Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric
A Peer Reviewed Journal of Current Event Analysis

Current Issue: Volume 6, Issue 1/2

Updated February 18, 2016


Empathizer-in-Chief: The Promotion and Performance of Empathy in the Speeches of Barack Obama
Eric Leake

Empathy has been a hallmark of Barack Obama’s rhetoric, from his initial run for president to recent speeches in South Carolina and in support of prison reform. In this essay I argue that Obama does more than attempt to present himself as a relatable empathizer who understands mainstream America, as previous politicians have done. I demonstrate instead through the analysis of key speeches that Obama actively promotes and performs empathy as a means of understanding and as a civic value, especially in his use of personal stories and the recognition of context and history. I conclude with a consideration of the power of empathic rhetoric for how it creates expectations of feeling and accountability. These expectations also open it to necessary critique. Key Words: accountability, empathy, “I feel your pain,” narrative, Obama, political rhetoric.


Volume 5, Issue 3/4

Edward Snowden in Hong Kong: Transnationalism and the Local Deployment of Human Rights Tropes
Shui-yin Sharon Yam & Ling Yang

In 2013, Edward Snowden briefly sought refuge in Hong Kong after leaking classified information from the NSA. Linking Snowden’s act with their own local demands for democracy and civic rights, Hongkongers took to the street in support of Snowden and to condemn oppressive state governments—including mainland China. Snowden’s pres-ence, in other words, allowed Hongkongers to not only represent themselves as defenders of transnational of human rights, but also afforded them the legitimacy to argue against China’s oppressive policies that damage local politi-cal interests. This article analyzes protest signs and slogans from Hong Kong, and juxtaposes those artifacts with responses from the Chinese state government. Keywords: China, Citizenship, Edward Snowden, Hong Kong, Human Rights, Protest.


Special Issue on Rhetoric and Race, edited by Andre E. Johnson.

Understanding the Rhetoric(s) of Race
Andre E. Johnson

This essay provides an introduction to a special issue of Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric on rhetoric and race. This introduction provides a brief overview of the essays and provides some context for the issue. Keywords: Black Lives Matter (movement), race, religion, rhetoric

Black Lives Matter: Post-Nihilistic Freedom Dreams
Julius Bailey & David J. Leonard

Three simple words: Black. Lives. Matters. They have come to define a generation as the struggle against persistent violence and unmitigated racial terror. Visible across the nation, from mass demonstrations to social media timelines, Black Lives Matter as a rally cry exists alongside of daily evidence to the contrary. Images of protests wearing black lives matters shirts or hashtag protests appear alongside further proof of a nation’s disregard for black life. Coined by Aliza Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the mantra “Black Lives Matter” encapsulates the precarious position of black America in our supposedly post-racial movement. Representing a movement, a rhetorical signpost marking the persistence of racial violence, a challenge to white privilege, a sense of community, and an articulation of this generation’s “freedom dream,” “Black Lives Matter” is a complex articulation of our current moment. This paper takes up the meaning and significance of “Black Lives Matters,” arguing that it simultaneously embodies a Black Existentialism, which demands voice and autonomy in an “othering,” while at the time demands the basic rights of citizenship and humanity. Pushing back against the hegemony of Black nihilism within the 1980s and 1990s, “Black Lives Matters” imagines a future that exists apart and beyond white supremacy. Keywords: Activism; Black Existentialism; Black Love; #BlackLivesMatter; Freedom Dreams; Michael Brown; Nihilism; Trayvon Martin

#BlackLivesMatter: Epistemic Positioning, Challenges, and Possibilities
Catherine L. Langford & Montené Speight

The social media campaign #BlackLivesMatter presents an ideology counter to the historical and contemporary framing of African Americans that strips them of social value. The hashtag attempts to alter the epistemic paradigm that exists in American discursive and material actions by drawing attention to the habitual violence against Blacks in America while infusing a positive message about the individual and communal worth of Black lives. Black citizens are not aggressive, criminal, or inconvenient in the rhetorical construction of #BlackLivesMatter; Black lives should be celebrated and protected. Although multiple counter movements have arisen in an effort to invalidate the social critiques #BlackLivesMatter present, they are not successful. The hashtag teaches auditors the Black persons have a positive presence, that violence against the Black body is news, that white privilege exists, and that colorblind rhetoric does not help bring about equality or justice. Keywords: #BlackLivesMatter, Epistemology, Movement, Social Media, Violence

#AllLivesMatter as Post-Racial Rhetorical Strategy
Mark Orbe

#BlackLivesMatter was created following the acquittal of the man who killed Trayvon Martin; the movement’s call to action is against the “virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” Shortly after #BlackLivesMatter became a nationally recognized symbol, it was re-configured, co-opted, and/or replaced by some with the more inclusive and racially neutral alternative, #AllLivesMatter. This analysis utilizes the core elements associated with a critical race theoretical frame to argue that #AllLivesMatter is akin with larger rhetorical devices — like the notion of a color-blind society — that are used to promote post-racism, something that was not possible with other political slogans during earlier civil rights struggles. Keywords: #AllLivesMatter, #BlackLivesMatter, colorblindness, critical race theory, post-racial, race, white privilege

The Hoodie and Other Protest Strategies Following the Death of Trayvon Martin: Conflicting Discourses of Social Change and White Privilege
Kristen Ann Hungerford

In the weeks following the death of Trayvon Martin, millions of people of all races and ages took to the streets and online to participate in the protests, “I am Trayvon Martin” and “Million Hoodie March.” These protests centered on issues of racial profiling and the non-arrest of George Zimmerman. In support of Martin, many protestors donned hoodies, made signs, rallied and marched, or protested with solidarity images on social media networks. In this essay, I examine how protestors identified with Martin and how race, as an identity category, functions in these different forms of protest rhetoric. There can be multiple readings of these protests, including the hoodie as a powerful symbol for social change. This analysis acknowledges such a reading, but ultimately argues that the rhetoric employed by the protestors does not represent unanimity/collectivity towards social change. The hoodie can be viewed as a potent symbol of protest, especially when worn by people who have or are at greater risk of experiencing racial injustice, especially profiling. However, when worn by white protestors, the wearing of the hoodie inadvertently provides a counter-productive rhetoric that diverts attention away from conversations of social change. I argue that by white protestors wearing hoodies, it unknowingly mocks and extends the notion of white privilege. Thus, these protests that began by Black Americans to further reiterate racial injustices are now largely embedded in unintentional colorblind ideologies. Keywords: Critical Memory, Incivility, Protest Rhetoric, Race, Symbols, Trayvon Martin, Whiteness

Barack Obama and the Paradox of Racial (In)Civility
Scott Anderson

On three occasions in his political career to date, Barack Obama has been called to address crisis in the form of racial unrest: during the 2008 presidential campaign in a speech titled “A More Perfect Union,” in 2013 following the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, and after the 2014 grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri. While most scholars credit Obama with an inclusive rhetorical strategy that ties Americans to shared values, analysis of Obama’s three racial moment speeches reveals his preference to contextualize race paradoxically, thus creating a type of disunity. In the context of civic controversy, I argue Obama’s use of paradox is fundamentally metaphorical and serves an important pedagogical function, which is to invite citizens to partake in what Michael Mendelson calls controversia, the process whereby speakers present both pro and contra reasoning within one complex argument to establish the grounds for deliberation. While this strategy may have contributed to Obama’s success in “A More Perfect Union” and in the Trayvon Martin speech, news media deemed his response to Michael Brown a failure. The success and failure of each speech, I argue, hinged primarily on the constraints surrounding each speaking occasion and its intended audience. Keywords: Barack Obama, civic controversy, metaphor, paradox, pedagogy

“You Go Out and Make Me Do It”: The Bully Pulpit and the Articulation of Black Pain
Andre E. Johnson

In this essay, I argue that Obama frames the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman as a national tragedy and worthy of commemoration. In short, Obama articulates to the American people the pain that African Americans felt after the verdict and invites all Americans to mourn. Moreover, I suggest that by framing black pain at the center of this "American tragedy," Obama invited all Americans to see "blackness" and its pain as part of the American fabric. However, I also argue that part of Obama’s about face had to do with the mounting pressure and protests from the people who took to the streets and social media to not only condemn the verdict, but also call Obama into question. Therefore, I examine the rhetoric of some of the protests and the calls for Obama to “do something.” Keywords: Barack Obama, George Zimmerman, Protest Rhetoric, Race, Racism, Trayvon Martin

“I Can Do For Me”: Race, Health, and the Rhetoric of Self-Love and Suffering
Kendra Hotz

This essay explores the relationship between the discourses of religious belonging and health care among African-American women in Memphis, Tennessee who participated in a diabetes intervention program at a faith-based community health provider. It focuses especially on their descriptions of how they discovered the importance of self-care, often expressed with the phrase “I can do for me.” I argue that the language and practices of biomedical contexts can work at cross purposes with the goal of encouraging good self-care, but that the insights of narrative medicine and womanist theology represent helpful correctives. This essay draws from womanist theology the concepts of surrogacy and self-love and from narrative medicine a method for cultivating in medical practitioners a capacity to appreciate the perspective of others. The central thesis of this essay, then, is that when we analyze the language of self-care using insights from womanist theology and narrative medicine, we discover the basis for a new way of construing the relationship between health seeker and health care provider that has the potential to disrupt the unconscious bias among health care providers that leads to disparities in treatment for racial and ethnic minorities. Keywords: Health Disparities, Narrative Medicine, Self-Care, Surrogacy, Womanist Theology

“The Most Dangerous Place for an African American is in the Womb”: Reproductive Health Disparities and Anti-Abortion Rhetoric
Amber Johnson & Kesha Morant Williams

This analysis focuses on the Life Always campaign that attacks Black women and deepens reproductive health disparities. Their anti-abortion billboard campaign adds to a body of discourse that stigmatizes Black women as promiscuous, irresponsible, psychologically immature, and murderers. Using critical rhetoric and visual textual analysis, we analyze the campaign alongside Life Always’ website in an effort to illuminate the hidden agenda behind the ads and the ramifications for those ads on the discourse surrounding African American women’s reproductive health disparities. We argue that if Life Always wants to change our nation’s ideologies concerning abortion, creating laws that attack Black women’s wombs is an ineffective and misdirected plan. We must create a new ideology that eliminates the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy and instead promotes pro-health and reproductive justice. The terms Black and African American are used interchangeably in this study. Keywords: abortion, African American women, health disparities, pro-health, reproductive justice

If Womanist Rhetoricians Could Speak...
Kimberly Johnson

With all of the national debates about race and racism that discuss the killings of young black men by police officers, the excessive police force used on African American women, the Charleston Church Shooting by a white supremacist, and even our reactions to Bree Newsome removing a confederate flag from a state capitol building; we have heard from political pundits, social activists, religious leaders, some educators, and university administrators, but there is still an important voice that is missing. This article asks the question: where is the womanist critique? When will we hear and recognize a womanist voice in the midst of all the discourse? The article not only seeks to explain why womanist rhetoricians have been missing in action, it will begin to define womanist criticism and offer a womanist critique to the discourse on race and racism. Keywords: Race and Racism, Systemic Racism, Womanism, Womanist Criticism, Womanist Rhetoricians