinguished humanists, former president of the Modern Language Association, and by all accounts a first-rate teacher, he studies something that for many people is almost a dirty word: rhetoric.

``The public use of the word,'' he acknowledged with a chuckle across his paper-strewn desk the other day, ``is mere rhetoric - sleaze, bombast, trickery.'' For Professor Booth, however, the word suggests the noble art of persuasion. ``If you think about what the alternatives are to our talking things out,'' he notes, ``they're either bribery or force.''

How does that help him sort out the Bork hearings? The answer, oddly enough, lies in the text of the university's annual Ryerson Lecture, delivered here by Booth last spring and just now published. In it he defined three kinds of rhetoric common to university life. The first (which he labeled ``rhetoric-1'') describes the way specialists talk to one another in highly technical terms about their chosen fields. ``Rhetoric-2,'' in contrast, is the way of talking shared broadly by the public. It's based on common sense - or, as Booth explained it, on ``what makes sense in any argument.''

The third, or ``rhetoric-3,'' occupies a kind of middle ground. He called it ``the rhetoric of inquiry, or of intellectual engagement.'' More than just common sense, it's less rarefied than the talk of specialists. As such, it's the kind of rhetoric typical in a university: It's what allows a chemistry professor, for example, to vote on the promotion of a sociologist. Through this sort of rhetoric, Booth told his audience last spring, ``we learn how to judge whether the arguments in fields beyond our full competence somehow track, whether the style of presentation somehow accords with standards we recognize.''

What's all that got to do with Bork? In the Senate hearings, says Booth, there was very little specialist discussion of the ``rhetoric-1'' variety. Instead, there was lots of ``rhetoric-2'' - which, as Booth notes, ranged ``all the way from name-calling to fairly high-level assertions about what kind of person's a good person [or] a bad person.'' And there was a good deal of the ``rhetoric-3'' - the rhetoric of inquiry common to governmental processes, depending on a working knowledge of the Constitution and the traditions of lawmaking.

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And that's what convinces Booth that, in the end, non-experts can sit in judgment over experts. ``There are lots of issues that we can't know in the sense that people who pursue rhetoric-1 know,'' he says, referring to the detailed knowledge of Bork's own writings. But the Bork hearings provided ``one of those cases where rhetoric demonstrates itself as the art that's needed when real controversy is at hand.''

How does Booth know the process worked? In part because, during the hearings, he changed his own mind three times - not capriciously, but based on careful listening to the arguments. And that, for him, is what the Constitution is all about. That document, he says, was ``designed to make rhetoric possible - to make spaces for good rhetoric.''

If, in that way, it also makes room for the layman to assess the Borks and Ginsburgs of this world, then maybe we don't need to be quite so afraid of the information explosion.

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