Identity is something we’ve talked about on this show before.
We’ve talked a few times about how Brown v. Board was used to craft identity. We have discussed how it was constitutive and how it enshrined Whiteness into the law. And when the law is White, the culture is White.
We’ve talked a bit about gender and identity. We’ve talked about Harris and the daunting role in front of her as the first woman VP.
But today I want to get down to brass tacks. Identity is literally who we are. What does it have to do with rhetoric or communication? It seems this should be a topic left up to the psychologists, right? But identity is complex. Yes, it is formed by our early childhood experiences and is an emotional and psychological thing. But it is also something we communicate, and we use to form arguments and establish lines of understanding. Identity matters to comm folks just as much as it matters to the psych folks, just maybe for different reasons. So let’s explore this for a bit.
First, consider the media we consume. There is something called the uses and gratification theory that I think is particularly interesting for this conversation.
Uses and gratification theory says media serves a number of purposes: We use media for surveillance, curiosity, diversion, and personal identity.
As for surveillance, we need to keep track of stuff – prices, politics, stuff we want to buy. We use the media to stay up to date.
In terms of curiosity, there is the useless stuff we want to know – celebrity gossip, what’s around the corner in our favorite show, and possibly useful stuff like new technologies that could be available in the future.
Diversion is pretty obvious. We get bored. And the media is entertaining. We use it to take us away from the mundane lives most of us lead to something that is way more interesting.
Personal identity is maybe the most interesting. You define yourself by the media you consume. The media you consume says something about who you are. Are you proud of the fact that you don’t watch trashy reality TV? Or do you gleefully announce whenever you can that you never watched Game of Thrones or that you don’t watch sports? Do you take joy in posting about RuPaul’s Drag Race or quoting The Office or letting people know that you are watching Gilmore Girls again? Something about your interaction with this media, or lack of interaction, is some kind of personal choice – or more aptly, a personal statement. You are staking out some kind of claim about who you are with these proclamations. And sometimes you are building community. Do you have a group of friends that you love to talk with about the latest episode of Only Murders in the Building or do you post about in social media so you can get some responses and have some kind of thread or conversation? That’s important to who we are.
There’s a reason why everybody’s favorite getting-to-know you question is “what kind of music are you into?” Because your music somehow says something about you. You’re a particular kind of person if your favorite music is bro-country or EDM or heavy metal. If you tell me your favorite musicians, I’m supposed to be know something about you.
My favorite artist is Tom Waits, and I also like Flogging Molly, Frightened Rabbit, Panic at the Disco, and the Lumineers, for what it’s worth. So now, what do you think you know about me? Am I old school? Am I a hipster? Am I trying too hard?
And it’s not just media we do this with. It’s all of our consumption habits. We ARE what we consume.
Consider that all-important marker of a person: the beer.
Do you drink Budweiser or Coors? Do you JUDGE people who only drink Budweiser or Coors? Do you only drink craft IPAs, regardless of the season? Do you only drink from local breweries? Do you not drink beer and prefer wine, cocktails, or spirits? More importantly, do you not drink?
Each of these choices says something, whether you want it to or not. Somebody is making a judgment on you based on this. What message are you sending?
I drink stouts and porters, all year long, in case you are wondering. Judge away.
My dear friend Dr. Ashley Edwards had this interesting project she had her students participate in when she taught intercultural communication. She called it “Food for Thought.” Basically, at some point in the semester, students brought some food or snack that represented their culture. But what she did that I thought was clever was she encouraged them to think broadly about culture. It wasn’t just ethnicity. Certainly, if you felt connected to a certain ethnic tradition you were welcome to bring a cuisine that represented that. But she encouraged students to think about the various parts of their identity and how they related to the world. So for example, one student may think of herself first and foremost as a triathlete. She trains for that all year long and is really invested in that community. So Dr. Edwards encouraged her to think of that as an element of her culture – was there something she could bring that represented that? And the student might bring bottled water.
It really encouraged students to think about the way their identities affected how they see the world and how they communicate with each other. A bonus was it got some of her students to try food they never would have tried on their own.
Of course, I started thinking about what I would bring. And my mind went to tacos. But then I thought, do I, a white woman, have the right to bring tacos? I mean, I ate them all the time. I was raised on tacos and fajitas. It’s as Texan as the day is long. But can I claim that as my culture? It is. I lived in a world where tacos, fajitas, and enchiladas were a part of everyday life. I never thought of them as foreign. They were just what I ate. But does that make them part of MY culture? And then I thought the very fact that I’m wrestling with this says something about my identity. So I figured I would probably have to bring chili in the end.
It’s funny because as I was writing for this podcast, Dr. Charles Woods over at The Big Rhetorical podcast asked me if I could only have one food forever would it be pizza or tacos and I immediately answered tacos, but then I told him about this very dilemma. That I identify with tacos. Pizza is delicious and I love it but tacos are a part of my upbringing. But as a 42 year-old white woman this seems very problematic, even if I AM a Texan. He agreed this was an issue. His solution was maybe to settle on bad tacos. That is an unsatisfying and depressing solution, but I don’t know what else there is. Tex-Mex is just the best.
Incidentally, you can hear that whole conversation soon on The Big Rhetorical Podcast with Charles Woods. Look for an announcement here.
But as we have noted throughout, identity isn’t just personal. It isn’t all about you. Identity is a matter of community, as well.
Identity as at the heart of Burke’s “identification.” Who we are is essential to who we can connect to.
Burke states that “identification” is more important than persuasion, traditionally associated with rhetoric.
Burke suggests that whenever people try to persuade, identification occurs: one party must “identify” with another. In order to identify, there must be some level of a connection of one identity to another.
In particular, the concept of identification can expand our vision of the realm of rhetoric as more than solely patriarchal, persuasive, or agonistic. But while impelled to acknowledge this nature, we can look for more from rhetoric, he argues:
“We need never deny the presence of strife, enmity, factions, as a characteristic motive of rhetorical expression. We need not close our eyes to their almost tyranneous ubiquity in human relations; we can be on the alert always to see how such temptations to strife are implicit in the institutions that condition human relationships; yet we can at the same time always look beyond this order, to the principle of identification in general, a terministic choice justified by the facts that the identifications in the order of love are also characteristic of rhetorical expression.”
In identifying with the interests of another, or connecting to their constructed identity, one is “substantially one” with that other, or consubstantial.
It is in this key discussion of identification, consubstantiality, and division that Burke lays out his crucial definition of the realm of rhetoric:
“Insofar as the individual is involved in conflict with other individuals or groups, the study of this same individual would fall under the head of Rhetoric. . . . The Rhetoric must lead us through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counterpressure, the Logomachy, the onus of ownership, the War of Nerves, the War.”
So connecting identities is essential to rhetoric in a post-Aristotelian world. By that measure, who you are is paramount to how you communicate and are persuasive to another. Your persuasive power is based on your identity and how it connects to others.
However, we don’t have to discard Aristotle to get insight into how identity is essential to an argument.
Aristotle gave us three pillars of argumentation: logos, pathos, and ethos. Of those, he argued that ethos was the most powerful of the modes of persuasion. And that bears a little inspection.
As we have discussed in the past, logos is usually translated as logic or reason. Pathos is usually translated as emotion. And ethos is often translated as character. So for Aristotle the most important mode of persuasion was character. Or who the speaker was. The credibility of the speaker.
In other words, the identity of the speaker was the most important part of the argument.
That’s kind of an amazing position to take. More important than the logic of the argument, more important than how it makes you feel – the identity of the speaker matters.
And for Aristotle, that meant character – was the speaker virtuous, honest, honorable, respectable?
All of that matters today as well.
But we have some different standards we are looking for in what makes somebody persuasive and how we identify with someone. And I think here is where maybe Burke and Aristotle connect in maybe some unforeseen ways.
Aristotle says character is persuasive. Burke says how we identify is persuasive. In some ways they seem to be dancing around the same ideas. But for Aristotle he was thinking about the Greek ideal. Burke was thinking about the personal.
So while Aristotle may have wanted to hear about someone’s heroism in battle or their success in court, Burke wants to hear about your time growing up on the farm or your years in school.
What media theory and Marxism tells us is that people are looking for something even smaller scale than that. We are what we consume. We identify based on those things we share our likes and dislikes in.
In the 2000 movie High Fidelity John Cusack’s character says what matters is what you like, not what you are like. He makes a romantic career out of seducing women by finding commonalities in their favorite things.
But is there that much difference between what you like and what you are like? Do we stake out our identities with our pleasures and our displeasures?
Now, I am not saying you can chart a person’s personality based on what they like and dislike. There are plenty of quiet people who like punk or heavy metal and plenty of brash people who like classical. We cannot forget that Paul Ryan’s favorite band was Rage Against the Machine.
But Aristotle and Burke give us some interesting starting points for persuasion – we convince people based on who we are.
And we leave markers of who we are all over the place. So how does that identification actually occur? How do we communicate who we are to each other? How do we present our identities to one another?
So when you make your case, be it publicly or just to your best friend, how much of yourself goes into that argument? How much of you does the audience expect? How do you CREATE that version of yourself? That last question might be the most important. Ethos is very much a construction. You create your character when you speak in front of people. And that’s a weird thing to think about. But at the same time, it’s not that far-fetched. Many of us curate our identities carefully. We have an outward face we want the world to see, and we are careful about what we reveal. Some might call that superficial, some might call that smart. I’m sure psychologists have a lot to say on it. But we do craft identities for ourselves. I don’t know what it means if we are connecting over carefully crafted versions of ourselves, but it’s probably not healthy.
But all of this is to say that communication scholars from across the board, from thousands of years ago, to modern media scholars, recognize the importance of the person. Of who we are as people. And I think that’s cool.
Because it’s a nice reminder that you matter. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be a boost to your self-esteem. It’s supposed to all about making a good argument or understanding media or whatever, but the end result is that you, the person, matter. You, as an individual, make a difference. Your actions, your character, your background, and your likes and dislikes all are consequential. Which can be a little daunting, but should also be kind of affirming. You’re important. Go you.
I have a quick announcement before I sign off, and I’ll remind you of this again in the future. The Humanities Podcast Network is holding its first Humanities Podcasting Symposium this October 15th and 16th. This is an organization dedicated to podcasts and podcasting in the humanities – popular, academic, and pedagogical. It is a growing collective of instructors, scholars, and independent creators dedicated to the transformative impact of audio media and the human voice. They facilitate conversations between podcasters in the Humanities, and empower and support teachers in secondary and higher education, scholars, and independent creators in the Humanities who want to incorporate podcasts into their classroom practice and/or create their own podcasts so they too can be heard, free of institutional gatekeeping mechanisms. This open and horizontal network aims to build affiliations, collaborations between like-minded folks, within or without the academy, who are committed to creating and teaching with podcasts.
The inaugural Humanities Podcasting Symposium will build on the aims of the Humanities Podcast Network to facilitate conversations between podcasters in the Humanities, as well as offer guidance and support to instructors, scholars, and independent creators working in the Humanities who are interested in incorporating podcasts into their classroom practice and/or making their own podcasts. It will be free to attend and open to all.
I’ll have a place to register for the even in my transcript at kairoticast.com
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.