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Tag: stump orator

The Birth of the Extrovert Ideal and Susan Cain’s Quiet

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Penguin, 2012) has created waves and provoked much discussion on the benefits and difficulties of the “extrovert ideal” that Cain sees as central to western society. In the first chapter of the book, Cain offers a history of the rise of the Cult of Personality, which she sees as successor to the Cult of Character which was prevalent until about the 1920s (the terms are taken by Cain from Warren Susman).  The big difference between the two is that the Cult of Personality is externally focussed: the important thing is how others feel about you – it’s social power for men, “fascination” for women (that was the term in the 20s, now pretty much obsolete). With the earlier cult of character, deeds were central, rather than appearance. For Cain, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) is a key text in this change, both exemplifying the move towards Personality as it had already begun, and helping to expedite and finally entrench it. Aside from Carnegie’s and other influential books, Cain also notes the constitutive effect of economic systems on the individual: she attends a self-empowerment seminar with Tony Robbins and notes that the principle underlying all of Robbins’ activities and mantras is that “salesmanship governs even the most neutral interactions” (38). This is again seen to have roots in the 1920s rise of the “go-getter” – a business principle expanded to embrace all social interaction.

Cain’s history is interesting, but I wondered why she had chosen to pinpoint the 1920s as the historical point of extraversion’s triumph. The reason is not made wholly clear in Quiet, and I think that it has less to do with socio-economic specifics of that decade than with the fact that that was when the terms extraversion and introversion came into common currency – originating with Jung, then through Adler and so on. In fact, the extrovert ideal was apparent much earlier, if not under that name. My own study interest, Thomas Carlyle, was very aware of this. Carlyle was something of a contradiction because, as D.H. Lawrence observed, he wrote 30 volumes in praise of silence. In other words, he didn’t necessarily practice what he preached. Yet what preoccupied him in his writings was the emphasis on speech in his society of the mid-19th century. His great object of aversion was parliament: “Parliament will train you to talk; and, above all things to hear, with patience, unlimited quantities of foolish talk” (“Stump Orator”, Latter-Day Pamphlets [1850] (Dodo Press, 2012), p. 153). The effect of this on the human individual was quite unpleasant:

“A poor human creature and learned friend, once possessed of many fine gifts, possessed of intellect, veracity, and manful convictions on a variety of objects, has he now lost all that; – converted all that into a glistening phosphorescence, which can show itself on the outside; while within, all is dead, chaotic, dark; a painted sepulchre full of dead-men’s bones. (Ibid.)

Carlyle ultimately connects speech with insincerity and action with sincerity, and diagnoses his society as insincere to the point of disfunctionality, but for him the locus of the insincerity is not so much in the market economy as it is in the democratic system of government. The member of parliament, incumbent or aspirant, does not speak truly; he does not even try to speak truly; he cannot even try to speak truly. For him, the goal is to speak his “plausiblest, [his] showiest for parliamentary purposes” (156). Once this becomes a habit of mind, even thinking truth becomes impossible. For Carlyle, one can never speak untruthfully with impunity, because the seed of insincerity enters the mind, and makes of it “a painted sepulchre full of dead-men’s bones”, as it were. And if this form of thought and speech is enshrined in the highest establishments of the nation, the lower must follow suit.

It is clear from reading Carlyle that the debate on introversion-extraversion was of considerable moment in the mid-19th century. You can see in Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) for example, how the demagogue (Slackbridge) was an object of distrust, and how his power over the people was feared. Dickens, too, was for silence and inarticulate doing rather than orating (in theory). So Cain’s history, though interesting, wrongly (I would suggest) assumes a temporal link between the birth of the extrovert ideal and the coining of the term. In contemporary society, there are political and economic situations which would appear to favour the extrovert, but this situation is not new: many people are more discomfited by silence than they are by the talking of rubbish, and phatic communication is for many a reassurance and a social glue. The extrovert ideal may go deeper than any politico-economic framework,  because even talking rubbish can bring people together, so long as they both talk the same kind of rubbish, whilst also necessarily excluding  non-rubbish-talking introverts, who may not “get on” quite so fast, but still remain what Jung called them, “educators and promoters of  culture” (qtd. Cain, 26); and thus retain, perhaps, a certain feeling of superiority and a not wholly unpleasing disdain for their more loquacious but less discerning brethren.

The US Elections and Carlyle’s “Stump Oratory”

Thomas Carlyle insisted that the leader of any people should be the ablest man among them, also known (to him) as the “strongest” man. Should the Ableman come to power, all would be well; should an unable man come to power, all would not be well, but very much the reverse. There are, of course, many ways of seeking the appropriate leader, but the worst of all ways, according to Mr C., was through democratic elections. This was because through these was found not the man who was ablest, exactly, but the man who was ablest to get elected. That is not the same thing at all.

To be able to get elected a man must have one skill above all: talking. Therefore, once democracy becomes established, then “Vox is the god of the universe”. A democratic society is a talking society, a show society, where the man who would be elected to any post at all must talk his way into it. He need not be wise, but he must be plausible. And plausible to the greatest number, who Carlyle found to be inevitably “blockheads”. So, if to be plausible is not to be wise, as Carlyle felt it was not, then society has a problem. The Chelsea Sage asked: “Is society become wholly a bag of wind, then, ballasted by guineas?” and implied that the answer was a resounding Yes.

Barack Obama

Thomas Carlyle, rhetor and anti-rhetorist

In the wake of the US presidential election, one may reflect that Carlyle’s diagnosis, though blunt and perhaps unnuanced, still holds some central truths about the democratic process. Barack Obama’s victory speech, for example: was this a wise speech, or a plausible one? Did it even aim for wisdom, or just plausibility? If we allow that Obama is, relatively speaking, an able man, if not necessarily the Ableman of Carlyle’s philosophy, how do we find that his ability and intelligence is manifested in his speech? The speaking of a president, I would contend, is almost always of the bag of wind variety. Thus Obama’s speech began with an appeal to jingoistic pride:

Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to  determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward.

Then there’s a lot of formulaic, generalized rhetoric about “spirit” and “dreams”, also touching the buttons of “individuality” and the national “family” – America is both individual independence and community:

It moves forward because of you. It moves forward because you reaffirmed the  spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted  this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope, the belief  that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American  family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.

Then “the road has been hard, the journey has been long, etc.” So many words, so many cliches, so little substance, so little focus. So much generality, so little detail. So much rhetoric, so little originality and personal vision. So much “flinging up of caps” in celebration  from the congregation, so little stopping to think whether the speech contains even a germ of truth or meaning. To top it all off at the end, Obama invoked “God’s grace” to help guide America forward. It’s always a good move, once the crowd are fired up with enthusiasm, fellow-feeling, nationalist pride, to bring in the G-word: so much resonance, so little meaning. And that was the thread of the whole speech, the old rags of idealistic language, worn thin but enough to get the cap-flinging started. In the cold light of day, it’s all meaningless, but many people never see the cold light of day.  They don’t want to, and as long as Obama (or whoever) is prepared to feed them the old cants, they won’t have to.

So to return to Carlyle: he had grave misgivings that all of this talking was by its nature insincere, that doing brings us closer to truth and our own natures, but that talking brings us away from truth towards plausibility. Eventually, we can’t tell the difference, but are very sure that the plausible on which we have been nourished must be truth. We no longer see with eyes, but with the spectacles of public opinion, to use one of his favourite metaphors. Obama’s victory speech is another example of that: its banality is hardly even a reflection of him, but of the sum of social factors to which he must respond to become the most electable man. The problem is, one can’t simply assume the role; like with any role, one ends by becoming it. To indulge in too much stump-oratory is “to have your bloated vanities fostered into monstrosities by it, your foul passions blown into explosion by it, and perhaps your very stomach ruined with intoxication by it”, says Mr C. A bit excessive? Perhaps, but yet we must admit, and it is shown starkly in the victory speech of the US president, that we live in a time of cant and jargon, with who knows what consequences for the human soul.

Obama, Barack, “Election 2012 victory speech”,  wptv.com, 8 Nov 2012. http://www.wptv.com/dpp/news/world/obama-victory-speech-full-transcript-complete-text-election-2012-speech-transcribed#ixzz2BdxFx8Ox”

All Carlyle quotes taken from: “Stump Orator”, Latter-Day Pamphlets (London, 1850)

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