Friday, September 3, 2010

What we've got here is failure to communicate...

When I need money, which is pretty much always, I like to earn it by teaching persuasive writing at BYU. The Greeks called the study of persuasion "rhetoric" and, in compliance with a 1926 Congressional Act called for the preservation of words using the consonant combination "rh" in the English language, we still use that term in class. I explained just two days ago that rhetoric is not all about the writer, but involves connecting writer, issue, and audience. An important part of rhetoric, I told my class, is understanding your audience's values and appealing to them, rather than to your own values, when making an argument.

I don't think they teach rhetoric in French schools. Probably also not in Iran. As the following case of an issue, some writers, and an audience will demonstrate, however, rhetoric-education is valuable, and you should keep paying me to do it in the U.S.

The Issue
In 2006, an Iranian woman named Sakineh Ashtiani was charged with committing adultery and helping her lover murder her husband. If I understand correctly, either crime alone carries the death sentence in Iran, so her conviction on both counts put her on death row, with stoning as a possible means of execution. If I understand correctly, there are also major questions about whether she actually was involved in the murder of her husband and especially about whether her confession was obtained through torture. Various human rights groups have expressed serious concerns over the case.

The Writers
In response to a recent rumor (later denied by the Iranian embassy) that Sakineh Ashtiani would be executed by stoning, several prominent figures in France decided to write letters in Sakineh's support. An ex-President of France summoned stirring lines like "I consider that the grand Persian culture which contributed so much to human civilization deserves better than this." Segolene Royal, who nearly became France's first female president in 2007, said that Ashtiani was "enslaved for the crime of being a woman" and that punishing her "will lead to even more unhappiness." And then, perhaps taking a cue from Royal, Carla Bruni, the Italian-born model who is currently serving a term as wife of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, entered the fray with an open letter to Sakineh, which built up to this emotional appeal:
"I just can’t see what good could come out of this macabre ceremony, whatever the judicial reasons put forward to justify it. Shed your blood and deprive children of their mother, why? Because you have lived, because you have loved, because you’re a woman and because you’re Iranian? Everything within me refuses to accept this."

The Audience
How might all these appeals resonate with the values of the Iranian government? My guess is that ex.-Pres. d'Estaing's appeal to the greatness of Persian culture might have backfired, since the last time an Iranian government cared more about its Persian Imperial heritage than its Islamic religious heritage was under the Shah the current government fought a revolution against. I'd also be surprised if Royal's insistence that Ashtiani was imprisoned "for being a woman" went over well with people who don't think the being a woman necessarily includes committing adultery. But I only know for sure about reactions to Bruni's letter, which elicited a headline in a major Iranian paper called Kayhan which translates to, "French Prostitutes Join the Human Rights Protest." The editorial references Bruni's high-profile pre- and extra-marital affairs and suggested that Bruni was defending Ashtiani only because "she herself deserves death." Since Iran has sometimes acted outside its borders on its ideas of who should live and die, that particular statement didn't go over well with the French, who have announced that they will push for new sanctions on Iran.

Aristotle might have been a more effective
writer in this case, because unlike Bruni
he a) understands rhetoric and b) hasn't been
paid to pose for naked pictures now available
to the world on the internet.

So: the French called on Iran to change, but without taking their audience's history and values into consideration. This mostly upset Iran, where a major newspaper called the French first lady a prostitute. The paper went on to give its own view of how extramarital sex should be handled, completely ignoring French fears of Iranian violence--if tougher sanctions go through, Iran will be probably lose millions of dollars over that one sentence.
Who, exactly, is winning in all this?
Am I naive to believe that the French could have done better had they focused on issues like evidence instead of appealing to the glory of the Persian Empire? Am I wrong to think Carla Bruni maybe should have stopped at "why deprive these children of their mother?" in her final draft rather than drawing attention to herself and her own values with the "Because you have lived, because you have loved, because you’re a woman and because you’re Iranian? Everything within me refuses to accept this" lines?
And am I off-base in thinking that Iran could have successfully dismissed these rhetorically poor French appeals without mentioning that in their hardcore Iranian opinion, another country's prominent public figure technically "deserves death"?

In conclusion
Words can be useful and powerful things. Carefully chosen words can actually reach across cultural difference to help achieve an objective. When using words to try and influence someone else, however, it's important to keep one rule in one's mind: you are not talking to yourself!

1 comment:

  1. So, I failed at my twenty-minute September rule. This post clocked in at an hour and forty minutes counting extra research. Sigh.


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