Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

9.4: Shared Sense of Identity

  • Page ID
    56606
  • Audio Version: Click to stream recording of page (June 2020):

    One way to create sense of connection and trust is to point to an identity that writer and reader share. If emotions are bound up in that identity, this can be a powerful way to gain trust and to encourage readers to care about the argument. As Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor put it in A Rhetoric of Argument, "Audience members find themselves looking into a mirror, hearing their own interests and beliefs expressed powerfully--or perhaps they hear interests and beliefs they did not know they had until they heard them expressed by their representative."

    To signal this appeal to a shared identity, writers simply name the group, as in the phrase "My fellow Americans." They may switch to an accent or specific vocabulary used by the group, a practice called "code switching." Listeners, of course, will be deciding for themselves whether the switch feels authentic. In April 2019, Representative Alejandra Ocasio-Cortez was accused of using "verbal blackface" because of the way she switched style at a dinner for the National Action Network led by prominent black leader Reverend Al Sharpton. As The Atlantic put it, she "sprinkled some elements of Black English into her speech." The Atlantic describes it thus: “I’m proud to be a bartender. Ain’t nothing wrong with that,” she said, also stretching “wrong” out a bit and intoning in a way sometimes referred to as a “drawl,” but which is also part of the Black English tool kit." The Atlantic defended her speech as authentic. They explained that "since the 1950s, long-term and intense contact between black and Latino people in urban neighborhoods has created a large overlap between Black English and, for example, “Nuyorican” English, the dialect of New York’s Puerto Rican community. To a considerable extent, Latinos now speak “Ebonics” just as black people do, using the same slang and constructions."

    Even if the group identity in question is not an emotionally charged one, referring to it can help readers feel connected to the writer and the argument. For example, an argument might begin, "Those of us who drink fluoridated water every day reap many health benefits, whether we know it or not." Such a reference brings the particular identity to the forefront of the reader’s mind.

    Sometimes writers feel that the most powerful thing they have in common with readers is opposition to a group rather than membership in a group. They can try to get readers on their side by focusing on a group they presume the reader does not or will not want to belong to. Defining that group negatively becomes the basis for unity and trust between writer and reader.

    Of course, any negative characterization of a group raises ethical questions. Is the negative assessment justifiable? Is it expressed in a disrespectful or dehumanizing way? Does its use inflame divisions within society in a way that has harmful side effects? Apart from the question of whether or not referring to another group is right in a specific case, writers should also be aware of ways in which negative references can undermine trust, especially if the audience ends up being broader than the writer initially envisioned. Sometimes putting the opposition in a group can backfire and hurt an argument more than it help. Here are two controversial examples:

    • In 2016 when Hillary Clinton referred to some Donald Trump supporters as "a basket of deplorables," she was not just criticizing their ideas but trying to make them seem other, a group no one would want to belong to. She used the phrase in a speech at an LGBT fundraising event, but news of it quickly went viral. In response, Trump declared to his supporters, "While my opponent slanders you as deplorable and irredeemable, I call you hardworking American patriots who love your country." His campaign printed shirts that read "Proud to be a deplorable." Clinton apologized for her remark soon after, but many considered that she had done irretrievable damage. In her 2017 book What Happened, she reflected that the comment probably contributed to her loss in the election.
    • The phrase "OK Boomer," used to express Generation Z's frustration with baby boomers who seem stuck in their thinking, has been criticized as dismissive. The New York Times declared in October 2019 that "‘OK Boomer’ Marks the End of Friendly Generational Relations."