McGee, Michael Calvin. “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology.”

McGee, Michael Calvin. “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 66.1 (1980): 1. Print.

“Since the clearest access to persuasion (and hence to ideology) is through the discourse used to produce it, I will suggest that ideology in practice is a political language, preserved in rhetorical documents, with the capacity to dictate decision and control public belief and behavior. Further, the political language which manifests ideology seems characterized by slogans, a vocabulary of ‘ideographs’ easily mistaken for the technical terminology of political philosophy. An analysis of ideographic usages in political rhetoric, I believe, reveals interpenetrating systems or ‘structures’ of public motives. Such structures appear to be ‘diachronic’ and ‘synchronic’ patters of political consciousness which have the capacity both to control ‘power’ and to influence (if not determine) the shape and texture of each individual’s ‘reality'” (McGee 4-5).

“a vocabulary of ‘ideographs’ easily mistaken for the technical terminology of political philosophy” Important distinction between the rhetorical, performative function of ideographs and an individual’s or party’s actual political philosophy.

“…yet the image of hooded puppeteers twisting and turning the masses at will is unconvincing if only because the elite seems itself imprisoned by the same false consciousness communicated to the polity at large” (McGee 5).

In other words, it not as simple as being duped by the elites because the elites often believe the same ideas being imposed on the proletariat. 

“…ideology is transcendent, as much as influence on the belief and the behavior of the ruler as on the ruled” (McGee 5).

“…in practical terms, the only way to shape or soften power at the moment of its exercise is prior persuasion.” (McGee 5).

“We make a rhetoric of war to persuade us of war’s necessity, but then forget that it is a rhetoric–and regard negative popular judgments of it as unpatriotic cowardice” (McGee 6).

“Though words only (and not claims), such terms as ‘property,’ ‘religion,’ ‘right of privacy,’ ‘freedom of speech,’ ‘rule of law,’ and ‘liberty’ are more pregnant than the propositions ever could be. They are the basic structural elements, the building blocks, of ideology. Thus they may be thought of as ‘ideographs,’ for, like Chinese symbols, they signify and ‘contain’ a unique ideological commitment; further, they presumptuously suggest that each member of a community will see as a gestalt every complex nuance in them” (emphasis added, McGee 7).

“Ideographs are one-term sums of an orientation, the species of ‘God’ or ‘Ultimate’ term that will be used to symbolize the line of argument the meanest sort of individual would pursue, if that individual had the dialectical skills of philosophers, as a defense of a personal stake in and commitment to the society. Nor is one permitted to question the fundamental logic of ideographs: Everyone is conditioned to think of ‘the rule of law’ as a logical commitment just as one is taught to think that ‘186,000 miles per second’ is an accurate empirical description of the speed of light even though few can work the experiments or do the mathematics to prove it” (McGee 7).

Ideographs are above question or critique. 

“Equality” is valued both in the US and the USSR but defined and used differently (McGee 8).

“Unlike more general conceptions of “Ultimate” or “God” terms, attention is called to the social, rather than the rational or ethical, functions of a particular vocabulary” (McGee 8).

“So my ‘pure thought’ about liberty, religion, and property is clouded, hindered, made irrelevant by the existence in history of the ideographs “Liberty, Religion, and Property. Because these terms are definitive of the society we have inherited, they are conditions of the society into which each of us is born, material ideas which we must accept to ‘belong.’ They penalize us, in a sense, as much as they protect us, for they prohibit our appreciation of an alternative pattern of meaning in, for example, the Soviet Union or Brazil” (McGee 9).

Because language inhibits thought, ideographs and all they invoke make “pure thought” impossible.

“…awareness of the way an ideograph can be meaningful now is controlled in large part by what it meant then” (McGee 11).

“The more significant record of vertical structures, however, lies in what might be called ‘popular’ history. Such history consists in part of novels, films, plays, even songs; but the truly influential manifestation is grammar school history, the very first contact most have with their existence and experience as part of a community” (McGee 11).

Ideographs are instruments of socialization; they instruct, they normalize, they inculcate values. There is general agreement on their definitions. Their diachronic antecedents that are brought up as concrete, specific precedents are typically cherry-picked and rhetorical (examples to the contrary are ignored).

“…key usages considered historically and diachronically are purely formal; yet in real discourse, and in public consciousness, they are forces…” (McGee 9).

Ideology=>history/grammar/diachronic structure/vertical


“No present ideology can be divorced from past commitments if only because the very words used to express present dislocations have a history that establishes the category of their meaning. And no diachronic ideology can be divorced from the ‘here-and-now’ if only because its entire raison d’etre consists in justifying the form and direction of collective behavior. Both of these structures must be understood and described before one can claim to have constructed a theoretically precise explanation of a society’s ideology, of its repertoire of public motives” (McGee 14).

“The truth of symbolist constructs, I have suggested, appears to lie in our claim to see a legitimate social reality in a vocabulary of complex, high order abstractions that refer to and invoke a sense of ‘the people.’ by learning the meaning of ideographs, I have argued, everyone in society, even the ‘freest’ of us, those who control the state, seem predisposed to structured mass responses. …In practice, therefore, ideology is a political language composed of slogan-like terms signifying collective commitment” (McGee 15).

“An ideograph is an ordinary-language term found in political discourse. It is a high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal. It warrants the use of power, excuses behavior and belief which might otherwise be perceived as eccentric or antisocial, and guides behavior and belief into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable” (McGee 15).

Thus an ideograph such as FV helps normalize conservative social policy across the political spectrum. 

“A complete description of an ideology, I have suggested, will consist of (1) the isolation of a society’s ideographs, (2) the exposure and analysis of the diachronic structure of every ideograph, and (3) characterization of synchronic relationships among all the ideographs in a particular context. Such a description, I believe, would yield a theoretical framework with which to describe interpenetrating material and symbolic environments: Insofar as we can explain the diachronic and synchronic tensions among ideographs, I suggest, we can also explain the tension between any ‘given’ human environment (‘objective reality’) and any ‘projected’ environments (‘symbolic’ or ‘social reality’) latent in rhetorical discourse” (McGee 16).

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