Posts Tagged ‘sexism’

Rush Limbaugh’s recent dismissal of Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” reminds me of how much more vulnerable women are than men to the abusive ad hominem.  There is a a greater number of abusive words associated with women:  add “whore,” “bitch,” “cunt,” “old maid,” “hag,” “bag,” “jezebel,” “hoochie mama,” etc., as opposed to “prick,” “dick,” and “boy toy.”  Plus the feminine insults tend to be considered so bad that people often won’t actually say them, but only allude to them, for instance in saying “the c-word.”

On top of that, women tend not to be listened to, so the ad hominem may always be more effective against women.  Merely pointing out that a speaker is a woman may act as reason to ignore her. The same would apply to any marginalized people.  One’s very identity can undermine one’s claims and one’s reasons.

Lorraine Code has argued in a few places that the dismissal of women’s reasons for being women’s reasons should be identified as ad feminam.  The vulnerability of women to ad hominem suggests indeed that ad feminam deserves recognition as a distinct category.

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Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (1842-1932), the first woman to address the US Congress was by all accounts "a gifted orator".

Many in the field of rhetoric, I’ll wager, are happy to see an article about their discipline at all in a major newspaper like the Guardian.  Being a philosopher myself I sympathize with the sort of small-town-ish “Hey! They’re talking about US!!” feeling engendered by articles like Mary Beard’s What makes a great speech?

The article itself, however, is rather a letdown in terms of what it communicates to the reader about rhetoric.

Let me begin in fairness by noting that Mary Beard is a well-known classicist in the UK.  Thus it is not surprising that her treatment of rhetoric here focuses primarily on sources and examples drawn from Greco-Roman antiquity.  Be this as it may, she speaks in a general voice here about rhetoric and so her discussion is disturbingly incomplete. Rather than showing rhetoric as the very active and modern discipline that it is, her focus on the ancients gives the impression that the study of rhetoric ended with Cicero. She makes no mention at all of any figures in the history of rhetoric between antiquity and the present day. Not even foundational figures of contemporary rhetoric like Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, get a mention, to say nothing of figures lesser known outside rhetoric but equally if not more important within it like Burke, Richards, Toulmin, or Henry Johnstone Jr..  Though to her credit she avoids rehashing the standard Platonist objections to rhetoric, Beard’s presentation is rendered somewhat shallow by her lack of modern sources.  (more…)

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