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Hatchet Job: Bully Pulpit

Your Humble Blogger was all cranky about the note over at the OUP blog called Sagan and the modern scientist-prophets, where Lynda Walsh attempts to tie the rhetoric of the modern scientific public intellectual to that of the prophet. I’m not convinced at all, and nothing in her note makes me think that the book is more convincing than the short note. It’s possible, though, that I am misunderstanding what she means by the words prophet and prophecy; they are slippery terms at the best of times. When she says, though:

When the gears of our democracies grind to an impasse, our prophets step forth from the wilderness and remind us who we are, what we really value. With our dilemma cast in this new light, we can at last move off its horns and into civic action.

This was what Jeremiah did for the nation of Judah; this was what the Delphic oracle did for Athens as it faced down Xerxes.

That’s… powerfully unconvincing.

But that’s not really why I am bothering telling you so—people are wrong on the internet all the time, and why focus on that? But Ms. Walsh also happens on one of my recent pet peeves that is totally unconnected to her point when she describes Carl Sagan as “the first public scientist to leverage television as his bully pulpit”. Not because it’s untrue (which it is), but because I have grown to really, really dislike the phrase bully pulpit. And I have three separate levels of analysis to show why you should never use it again!

First of all, of course the bully pulpit is the presidency, so you should never use it the way Ms. Walsh does, to refer simply to a position of wide reach or influence. The story is that Teddy Roosevelt, when accused of an overly preachy rhetorical style, said but I have got such a bully pulpit! Probably made up, of course. But the point is that it refers specifically to the Presidency, and it refers to the idea that the office has a uniquely powerful rhetorical position. And it does: the President is probably the most powerful single speaker in the world, but that doesn’t in the end amount to all that much. The President can’t change very many minds with speechifying. He’s in a terrific position to be the leader of a whole pack of speakers who can combine to have incredible power, but that is exactly what’s obscured by the use of the term bully pulpit, and all the moreso when the term is degraded by applying it to any position other than the presidency.

My second complaint is about the pulpit. There are reasons why we criticize Presidents who sound like preachers, and why we rarely elect preachers to the Presidency. It’s not a pulpit. Or, rather, it’s not supposed to be a pulpit, and it is one, and that’s not preventable but it is problematic, so the use of the term uncritically is problematic.

My third and most serious complaint, though, is about the bully. First of all, we don’t use bully any more in that sense—meaning, as the OED says, either ’admirable’ or ’first-rate’. We don’t use it as a term of affection, either. We don’t say that things are bully for us when they are going well. No, we have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, because bully means somebody who bullies, and bullying is (broadly speaking) a pattern of coercion and intimidation by threats or violence. Bullying is a constant topic of conversation for parents, teachers and school administrators; it’s a constant topic of newspapers and radio and television; it’s a constant topic on social media. And that topic is incredibly muddled—all of our definitions of bullying have some overlap, but not all that much, when it comes down to it. It’s a mess.

And the thing is, the modern use of bully and the TR use are connected: he considered the pulpit bully because it was metaphorically big, loud, intimidating, overawing, swaggering, bullying. That was a good thing. What kind of a boat was a bully boat? What kind of a car was a bully car? What kind of a boy was a bully boy? The big kind, the kind that could make everyone get out of the way, the kind that scares the little people all around. TR—and I think he’s an underrated President, by the way, made ridiculous in large part by caricature rather than history—as part of the culture of his time, thought of bigness and pushiness and bulliness as inherently positive things. We don’t.

Or, at least, we struggle against it. It’s not easy, actually. I see it in my kids’ schools, and I see it in the university I work at, and it’s not easy. The words matter—not every time, not every word, but in the aggregate, over the generations, the words matter. As the attitudes change, the words change, and as the words change they reinforce the attitudes. We’ve stopped using bully admiringly almost everywhere, but we have one remaining idiom. It’s time to stop that one, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.