Paradoxical power: Victim claims as a rhetorical genre



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When Michael Brown was shot and killed, the country picked sides – either white police officer or black decedent – which led to increasingly public skirmishes in the war over who the United States accepts as a victim. From a rhetorical standpoint, these interactions posed some interesting questions about the definition of a claim of victimization and its rhetorical elements, the expectations for the speaker in making a claim of victimization, and the process through which audiences evaluate those claims. Through the structure of the rhetorical triangle – message, rhetor, and audience, this work attempts to build the theoretical framework for understanding claims of victimization as a rhetorical genre. This work first explores how this claim is rhetorical, reaffirming the rhetorical triangle through the New Rhetoricians’ 1960s and 1970s disagreement over which portions of the rhetorical moment are most significant and how those portions should be analyzed. The research of Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Jamieson provided the groundwork for what constitutes a rhetorical genre, but the basis for the elements of the genre comes from Aristotle’s definition of pity which names five separate conditions which must be met for pity to be elicited persuasively. Discussion moves to the rhetor as the next point of the rhetorical triangle differentiating between the qualities necessary in the ideal orator from Aristotle and Cicero and those qualities in victims which audiences expect. David Konstan’s work on pity supports much of the analysis of victim identity and the socially constructed nature of the innocence and vulnerability required of that person. From the perspective of the audience, several factors play an important role in evaluating a claim of victimization originating in the audience’s “Horizon of Expectations” (Jauss) and their Just World Belief (Rubin and Peplau). It is from this exploration of audience that success may be found in meeting several key expectations of the audience. Case studies follow each of the three points of the rhetoric triangle to exemplify specific attributes of this analysis and include examples from early American literature – Charlotte Temple, slave narratives of the Abolitionist Movement, and the Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.



Rhetoric, Victims, Genre, Aristotle, Pity