"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Parables for Our Time: Of Burke’s Parlor and the Braindead Megaphone

February 18th, 2017 by

Students of rhetoric are surely familiar with a Kenneth Burke passage that describes a parlor in which people have gathered, where the give and take of conversation has been happening freely for longer than anyone can remember.

“Imagine that you enter a parlor,” Burke writes. “You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or the gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress” (110, 111).

Written at the abstract level of a parable (no “current” issue is named), this passage has been read in a number of ways, from the ongoing conversation of a democracy, where rhetoric can be practiced, to a metaphor for the ongoing, universal, human conversation. Some readers have noted Burke’s use of the term “oar” in the middle of the passage, which they suggest might also be a reference to putting in one’s “or,” as in, “or it could be this.”

I have often read this passage as a metaphor for three things: how rhetoric functions to multiply possibilities in a democracy; how I approach most issues that are important; and how I approach writing. In the second and third items here, I enter and first listen to the terms being used and find out what others are saying. I only begin to add my perspective or write after I am ready, and then I find that I am contradicted by some, supported by others. And most of the time, the discussion will go on long after I have left it. I also hold that writing is, largely, a social act. When we strive to write on an issue, we are silent at first as we listen to what has been said and written on the issue, before we put in our “oar.”

Enter the Megaphone
This passage is famous for all the right reasons. More recently, however, I have been wondering if it isn’t in need of an update, especially given the current state of our public “conversations.” Consider the following from George Saunders, where the terms seem to detail a slightly shifted emphasis, but nevertheless still manage to echo Burke, whether intentionally or not.

“Imagine a party,” Saunders writes. “The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, own businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and–surprise, pleasant surprise–being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.

“Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.

“But he’s got that megaphone.

“Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to….And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing–but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they….

“These responses are predicated not on his intelligence, his unique experience of the world, his powers of contemplation, or his ability with language, but on the volume and omnipresence of his narrating voice…

“In time, Megaphone Guy will ruin the party. The guests will stop believing in their value as guests, and come to see their main role as reactors-to-the-Guy…They’ll become passive, stop believing in the validity of their own impressions. They may not even notice that they’ve started speaking in his diction, that their thoughts are being limited by his. What’s important to him will come to seem important to them” (2,3).

Again, though Saunders may not be playing the same parlor game that Burke is, he has entered the same symbolic country, even as he has shifted his emphasis a little by placing his focus on the experiences and intellectual qualities of his “guests.” Even so, he remains general. This is a parable. And he’s clearly throwing a light on how we understand our conversations. In the room with the Megaphone Guy, whom he obviously means to stand for media, he is also very clear about what he thinks of him, what he represents, how he influences and even lowers our discourse.

He refers to him as “braindead.”

A Decades-Old Echo Chamber
To provide some background, Saunders wrote this during the Bush years, just over ten years ago, to comment on media coverage preceding and following the ill-informed, 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet we could probably agree that the Megaphone Guy has relevance to the current scene. In fact, we could probably agree that this is the same guy who was still shouting and changing the subjects leading up to and following the recent, 2016 election.

In the last decade, something deep–or, perhaps, shallow–has been changing in American culture. The Braindead Megaphone Guy, the one everyone has found to be superficial, loud, repetitive, and leaning just a little left of center, has met with new competition. In story terms, it is as though the people at Saunders’ party suddenly had enough and started to break off into groups in reaction to the Megaphone Guy. They objected so strongly to the very topics he was bringing up, the way he talked about the topics, and the very terms he used, that they went out and found his cousin, or perhaps his half-brother from a different father. This new Megaphone Guy doesn’t just lean right. He has started to talk loudly in his own terms that assert that there is no spring, and that the sky is no longer blue, exactly. The topics the first Megaphone Guy was telling about just aren’t the real picture any longer.

What I mean to focus on here is that it isn’t just that the quality of what we are getting from the Megaphone Guy has gone down. It is that people have gotten to the point where they dislike him so much that they have set up an alternate. We are now at a party with the Megaphone Guys. This twin, or half-brother, or cousin, talks in the same dumbed-down language as the first one. But he has taken the language to the other side of the room where the facts are different.

Added to this, we now have a president who speaks even lower than either Megaphone Guy’s syntax. But he also clearly favors the new, half-brother Megaphone Guy. He has started to call the first Megaphone Guy “fake news.”

Regardless of our ideological leanings, our experiences, and our own areas of expertise, we should admit that this new development of the Megaphone Guys might not be good for our parlor. Once, we could argue back and forth with no one dominating except on the terms of a good argument. Now we’ve been forced to deal in terms that are shouted. Most of us are still smarter than this, but conditions have gone on so long that they seem to represent the norm. Nevermind loudness or banality. With the two Megaphone Guys blaring out from opposite sides of the room, any dialogue will be interrupted before it begins with taunts of “fake news” or “alternative facts.”

I don’t wish to sound nostalgic. But the Burke passage depicts something pure, something almost mythological, the push and pull of conversation in fairly informed, nuanced, intelligent terms. With the entrance of media, of Saudners’ Braindead Megaphone, all is lowered, though we should be reminded that the people at the party are intelligent and of various experiences.

But I worry. We’ve gone from the normal dumbing down–the normal effects of media–to something else.

A week ago, the new president signed as an executive order a travel ban that immediately proved to be ill-formed. It resulted in thousands of people with green cards being blocked illegally from our country, many more thousands of angry protesters crowding airports, and judges stepping forward to question the legality of the ban and to counter it. The president’s supporters liked what he did because they saw him as somehow “protecting us.” They did’t care about the questionable legality of the ban. Instead, they referred to the president’s critics as promoting fake news. They are as critical of the news media as the president is.

Today, the parlor, once a place where people talked, is now a place where mainly two voices are heard, loudly from opposite ends of the parlor. They have drowned out the nuanced conversations that used to go on. Rarely able to complete a sentence now, the Megaphone Guys angrily shout names at each other. As for the people remaining in the parlor, they have long gathered on one side of the parlor or the other, where taunts of “snowflake,” “Nazi,” “fascist,” and “socialist” are heard from both groups. It resembles barking.

This is a nightmare. The old parables of democracy, from writers working as long ago as seventy years ago or as recently as ten, can give a wake up call. They should help us sound the alarms.

Works Cited
Burke, Kenneth. “The Philosophy of Literary Form.” The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkley: U. of California P., 1973: 1-137.

Saunders, George. “The Braindead Megaphone.” The Briandead Megaphone: Essays. New York: Riverhead, 2007: 1-19.

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