Academic journal article Women and Language

Subverting the Rhetorical Construction of Enemies through Worldwide Enfoldment

Academic journal article Women and Language

Subverting the Rhetorical Construction of Enemies through Worldwide Enfoldment

Article excerpt

Abstract: While citizens of nations attacked by invading armies require little persuasion to support fighting in their defense, governments seeking public support for their wars of aggression must construct their enemies rhetorically. Prescribed notions of "the enemy" constructed with dehumanizing language exploit the superficial understandings that citizens may have of others. An international application of Sally Miller Gearhart's conceptualization of a feminized rhetoric called enfoldment is proposed as a means for subverting the rhetorical construction of enemies. A utopian vision for enacting such an international application of enfoldment is offered as a way of imagining new possibilities. A brief case study of selected pre-war rhetoric in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq illustrates ways of rhetorically constructing enemies and potential for subverting such processes.


Feminist rhetorical scholar Sally Miller Gearhart (1982) once warned, "either the future is female or the future is not." She favors affirming feminine values to help forge a future free from threats such as war, exploitation, violence and environmental destruction. If the present is male, it is in urgent need of a sex-change procedure if the future is to be female upon arrival. One of Gearhart's rhetorical options, enfoldment, offers a painless operation for achieving such a transformation.

Because the word enfoldment may be confused with something like a tummy-tuck when it is used within a surgical metaphor and because rendering the future female may be construed as some sort of emasculation in the same context, I will describe enfoldment in more detail to allay any such concerns. Nobody gets hurt. Enfoldment employs no sharp edges. One might ask, "How can we change the future to a female one without cutting anything?" Rhetorically, we just wrap it up, everything, that is, in our inclusive enfoldment and add some warm, soft, nurturing parts.

Gearhart, professor emeritus of speech and communication at San Francisco State University, calls (1982) for privileging three values she describes as "associated with the female of the human species" rather than as essentially female values. Empathy, nurturance, and cooperation are privileged in the feminized reconceptualization of rhetoric that Gearhart develops in a number of speeches and publications. Most notably, in "The Womanization of Rhetoric" (1979), Gearhart conceives of a "yielding model of communication" as an alternative to the traditional "conquer-and-convert" rhetoric in which a rhetor seeks to persuade audiences to adopt the rhetor's perspective. As Gearhart conceptualizes traditional rhetoric, the rhetor's attempt to cause audiences to discard their own perspectives in favor of the rhetor's perspective constitutes an invasive act of violence. With a "womanized" rhetoric, Gearhart seeks to facilitate nonviolent communication.

Gearhart further develops a nonviolent rhetorical option in "Notes from a Recovering Activist" (1995), in which she describes her personal experience of changing from a deliberately persuasive rhetor to one who communicates with others without trying to persuade them. For Gearhart, this change constitutes enactment of a feminized model of rhetoric she began to develop more than 15 years earlier. Perhaps for the delay and for her experience of using persuasive rhetoric, Gearhart confesses:

      Hi. I'm Sally, and I'm an activist. In my
   time I've taken to the streets for feminism,
   lesbian/gay/bisexual pride, civil rights, sexual
   freedom, disability dignity, AIDS education,
   peace, jobs, justice, nonhuman animals, Central
   American solidarity, clean air, Jesse Jackson, the
   constitution, the redwoods, and the union. I've
   marched and rallied and picketed, raged and
   wept and threatened, crusaded and persuaded and
   brigaded.... Activism is still for me very heady
   stuff, a keen sweet poison. … 
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