Identification and Division in the Current Crisis

I don’t usually write about politics in this blog because I think that rhetoricians should be as objective as they can be. I often tell my students that their job is to analyze how the rhetoric works and how effective it is, not who has right on their side. But there comes a time when certain things must be addressed.

As I write this, the whole country, already in the midst of a pandemic, is dealing with the anger, grief, and frustration of yet another death of a black man at the hands of police. I want to write about this in terms that Kenneth Burke would use. (A previous post explains more about Burke.) There is a danger that in using theoretical terms to analyze such a visceral and traumatic event, I am putting in too much emotional distance and escaping into cold abstractions. That is not my intent. I want to try to understand what is happening.

On May 25, 2020, a white police officer in Minneapolis put his knee on the neck of a black man and kept it there for nine minutes, even while the suspect complained that he could not breathe. The suspect, George Floyd, died.

Agent-Act Ratio

An agent-act ratio would determine that the act was motivated by the nature of the agent, in this case the police officer. This ratio is at the heart of all of the “bad apple” explanations of police brutality. If a few bad officers are the root of the problem, logically the solution is to investigate and fire those officers and improve hiring procedures. Invoking this ratio has the effect of deflecting blame away from institutions and officials and onto individuals.

However, at least three other officers stood by or assisted in this act. They qualify as co-agents. Are they more bad apples? They are all members of a police department. Are all the officers in the department co-agents responsible for this act? Is the training and culture of the department at fault?

Circumference

What I am doing here is what Burke would call expanding the “circumference.” Burke usually uses this term in talking about the “scene.” The scene, or context for an act can be small, a particular intersection in a particular neighborhood, for example, or it can be as big as a nation and as long as history. But here, as I expand the circumference from one agent, to co-agents, to the whole department, perhaps to police departments throughout the nation, the concept of “agent” begins to become scenic. I’ll get back to scene in a bit.

Agency-Act Ratio

Another aspect of this discussion is how police departments are equipped. In recent years, it has been the practice to sell surplus military gear to police departments. This brings us to an agency-agent ratio. If police are equipped like soldiers with assault rifles, flak jackets, and even armored vehicles (all “agencies” in Burke’s sense), how does that define their role in the community? An individual equipped like a soldier is likely to think of him or herself as a soldier. This is sometimes discussed as a warrior/guardian binary. Is a police officer a warrior at war with the community or a guardian of the safety of the citizens?

In Flint, Michigan, a sheriff, Chris Swanson, put down his riot gear and was invited by protesters to “walk with us.” This sheriff opted to put off the agencies of a warrior and become one with his community, using instead the agencies of negotiation and identification.

Scene-Act Ratio

Of course, the larger question is whether the “scene” of American culture naturally produces acts like the killing of George Floyd. If we are going to define this act through a scene-act ratio, we have to define the circumference quite broadly because acts such as this happen to black people regularly throughout the country. Is racial prejudice and injustice an irredeemable, unerasable part of American society? Is the history of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation, and institutional racism simply too powerful to overcome? I hope not. But overcoming it certainly can’t be achieved by removing a few “bad apples” or retraining the police, though certainly those things should be done.

Identification and Division

For Burke, the most powerful rhetorical strategy is “identification.” He says early in his book, The Rhetoric of Motives, contrasting it with the earlier Grammar of Motives, from which the ratios I was using above came, and the planned Symbolic of Motives, which was never finished

The Rhetoric deals with the possibilities of classification in its partisan aspects; it considers the way in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another.

Why “at odds,” you may ask, when the titular term is “identification”? Because, to begin with “identification” is, by the same token, though roundabout, to confront the implications of division. (22)

For Burke, rhetoric would not be necessary if there were no identifications and divisions. And he notes that such rhetoric often depends on “a body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than to any exceptional rhetorical skill” (26).

We have been subjected to nearly four years of this sort of trivial repetition and dull reinforcement, all repeated in the name of division.

However, as I noted above, Sheriff Swanson of Flint, Michigan, at least for the moment, knocked down two divisive barriers,  the black/white divide and the people/police divide, when he put down his battle gear and said, “We want to be with y’all for real so I took the helmet off and laid the batons down. I want to make this a parade, not a protest” (Taylor). We need more actions like this.

Conclusions

As Burke knew, we can never eliminate division from our society. Divisions and identifications are always being re-negotiated. But we are all human, and that is a starting point. We are all Americans too, but we have to be careful, lest we divide ourselves from the rest of the world. Identification starts with respect and builds with recognition of common goals and values. Understanding is often too much to expect, but we can try. At least we can try.

Addendum: Here are a couple of links that I think are quite powerful. A high school teacher who had been in one of my ERWC module development workshops sent me the first one. It’s a powerful impromptu speech, full of pathos, but also arguing that protestors should channel their anger into working within the system, broken as it is. The teacher who sent it to me said, “It hits all the targets of rhetorical appeals in a profound way. I know my students will connect with it and perhaps be inspired to emulate its features in their own writing.”

Rapper Killer Mike gives impassioned speech during Atlanta protests

This second piece is from filmmaker Kasi Lemmons. She says,

As a filmmaker, I help people imagine what’s it’s like to be someone else, to experience things from a character’s point of view — things they never will experience outside the theater. But when it comes to black life in America, there’s only one conclusion I can reach about some white people: You don’t care to put yourself in our shoes. The consequences of this lack of imagination for black Americans are deadly.

White Americans, your lack of imagination is killing us

Both of these pieces ask us to imagine the life of the other. I think that is a first step toward identification rather than division.

This post available as a .pdf.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1950.

Taylor, Ariana. “‘Let’s walk’: Sheriff joins Flint protesters in show of solidarity.” The Detroit News, May 31, 2020.

Using Kenneth Burke’s Pentad

Note: Updated 11/8/18 with additional literary examples from The Great Gatsby, better citations, and other minor adjustments.  Some preliminary ideas for turning this into a mini-module are here.

Literary critic and rhetorician Kenneth Burke calls humans “the symbol using animal.” In his long career exploring how humans communicate, he has invented a variety of systems for analyzing speech and writing. In his book A Grammar of Motives he describes what is perhaps his most useful device, a five-term system for analyzing the motivation of characters that he calls the “pentad” (xv).

Most of us are familiar with the the five W’s—Who, What, When, Where, and Why—sometimes called “the reporter’s questions.” A sixth question, “How?” is often added. These questions are designed to elicit the basic facts of a situation. A good news story should answer all of these questions in the first three paragraphs. Everything after that is added detail.

Burke’s pentad is similar, but rather than facts, he is interested in motives. His set of terms is designed to help us think about what motivates the things that people do. Here are Burke’s terms:

PentadChart

Note that Burke collapses “when” and “where” into “scene” and “how” becomes “agency.”

The terms “act” and “scene” may remind you of a play and you would not be entirely wrong, although in a play an “act” is a major section of the play and not an individual action.  Burke calls his system, “dramatism” in part because it treats real life as if it were a drama.  In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, a character says “All the world’s a stage,/
And all the men and women merely players.” Burke would agree.  Burke says,

Dramatism centers on observations of this sort: for there to be an act, there must be an agent.  Similarly, there must be a scene in which the agent acts.  To act in a scene, the agent must employ some means, or agency. And it can be called an act in the full sense of the term only if it involves a purpose (that is, if a support happens to give way and one falls, such motion on the agent’s part is not an act, but an accident).  These five terms (act, scene agent, agency, purpose) have been labeled the dramatistic pentad; the aim of calling attention to them in this way is to show how the functions which they designate operate in the imputing of motives (A Grammar of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives 1962, Introduction).  (Gusfield 135)

Shifting Points of View

Each term represents a perspective or point of view. There is no right way to answer the questions posed by the terms in a particular situation. Rather than a tool for finding right answers, the pentad is a tool for shifting your point of view around to see new possible arguments and ways of thinking about a situation. It can be used to discover the gaps, ambiguities, and contradictions in an opponent’s arguments, plus find ways to counter them by taking on a completely different perspective yourself.

Though newcomers to this system often start by looking at a situation and trying to answer all of the questions as a sort of checklist, the most useful way to use the terms is to combine two of the terms into what Burke calls “ratios.” The most important question is almost always, “What caused or motivated the act?” A lot of the most useful combinations will have “act” on the right side and another term on the left side, representing the source of the motivation you want to emphasize.

Some Examples

We often think that when people do something, they do it either because of their own personal nature (agent→act) or because of their purpose (purpose→act). (Here I am using an arrow to show that the motivation for the act comes from the term on the left. You could think of the arrow as representing something like “leads to.”)

However, there are many other useful combinations. Let’s imagine a neighborhood that has a lot of graffiti. Young people are painting slogans, gang signs, four-letter words, and other messages on buildings, bridges, billboards, and even garage doors. Homeowners and businesses are upset about it. The people doing this are agents. Painting the graffiti is an act. What motivates this act?

In this example, some people in the community argue that the young people have no respect for the property of others, so they commit this vandalism. Burke would call that an agent→act ratio. Bad people commit bad acts. The solution to the problem, defined by this combination, might be to punish or re-educate the agents. However, others argue that the bad neighborhood creates bad people who do this. That would be a scene→agent ratio (We could actually think of this as a three term combination, scene→agent→act.) Here the solution might be to improve the neighborhood through addressing root causes, such as poverty or homelessness. On the other hand, perhaps young people see all of the graffiti in the neighborhood and want to imitate the behavior. That would be a scene→act ratio which might imply a graffiti removal campaign to clean up the city. Finally, someone else might argue that the graffiti is legitimate political or artistic expression. That would be a purpose→act ratio. In that case, the solution might be to engage with the community and address the issues that the perpetrators are talking about. Each of these ratios defines the problem in a different way and implies a different kind of solution. Each implies different kinds of arguments. It is not clear that any one of these perspectives is “correct,” but they are all possible positions. The pentad has opened up a lot of possibilities for discussing the situation.

Defining the Terms

In the example above, the “act” was consistently defined as painting graffiti. Also as noted above, because we are talking about motivation, the act tends to be central no matter what other terms are put into play. How you define the act may totally change the argument. Perhaps one side says the act was murder, while the other says it was self-defense. Similarly, what you call the agent can have important rhetorical effects. One man’s terrorist, is another man’s freedom fighter. Notice also how the scene often defines an act. If a soldier in the scene of war kills an enemy, we don’t call it murder. However, if the same man kills someone in his hometown in a bar fight, we define the act in a different way.

Often we are using the pentad to analyze a speech or a text that someone has written. Beginners often make the mistake of defining the writing of the text as the “act.” That makes the author the “agent,” the computer or other writing tool the “agency,” the society or the audience the “scene,” and the author’s point the “purpose.” This is not the most interesting way to use the pentad because each analysis tends to be exactly the same.

The Pentad in Action

Let’s say that a writer in an online newspaper has written an editorial arguing that graffiti artists are criminals who should be caught and given jail time. The writer is arguing that there should be increased enforcement and punishment. You recognize this as an agent→act combination. However, you think that at least some of the graffiti expresses real issues that are important in the community. You think that problems in the neighborhood are causing the inhabitants to express their voices in the only way they know. You see this not as a (bad) agent→act combination, but as scene→act. And instead of defining the act as vandalism, you want to define it as political expression.

Of course, when you write your response, you don’t mention agent→act or scene→act. Your readers would not know these terms (unless you are writing for your teacher). The pentad is your own secret tool. However, you describe the neighborhood problems and the ways in which the graffiti addresses them. You use this to build a case for addressing the real problems. Your readers do not need to know that you have used Burke’s pentad to think clearly about the issue and to plan your response. They just see the results of your analysis.

Burke’s pentad can be used in almost any rhetorical situation. For example, recently in the news there was a controversy about an alleged sexual assault that happened at a high school party long ago. Much of the discussion was about how much beer underage high school students were accustomed to drinking at the time. At one point, the accused said something like, “Everybody was doing it.” This is a clear scene→act combination. He is saying, “Everybody drank beer, so I drank beer too.” Alcohol can also be an instrument or “agency” of assault. Some people who were part of that scene said that they observed young men spiking the punch with grain alcohol or drugs to make girls more vulnerable to assault and to reduce their ability to consent to a sexual act. In this case we have an agency→act combination, quite a horrifying one. We could also turn this around and ask, “What kind of agent would commit this act?” or “What does this act tell us about the agent?” That would be an act→agent combination, in this case with the “act” on the left side.

Literary Criticism

Believe it or not, Burke’s pentad can also be used for literary criticism. For example, in The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway describes West Egg, the place he has rented a house as “one of the strangest communities in North America” (4). Across the bay “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered across the water” (5). The newly rich and the not-so-rich live in West Egg, while the truly rich who have inherited their wealth and prestige live in East Egg. Gatsby lives in West Egg while Daisy, his love, lives in East Egg, making Gatsby immediately suspicious to the truly wealthy. Burke would call this a scene→agent ratio. In this combination, the “scene,” which can be a place, a culture, or a historical moment, forms the nature and character of the “agent,” the person who acts. At one point, Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). For Tom, if you are from nowhere, you are nobody, and for him that is the ultimate insult.

When Tom and Daisy attend one of Gatsby’s parties, Gatsby points out various famous people including an actress and her director. He identifies people by what they do, an act→agent combination. He introduces Tom to people as “Mr. Buchanan . . . the polo player” (105). Tom rejects this act→agent ratio.

“I’d rather not be the polo player,” said Tom pleasantly, I’d rather look at all these famous people in—in oblivion.” (105)

Tom does not need fame to feel important. He’s too rich. If we think of wealth as a tool for doing things, in Burke’s terms an “agency,” we could say that instead of his actions, Tom is defined by his wealth, an agency→agent ratio.

It is also possible for the scene in which the act takes place to motivate the act, a scene→act ratio. In this novel, the action moves from East Egg to West Egg, and from East Egg to New York, passing through “the Valley of Ashes.” The Valley of Ashes is where Wilson, the gas station owner, and his wife Myrtle, with whom Tom is having an affair, live. Myrtle wants to marry Tom to get out of this place, a scene-act ratio.

Conclusions

The pentad is especially useful if you are trying to respond to an article that you think you disagree with. How does the writer define the act? If the writer is emphasizing the agent, what happens if you look at it from the point of view of the scene? If the writer is emphasizing a tool, such as some kind of new technology (agency), what if you emphasize the purpose? The pentad is a way of shifting perspectives that just might lead you to some winning arguments.

Update: More on using ratios and Burke’s concept of “Identification” in this newer post: Identification and Division in the Current Crisis.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley:Univ. Of California Press, 1945.

Gusfield, Joseph R. ed. Kenneth Burke: On Symbols and Society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

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