I’ve written several times over the last year or so about the importance of style, which Richard Lanham argues is the most important canon of rhetoric today—in a “fluff” economy when what can get and hold attention in the midst of an absolute onslaught of information is what stands out and whose style says “listen to me” loud and clear.
Style has certainly been on my mind this last week or so as we’ve witnessed two very different styles at work in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings. Christine Blasey Ford, who has said Judge Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were in high school, presented a straightforward, understated style that came across to many as genuine and credible. Brett Kavanaugh seemed to be adopting Trump’s style of in-your-face, aggressive push-back that at times bordered on rudeness. Republican senators echoed the same style, most notably in Lindsey Graham’s shouting, name-calling, finger-pointing style. Across the aisle, Kamala Harris walked out at one point, using silence to “voice” her disagreement, while Patrick Leahy hammered away at the nominee, using repetition to drive home his points. Very different styles at work.
Which were effective, and which were not? I think it’s worth asking students to consider these questions, especially in a time of such extreme division. What styles do they find most compelling? Which ones offend them or are off-putting, and why? Was Oscar Wilde right in declaring that “one’s style is one’s signature”?
Such a discussion might be even more productive if students first wrote a paragraph or two reflecting on their own style: what words would they choose? How would they describe their style in terms of clothing? In terms of music, or sports, or film? Perhaps more to the point, what style would they like to project? How would they like others to describe their style—as writers and speakers, as members of a group or groups, and so on?
Finally, they might well take a look at a piece of writing they are particularly proud of and look closely at its style: how well does that style match with what they wrote earlier about their own styles?
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