SIU Department Name | Page Title

siu logo siupress logo

SIU logo


Main Content Area

Ethics and Politics of Speech

Ethics and Politics of Speech

Communication and Rhetoric in the Twentieth Century

Add to Cart

Pat J. Gehrke


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
224 pages, 6 x 9


Additional Materials

About the Book

In The Ethics and Politics of Speech, Pat J. Gehrke provides an accessible yet intensive history of the speech communication discipline during the twentieth century. Drawing on several previously unpublished or unexamined sources—including essays, conference proceedings, and archival documents—Gehrke traces the evolution of communication studies and the dilemmas that often have faced academics in this field. In his examination, Gehrke not only provides fresh perspectives on old models of thinking; he reveals new methods for approaching future studies of ethical and political communication.
            Gehrke begins his history with the first half of the twentieth century, discussing the development of a social psychology of speech and an ethics based on scientific principles, and showing the importance of democracy to teaching and scholarship at this time. He then investigates the shift toward philosophical—especially existential—ways of thinking about communication and ethics starting in the 1950s and continuing through the mid-1970s, a period associated with the rise of rhetoric in the discipline. In the chapters covering the last decades of the twentieth century, Gehrke demonstrates how the ethics and politics of communication were directed back onto the practices of scholarship within the discipline, examining the increased use of postmodern and poststructuralist theories, as well as the new trend toward writing original theory, rather than reinterpreting the past.  In offering a thorough history of rhetoric studies, Gehrke sets the stage for new questions and arguments, ultimately emphasizing the deeply moral and political implications that by nature embed themselves in the field of communication.

            More than simply a history of the discipline's major developments, The Ethics and Politics of Speech is an account of the philosophical and moral struggles that have faced communication scholars throughout the last century. As Gehrke explores the themes and movements within rhetoric and speech studies of the past, he also provides a better understanding of the powerful forces behind the forging of the field. In doing so, he reveals history’s potential to act as a vehicle for further academic innovation in the future.



Pat J. Gehrke is an associate professor of communication at the University of South Carolina and has served as chair of the communication ethics division of the National Communication Association. He has published articles on communication ethics and other topics in a range of journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Argumentation and Advocacy, Philosophy and Rhetoric, and Philosophy Today.


"What connection does living well actu­ally have with speaking well? The Roman rhetorician Quintilian defined the orator as a good person speaking well. But because it's unclear that virtue actually does breed eloquence, or eloquence virtue for that matter, Quintilian evades what Richard Lanham calls the Q Question: Is thegood speaker necessarily a good person?' Gehrke locates places in liberal demo­cratic discourse where the Q Question makes incongruous appearances—such as the federally sponsored "Four-Minute Men" making congenially propagandistic speeches to U.S. theatergoers. The connec­tion between supposedly hygienic rhetoric and military action became especially troubling when Allied rhetorical strategies against fascism proved nearly impossible to distinguish from fascist rhetoric against democracy (hence Gehrke's renaming the Q Question as the Hitler Question). Despite our hopes for speech communica­tion to foster mental hygiene and moral excellence, Gehrke writes, "we always seem deep in examples of rhetorical skill void of such excellence."

The intractability of the Q Question has made speech communication a discipline both restless and resourceful. After the early decades of the 20th century, speech teachers shifted emphases from public oratory to group discussion on the grounds that discussion was more balanced, more objective, arid less triumphalist—only to bump, once again, into the ethics/efficacy dualism. As it turned out, mental hygiene, not to mention rational group discussions, provided little stay against the coerciveness of mass-mediated messaging. The result was a shift in speech communication from the quasi-scientific approach of the 1920s and 1930s to the existen­tialist philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s. But even while challenging essentialist accounts of speech—especially those treating communication as the transfer of mean­ing from self to self—existentialism ran into its own variant on the Q Question. For all their ethical sophistica­tion, existentialist-inflected speech theories proved just as preoccupied with efficacy as their essentialist counterparts. The final decades of the 20th century only sharp­ened the irony as philosophical relativists in speech communication behaved more and more like political absolutists.

Gehrke's story makes no claim to be the Authorized Version: "The point is not whether this work is a comprehensive or synoptic account of the history of a field of thought— it is not—but rather whether it carefully documents the possibility of conceiving of that field of thought or the particular questions within that field in a compelling and viable way." In the final chapter of the book, Gehrke shows how the discipline has deployed aggressively postmodern idioms to wrestle yet again with perennial questions of ethics and politics.

First, the ethics. If it is true that speech does not come from the self, but rather the self from speech—and Gehrke believes the discipline's conversations bear out that contention—then such a speaking self must negotiate an "ethics that cannot privi­lege oneself or what is common between oneself and others but must privilege something that comes before anything that might be shared or common." He calls what "comes before anything" the event of "being-communicating," an ongoing encounter with the Other that is always bringing the self into existence: "However, it is not any specific or particular relation­ship that brings the 'I' into being but rather the sheer fact that there is any relation at all." Accordingly, being-communicating occurs in encounter after encounter in which the Other enlivens and confronts the self with an endless series of ethical choices for which no certain criteria obtain. This ethic has political conse­quences: we should not "seek to achieve an end state or to realize an ideal vision" but rather make "small moves within the gaps and ruptures in existing political sensibilities."

Compelling and viable the book proves to be, even for those who disagree with Gehrke's immanentist ethical and political sensibilities. Not least, the book suggests that the routinely despised basic speech course belongs in the curriculum. Simply learning how to deliver a speech well, it turns out, confronts us with vital questions about agency arid otherness. Further, Geh­rke's history offers a welcome alternative to the worn cardiocentric trope, "It's what in your heart that counts." Shifting moral analysis from the heart to the tongue, he weaves ethics as closely to speech as St. James does. Finally, the book serves as a corrective to those whose "just do it" approach to cul­tural engagement collapses ethics into efficacy. Gehrke's small moves" may evoke for some readers what James Davison Hunter calls 'faithful presence.'" --Craig Mattson