Ideology names a system of presuppositions shared by a culture or community. An ideology is larger than any specific argument or rhetor or context. It’s older than those who commit to it, and it will very likely outlive them.

Ideology is a kind of persuasion without a rhetorician—that is, it persuades without any conscious argument. To study ideology is to study a community’s doxa (it’s shared presuppositions) rather than a single rhetor’s conscious or explicit claims. Ideological analysis requires attention to commonly shared presumptions and to presumptions that support an individual argument.

One way to do this is to search for what Michael Calvin McGee, a renowned rhetorician, called “ideographs.” An ideograph is an ordinary but abstract term “representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal.” We tend to react “predictably and autonomically” to ideographs, which may be positive or negative. For example, while patriotism and freedom are positive ideographs in the US, tyranny and slavery, can “guide behavior and belief negatively by branding unacceptable behavior.”

Ideographs are used metaphorically in all discourse and are not simply invented, but socially and politically constructed. Ideographs sidestep argument altogether, securing their case without actually making it. You are conditioned to think of “the rule of law,” “liberty,” “privacy,” and “property,” for example, as logical commitments—just as you’re taught to think that “186,000 miles per second” is an accurate description of the speed of light, even if you can’t do the math to prove it.

Ideographs have the power to unite and separate us by conditioning us to inherit the specific “usages” and material ideas that we, through our culture, have learned to accept for the sole purpose of “belonging.”

So, for example, who in a democracy would be opposed to actions taken under the auspices of liberty and freedom? To do so would be, precisely, undemocratic. Citizens of a democratic state are “conditioned” to believe that liberty and freedom are fundamental, irreproachable, so we citizens are expected to unquestioningly accept actions claiming to be in defense of liberty and freedom.

Ideographs are ordinary but abstract terms infused with moral value. They are often used in political discourse to represent the ideals of a culture and to call for collective commitment to a normative goal (Condit and Lucaites, 1993; MacIntyre, 1981; McGee, 1980). An ideograph is more akin to a pictograph than a word (hence the term ideograph), so that this single word or short phrase can be used to stand in for whole philosophical or ideological approaches. Ideographs are used as handy linguistic shortcuts to convey a host of ideas; they represent a paradigm wrapped up in a single word or phrase. Ideographs contain within them and communicate a line of argument that is never articulated.

Ideographs are highly charged terms or phrases that don’t have a specific referent. Ideographs are highly abstract and can be defined in different ways by different audiences. Americans are all for liberty, for example. It’s a highly charged term. But what it means to one person may be very different than what it means to another. And if either one of them can claim what they’re arguing for is on the side of liberty, that becomes part of the argument’s persuasive power. And yet, because liberty is a very abstract term, two opposing positions can easily claim that their position is taken in the name of liberty.

By adopting an ideograph, one sort of automatically adopts its ideology, too. When a speaker uses ideographs, s/he writes ideology into the communication without making a single reference to his or her underlying presumptions. Words can be used as strategic resources in ideological battles never made explicit, even to the users.

McGee (1980) suggested two approaches to the analysis of ideographic usage in political language: the diachronic approach, which examines how usage changes and expands throughout its history; and the synchronic approach, which examines how the meaning of the ideograph is accommodated to specific situations. We will interest ourselves in only the synchronic half: we will identify ideographs in specific artifacts in order to demonstrate the enormous persuasive force of “ideological predisposition,” even within communication that is not explicitly an argument. We will also look for ideological paradoxes within a single artifact and the ways in which a rhetor attempts to resolve that paradox. 

Ideological Paradox: Sometimes a rhetor needs to deal with conflicting ideologies.

For example, we Americans embrace both liberty and the rule of law, which restricts liberty, and we realize that a we have to give up a little bit of personal freedom to assure liberty for all. We all kind of understand that: the rule of law actually protects our individual liberty. Our liberties are protected so long as we follow the law. So when MLK writes “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he has to explain why he is both a proponent of liberty but still is arguing that he and his followers should break some laws. He does this through the formal topic of “division” (designating the species of a genus), suggesting that there are two sorts of laws: just and unjust. He argues that it is in the name of liberty for all that one must break unjust laws while keeping all the others and thus resolves the paradox.

The “American Dream” exists in our every day discourse in a paradoxical relation with “equality.” On the one hand, the American Dream is the belief in the naturalness of competition, of the desire to get ahead; it’s the conviction that individual desire and determination are all it takes and should take to succeed. This “rugged individualism” required to achieve the American Dream promotes individualism in social and economic affairs; it’s a belief not only in personal liberty and self-reliance but also in free competition and private property. Rugged individualism describes the individual who strikes out alone in pursuit of a goal not easily achieved, a goal that often involves risk and one that most people would not readily undertake. The gold rush, for example, or high risk business deals—both of which involve the possibility of striking it rich, of gaining exceptional wealth and prosperity. On the other hand, however, it values self-interest above the needs (and survival) of other people, including other Americans, running counter to another positive ideograph Americans hold dear: the value of “equality and justice for all.” One might resolve this paradox in various ways–one might argue that it’s about the equal chance to compete, or that one who succeeds exceptionally then has a duty to others. Or: those who achieve tremendous business success are “job creators,” so there is a trickle down justice, etc.



A handful of positive ideographs in our culture: Liberty, privacy, private property, national security, rule of law, trial by jury, religious freedom, freedom of speech, family values, American Dream, democracy, democratic values, patriotism, equality, principle of confidentiality, public trust, American, separation of powers, humanity, homeland, motherhood, life, rights, honesty

A handful of negative ideographs in our culture: slavery, tyranny, demagoguery, communism, fascism, socialism, discrimination, oppression, inequality, animality, terrorism, torture, dishonesty, predator, sexist, racist, bigot, illegals. If you link your opponent’s position to any of these ideographs, you’ve positioned them against the prevailing ideologies of our culture.

In the current presidential race, Trump tries to tie Clinton to <dishonesty> and the kind of bad judgment that threatens <national security> by inviting <illegals> and so <terrorism>, <rape>, <murder>, etc. Clinton tries to tie Trump to <dishonesty>, <demagoguery>, <bigotry>, <racism>, <sexism>, and the sort of unfit temperament that threatens <national security>, <public trust>, and <democracy>.

[[[Here is an amusing but not atypical example of the ways positive ideographs can be clustered together into political slogans. Note that several of Romney’s “cliches” are also ideographs captured in slogan form (“strong America” <security>, “American values” <liberty, equality, work hard-get ahead, rule of law, etc.>, “Washington is broken” <no longer supporting American Dream>, “values we believe in” <see above>, “family oriented people” <family values>, “hard work” <American Dream>. Each of these slogans consist in ordinary terms that remain highly abstract, representing a collective commitment to a specific but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal. Note that democratic candidates would also embrace these ideographs but define them differently–what does it mean to have a “strong America”? Are we talking about military security? Economic security? A healthy population? etc. And what does “family values” mean? One side might say it means the defense of marriage act. Another might say it means supporting gay marriage. One might say it involves revoking Roe v Wade. Another might say it means protecting a woman’s control over her own body. Similarly, “getting the job done” or “hard work” (Git ‘er done!) can be linked to any number of approaches.

Obama supporters celebrate him as one of the most effective presidents in recent history, crediting him with getting huge things done even with a republican congress: health care reform, Wall Street reform, saved the Auto industry, repealed “Don’t ask don’t tell,” won marriage equality, saved the economy, etc. Obama’s detractors denounce him as the worst president ever, saying he got nothing of substance done–discrediting each putative “success” as a blunder: Obamacare needs to be repealed, the auto bail out was a disaster, too many regulations, economy is a disaster, etc. ]]]

Example of ideographic argument: Historically, the abortion debate involved the rhetorical process of working certain ideographs.  These included, for example: “life,” “choice,” “motherhood,” “family” “humanity,” “rights”; they also included negative ideographs like “murder” and “oppression”/”discrimination.” The debate throughout the 70s and early 80s—and now again—was over the cooption of positive ideographs and the projection (onto the other side) of negative ideographs.

  • One side argued for the “rights” of the fetus; the other for the “rights” of the adult women carrying them.
  • One side argued that “motherhood” was sacred; the other argued that women were not reducible to “motherhood,” that there is much more to being a woman than being a mother, and that forcing women to be mothers is state sanctioned “oppression.”
  • One side argued that “family” was the purpose of sex and that “family” values had to be protected; the other argued that forcing women to bring “unwanted children” into the world was no way to protect the value of “family.”
  • One side argued that the fetus was already a human “life” and that killing it was “murder.” The other side argued that a woman’s life was also valuable—not “public property”—and that forcing her to bear a child she doesn’t want or can’t care for amounted to state sanctioned “discrimination” and/or “oppression.”
  • When the battle settled mainly around the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” ideographs, the pro-choice side argued that legal abortions protected “life”: the lives of adult women. The pro-life side argued that “choice” was exercised in the decision to have sex, and that one didn’t have the right to choose to kill.