Jack McCoy, Ciceronian Rhetoric, and the art of Pathetic Conclusions

Tomorrow I'm planning a quick, introductory lecture on Ciceronian argument. As such, I'll be referring to the six-part structure extracted from the Catiline Orations and discussed at length in De Inventione. In brief:

  • Exordium [prepares the hearer... this can be creative, it depends on kairos; thinking of They Say, I Say, this is where you make the case for "who cares?" or "why care?"]
  • Narration ["the facts of the case," here is an objective overview, or a statement of a problem]
  • Partition [here is where the speaker lays out exactly what they will be arguing; defining the scope of there work. What they hope to accomplish]
  • Confirmation [the presentation of evidence]
  • Refutation [respond to possible objections]
  • Peroration [sums up the argument, usually incites pathos of some kind]

In putting this lecture together, I hoped to find an example of one of Jack McCoy's closing arguments from Law and Order, by far my favorite television show. Nathaniel River, Ryan Weber and I have talked about doing an article comparing Law and Order and CSI in light of Sophist (non-Aristoletian) rhetoric vs. Platonic philosophy. In CSI, cases are always solved "beyond a shadow of a doubt." The show is full of cliches testifying that "the evidence doesn't lie" or "there is always a clue." There's even a few episodes in which Grissom staunchly denies that "human observation" (i.e., eyewitnesses) shouldn't be considered as evidence at all. In the end, a CSI episode wraps up nice and neat (even if there is at times some question as to whether the crime was justified). As a rhetorician, I prefer the "mess" of Law and Order: at the end of every episode, regardless of the legal decision, there is always residual moral ambiguity. In Law and Order, stasis is never as absolute as it is in CSI. In CSI, a dead body always signifies a crime to be solved. In Law and Order, a dead body signifies a social problem. Whether there was even a crime is often a matter of the morality of the jury (and viewer).

Anywho, in searching for a video clip, I came across a PDF article "The Art of Closing" on the impact of Law and Order on juridical practice. While I had heard of the CSI effect (the idea that the show has made jury's expect rigorous scientific evidence for every conviction), I had not heard of a Law and Order effect. Essentially the author, attorney David A. Gradwhol, argues that the performative and emotive dimensions of McCoy's closings are having a noticeable impact on jury expectations. I think his conclusions make sound advice for any rhetorician:

  • While attorneys might not be able to reduce their closings to the five-minute (or less) Law and Order versions, they should push for focused brevity: "a focused closing has the power to etch the merits of the client's position onto the jurors' minds."
  • Avoid jargon: "lawyers should not confuse the jury with obscure legal terms... The lawyers' verbal arsenal should include analogies and key words that elicit strong mental and emotional images for the jury."
  • While actual closings might not be able to offer moral soliliquies, they can strive "to keep the moral high ground... as they may present issues of moral concern about honoring contracts or providing an injured person with the compensation he or she deserves"

When teaching "academic writing," I have always struggled to find a helpful way to present conclusions. But I think these two final points offer a possibility of conceptualizing the conclusion as an emphasis on "why care?" Sure, the conclusion needs to remind us of the logos for the argument, but it should wrap this logos in pathos. The conclusion elicits cooperation by arousing passion. Truth can never be divorced from desire--and a strong conclusion needs to remind the audience why they should care to endorse a particular truth.

1 comment:

Casey said...

Interesting stuff. I've always been weirded-out by that phrase "beyond the shadow of a doubt," for obvious (to a rhetorician) reasons...

I've never made a comprehensive study of every argument that's every been tried in court, but I'd be stunned if some Defense lawyer somewhere didn't start his closing argument by quoting Emerson:

"A noble doubt perpetually suggests itself, whether... nature outwardly exists."

Or Turgot: "He that has never doubted the existence of matter, may be assured he has no aptitude for metaphysical inquiries."

Wouldn't that be an awesome thesis for a closing argument? "Guilty?--maybe: but only in the world of senses!"