Rhetoric and Civic Life: Ferguson
“There’s no difference between language that convinces and language that manipulates. It’s only when manipulation is obvious, then it’s bad manipulation. What I do is every bit as manipulative as some magician doing a magic trick. If I can wave this red silk handkerchief enough in my right hand, I can do whatever I want with my left hand and you’re not going to see it. When you’re writing fiction, everything is manipulation. I’m setting up the situation specifically so that you’ll laugh at this point or cry at this point or be nervous at this point. If you can see how I’m sawing this body in half, then it’s bad manipulation. If you can see how I’m sawing the lady in half, then it’s bad manipulation. If you can’t see how I did that, then it’s good.”
-Aaron Sorkin, Hollywood Writer
Creator of The West Wing and Sports Night
The goal of the criminal justice system is to find truth. Under the adversarial system of law in America, two opposing sides argue a case in front of a jury of impartial citizens and the hope therefore is that from competition, truth will arise and justice can be righteously served. However, as Sorkin dually notes, language is always manipulative, and whether that is a good or bad thing is left up to the receiver of the message. In the case of whether to indict ex-officer Darren Wilson for the killing of 18 year-old Michael Brown, both the prosecution and defense attempted to manipulate the Grand Jury, and the result of said manipulation was the decision to let Wilson walk free. Now, the interesting thing about this case is the unusual role the prosecution played.
In the video below from MSNBC, reporter Lawrence O’Donnell describes a document the assistant district attorney handed out to the Grand Jury. A document detailing a law on “what force is permissible and when in making an arrest by a police officer.” This document was a 1979 Missouri Law ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1985 due to a section entailing that it was legal for police officers to shoot fleeing subjects simply because they were fleeing. Due to those words and the rhetoric of the district attorney, the standards for which the case was perceived were altered. Weeks later, the district attorney acknowledged the illegality of this section of the law, but did not specify the exact section in the document that was illegal. If all persuasive language is manipulative, then is this alteration of evidence positive or negative?
Another topic the video highlights is the district attorney’s inability to answer a simple question from a Grand Juror regarding the power of the federal Supreme Court in comparison to that of Missouri statutes. Her answer of “you don’t need to worry about that” is rhetorically powerful, especially when considering the answer is a very straightforward “yes.” This could point out preconceived and contradictory beliefs of the prosecution, and also the “bad manipulation” in its obvious manner.
Outside the seeming misconduct of the prosecution, it is clear that word-play becomes especially important in recounting what happened the night of the shooting. Where liberal news sources everywhere describe the case as “White cop guns down unarmed black teen,” conservative speakers point out the call-to-action mannerism of such a phrase. The phrase has a hidden agenda of bringing to light the structural racism underlying the case. The same goes for Darren Wilson’s description of Michael Brown in his testimony as a “demon” and how he “felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” This use of descriptive language paints Brown in a negative light to the point of dehumanization. Once Brown becomes a demon or monster, our empathy for the teen dissipates into an inability to put ourselves in place of Brown, and rather that of Wilson.Language is very manipulative, and whether that manipulation is good or bad is left up to the digression of the audience. What are your thoughts on the events in Ferguson in terms of manipulative language?