Do The Right Thing

photo cred: Gathered Moments Photography

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: athletes are some of the greatest rhetoricians among us.

Imagine, for example, the relationship between the pitcher and the batter.  It’s a complicated relationship forged in a complex calculus of the probable, yet unknown.  I love those close-up shots on television of the batter studying the pitcher, waiting for the ball.  The batter is poised, bat over shoulder, feet planted just so, ready to nimbly meet whatever comes.  In that moment, the batter is both at the mercy of the pitcher, the rules of game, the equipment, the umpire and also a participant and creator of the game.

The ball leaves the pitcher’s hand.

In that moment, the coach can’t tell the batter exactly what to do at the plate.  There’s absolutely no way of knowing exactly where that ball is going to go prior to stepping into the situation.  There’s no way of knowing from which direction the wind will be blowing.  There’s no way of knowing exactly what the umpire is going to call a strike.  The only thing the batter can do is to arrive at the plate poised and remain sensitive to the game unfolding.

Of course, the coach can make a pretty good guess about what will happened and how to react based on what has happened in the past and a myriad of other known factors.  The batter can guess as well.  And they can both prepare accordingly.  But in that utterly kairotic moment when the ball is flying through the air, everything is in flux.  Everything is becomingThis rhetoric is forged on the fly.  And the coach’s line has to be: do the right thing.

That doesn’t mean do whatever you want.  It doesn’t mean anything goes.  Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that if everything is becoming then the terms of ‘rightness’ are always shifting.  The response must emerge out of circumstantial propriety and not from prescribed rules. Do the right thing.

No one, I would suggest, understood this better than the sophists.

As John Poulakos notes, the sophists were very much concerned with the concepts of kairos and to prepon.  Put simply, they were concerned with both timeliness and appropriateness and they rejected strict, overly prescriptive rules about what the rhetorician should or should not do.  Writes Poulakos:

Because the rhetorician concerns himself with the particular and pragmatic, his way is not that of an abstract absolutism created in the spirit of a priori truths; rather, it is that of a relativism of concrete rhetorical situations to which situationally derived truths are the only opportune and appropriate responses. (42)

So it is that Isocrates marvels when he observes “men setting themselves up as instructors of youth who cannot see that they are applying the analogy of art with hard and fast rules to a creative process” (73).  Isocrates, like the athlete, understands that general principles, hard and fast rules are destined to fail because they ignore the particulars of any given situation.

So, yes, we can look to people like President Obama as some of the great rhetoricians of our time.  We could look to any number of orators, writers, politicians, lawyers.  That’s all well and good.  But the athlete… look at her poised at that plate.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

Poulakos, John. “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric”. Philosophy and Rhetoric 16.1 (1983): 35-48. Web. 23 Sept. 2010.
Anonymous.  “Dissoi Logoi” in The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present.  Ed by Patricia Bizell and Bruce Herzberg.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.
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2 Responses to Do The Right Thing

  1. mwatts1280 says:

    I love your analogy, Brent! It strikes me that lots of the particulars of the baseball scenario could also apply to other sports. I wonder how the scenario changes when we’re talking about a point guard on the basketball court facing down the other team and looking to her teammates to determine the next move: pass, dribble, or shoot. How does it change when we’re imagining the football field and the quarterback who’s responsible for initiating the play negotiated during halftime?

    Using sports scenarios, I think you could theorize a whole world of new models that could be used to understand the variety of manifestations that we call the rhetorical situation.

    • Brent Simoneaux says:

      re: “I think you could theorize a whole world of new models that could be used to understand the variety of manifestations that we call the rhetorical situation.”

      I was sitting next to a kid in the library yesterday who was watching the Miami football game over the Internet. I was being nosy and asked him why he was watching it on the internet and not at the actual game which was taking place down the street, literally. He responded that it was too cold outside.

      And so there he sat in the library watching the game on his computer.

      This got me thinking about your prompt to theorize new models for rhetorical situations. Whatever that theory may be, it’s got to somehow account for the ways in which the game is largely mediated by technologies. It’s got to take into account the way that the game travels via time and space, the speed at which it travels too. Delivery on crack. Spectacle, performance: it all travels at the speed of light.

      It’s also got to take into account how epistemologies are shifted. Here’s example that I can’t take credit for thinking of: the instant replay. Think about the MLB’s introduction of the limited replay in 2008, rife with controversy, the last of the four major sports allow its use.

      In the days before the instant replay, before our experience of the game was so mediated by video technology, judgment calls were were made in thick of the moment, as it were; judgments were always shifting and were highly perspectival. Somehow the camera’s ‘eye’ is more ‘objective’ and we can tell what ‘really’ happen. With objective, removed, all-knowing eye that are able to slow down ‘reality’, the rhetorical situation is absolutely shot through with yet another layer of complexity…

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