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Affecting Positive Change

Posted by on November 6, 2011

Last month, Paul Krugman, the liberal Nobel prize winner and New York Times columnist, was invited by the Occupy Wall Street protesters to speak at one of the demonstrations. When he declined, citing “restrictions that come with the privilege” of writing for the Times; “one of them is not crossing the line between advocate and activist,” many in the movement cried foul.

He was a sell-out, they declared, a “class-A hypocrite,” “part of the problem.” No matter that he ran a blog that allowed him to speak loudly in support of the movement, nor that he wrote columns advocating for them in the Times, the third most circulated newspaper in the nation. It was unforgivable that he would refuse to jeopardize his “corporate” gig to preach to the choir.

However, if we consider Lloyd Bitzer’s extended definition of the rhetorical situation, we see that Krugman  is smartly making a choice that will best allow him to create rhetoric that can best reach an audience who could be changed by his message and could make changes because of it.

This doesn’t mean that the OWS protesters can’t affect change, or can’t be affected by Krugman’s rhetoric. The problem is that they already agree with him; they cite his work as a foundation for their ideology. Any “positive change” that a Krugman ground-level speech would affect would be minimal, amounting to a brief jolt of energy and moral.

On the other hand, the NYT reaches over 1.1 million readers. Some most certainly are part of the liberal “choir,” many are at least sympathetic, but others, particularly those outside of New York or New England, don’t know much about the movement, and some may even have unfavorable impressions. The point is that Krugman can reach all of them, and thus has a much greater ability to affect positive change.

This is the key to rhetorical power and social agency. When you form a rhetorical argument, consider to whom it is directed. How much positive change can you affect in your intended audience? Are you preaching to the choir, or are you attempting to convince those on the fence, those with limited experience and knowledge of the issue, or even those who oppose your perspective? The choices you make in audience will determine the rhetorical appeals and constraints of your argument, and also the power you have to affect the most positive change.

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