Agency and Audience: An Analysis of Contrasting Rhetoric

At a time when employees are burdened with paying more of the cost of employer-sponsored healthcare insurance premiums while receiving reduced benefits, could the offer by two tech companies to pay up to $20,000 toward an elective medical procedure be anything less than astonishing? However, when the medical procedure is oöcyte cryopreservation, or egg freezing, the answer is not clear-cut. Both Jessica Cussins’ article Dear Facebook, Please Don’t Tell Women to Lean In to Egg Freezing and Rebecca Mead’s article Cold Comfort: Tech Jobs and Egg Freezing arrive at similar conclusions about egg freezing but employ contrasting rhetorical techniques and achieve differing levels of effectiveness.

Cussins’ “Dear Facebook” article is a masterful demonstration of sophistic rhetoric, an exposé of the fairy-tale world that we Americans live in that is fundamentally at odds with the renegotiated reality that Cussins proposes we adopt. The mythos that Cussins describes is complete with giants, magic wands and enchanted clocks, damsels in distress and wise sages. The giants in this fairy-tale land are the corporate “tech giants” Apple and Facebook. Unlike the giants in most children’s stories, these appear to be benevolent, but as is often true in fairy tales, these characters wear a deceptive “guise.” They may dispense “giveaways” to grateful female employees and speak of granting women their wish of “empowerment,” but storyteller Cussins reveals the secret—these tech giants are actually tricksters, saying one thing yet meaning another. Rather than granting power to women, they will actually imprison the female employees in the dreary dungeons of corporate cubicles if women succumb to the giants’ spell—the “magic wand” of egg freezing—and accept the proffered gift of a clock that magically delays  parenthood. Wise sages (the members of the ACOG and the ASRM) dispense cautionary advice, but the women, the suffering princesses, heed it not as they embark on a risky journey toward their goal—the (never-guaranteed) magical transformation of an egg into a baby. The mythos that Cussins narrates is the American story of employee dedication to the company, long accepted by the male workforce, coupled with the myth that women actually can “have it all”—a fulfilling career as well as parenthood.

In the tradition of the sophists, Cussins uses logos, in the sense of words rather than logic, to weave the fairy-tale spell. Her article is replete with the poetic devices favored by the sophists, such as alliteration (in “an evening of ‘The Three F’s: Fun, Fertility, and Freezing’—[there are] no F’s left over for ‘Failure Rates’”) and assonance (“believe” the dream, “freeze” the eggs, and “squeeze” out more work for the company, a play on sounds that is also repeated in the title of the piece). The name of the egg-freezing company EggBanxx is a delicious bit of linguistic creativity that Cussins can’t resist mentioning, and she can’t help but follow the mention of Facebook with the term “social egg freezing.” This odd juxtaposition leads one to wonder: Is the procedure somehow related to status updates and cocktail parties? (It isn’t, but Cussins seems to enjoy the ambiguity.) Cussins continues the playfulness as she offers her own definitions of Apple’s rationale for offering the egg freezing perk. Her reinterpretations, introduced with “Surely what they meant to say” and “The Facebook version might be,” illustrate sophistic reasoning from probability. Additionally, she pushes genre boundaries in this piece—it’s addressed “Dear Facebook” like a letter, yet there is nothing else epistolary about it. And much like a pharmaceutical advertisement on television in which the dire warnings of death and serious side effects are read in cheerful tones while happy patients lead healthy lives on screen, Cussins sandwiches vivid medical details and lists of scary health risks between the narration of an egg freezing cocktail party and an inspiring call for “family-friendly workplace policies.”

In her appeal for new policies, Cussins invokes shared cultural values, nomos, in order to draw attention to how inadequate the mythos is in upholding these American values. There exists a discrepancy between the nomos and the mythos, and solutions such as egg freezing only perpetuate the mythos. Cussins reminds readers that we value our status as leader of the developed nations, yet “the United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave.” The concept of “equal pay for equal work” is ensconced in our legal system, yet women who must take time off from their careers experience “pay cuts whose effects can last for decades.” Mythos says that technology fixes everything, yet Cussins demonstrates that our workplace policies require more than just a quick fix. Mythos represents the status quo, a status quo that must be rejected, concludes Cussins, in order to embrace the nomos: “Having one’s employer pay for egg freezing doesn’t push back against the status quo.”

Also rejecting the status quo is Rebecca Mead’s article “Cold Comfort: Tech Jobs and Egg Freezing.” Mead reaches conclusions similar to Cussins’, but she arrives by a different route. Although she uses her share of word play (“Better an iBaby than no baby at all”), her article resists a sophistic interpretation. In contrast to Cussin’s conversational approach, Mead displays a measured and erudite middle style that epitomizes the classical virtues—elegance, composition, and dignity—espoused in Rhetorica ad Herennium. Using such stylistic flourishes as anaphora (“…the conviction that there must be a solution to every problem, an answer to every question, a response to every need…”) and anadiplosis (“…no immediate threat to their fertility—no threat, that is…”) reinforces a more scholarly ethos. But a more significant contrast to Cussins lies in Mead’s dramatistic interpretation of the two tech companies’ offer to provide egg freezing as a medical insurance benefit. For Mead, scene is prominent in this situation. She meticulously sets the stage with three scenes—a “techno-utopian fantasy” world in which women have the seemingly sci-fi power to choose to freeze their eggs, a dystopian setting in which corporations exert substantial influence over our daily decisions and “obliquely engineer the reproductive choices of their employees,” and the present-day scene fraught with systemic inadequacies in policies toward working parents that limit their choices. In each of these scenes the woman is agentive, yet her act—making the choice of when (and whether) to have a child—is nevertheless subject to limitations on her agency by “cultural and professional pressures as well as biological ones.” Mead constructs a scene/act ratio in which the woman’s ability to choose is constrained by the scene. And so Mead proposes to alter the scene by providing better alternatives for women: “So long as not having a baby yet is presented as a would-be mother’s best option [the scene], her choices [the act] are unlikely to get much easier.”

Mead’s interpretation of women as constrained agents is conspicuously in contrast with Cussins’ pentadic ratios. For Cussins, the agents are the corporate collaborators Apple and Facebook and the egg-freezing companies they conspire with. These tech companies attract women (the act) to participate in their scene where “you spend your entire life at the office” by offering the egg freezing benefit (the agency). Noticeably absent in Cussins’ configuration are women as agents: They are the objects of corporate wooing and the objects of medical procedures; they are told what to do (“Please Don’t Tell Women…”) and they are pawns in a public-relations wrangle—but in the end they have no real agency. Cussins addresses her audience of young career women as “you,” developing an immediacy, a sense of presence for them as she asserts that “freezing your eggs is not a magic wand that will allow you to raise a family at your own pace” and warns that “the surgery to remove your eggs involves a needle being inserted into your pelvis” (emphasis mine). Yet as assertively as she vies for women’s identification, the disconnect between her portrayal of women as passive, vulnerable, and objectified and the picture that women desire to see of themselves guarantees that women will ultimately not identify with her vision.

In contrast to Cussins’, the strength of Mead’s argument lies in how skillfully she constructs and addresses her audience. Examining the article using the framework for the New Rhetoric outlined by Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, we see that Mead uses values as the starting point for argumentation, specifically the value of freedom of choice. By masterfully selecting the elements on which to focus attention, or establishing presence as Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca would call it, Mead is able to systematically broaden her audience and so develop adherence by an audience that much more closely approximates a universal audience. She begins by showing that for some young women who thought they might not be able to bear children due to the effects of chemotherapy or premature menopause, egg freezing allows them the choice to become mothers. By the article’s second paragraph, this choice has been expanded to the young career women working at Apple and Facebook. In the third paragraph Mead introduces the idea that this choice will be appealing to a larger group of young career women whose only “threat to their fertility…is…their participation in a competitive workplace in which the bearing and rearing of children is perceived as an aberrant inconvenience.” It is here and in the fourth paragraph that Mead mentions the “older sisters” and “lots of women” who have had to make choices about motherhood without the benefits of this new technology. Mead continues to broaden the audience, now mentioning the difficulty that a woman approaching middle age might have in knowing how long to postpone motherhood. By the fifth paragraph the argument is applicable to women in general who find that their choices are not fully their own but are influenced by many outside forces. Finally, by the sixth paragraph Mead has far transcended the original narrow audience, demonstrating that the issue is applicable to people in general whose choices are widely constrained by corporations. Corporations not only “obliquely engineer the reproductive choices of their employees”; they demand of all of us the “devil’s bargain” of trading privacy “for the sake of convenience or pleasure.” The issue of egg freezing, initially framed as a concern for but a small segment of women, is transformed by Mead’s rhetoric into a symptom of corporate overreach and loss of personal autonomy, a conclusion that unexpectedly affects us all.

Because Mead’s “Cold Comfort” article brings out the universal aspect of the issue of corporate-sponsored egg freezing, I would select it to focus on in a first-year composition course. But to start the unit, I would have students read both this article and Cussins’ “Dear Facebook” article, because by examining these articles side-by-side, both of which deal with the same issue and arrive at essentially the same conclusion, the effect of rhetoric is made that much more obvious. Students would explore questions such as: What is the exigence for these articles? How do the writers frame the issue? Who is the audience for each article, and how do the writers appeal to their audiences? What are their purposes? I would have students examine how each writer employs the Aristotelian artistic appeals (an approach that would have previously been introduced), and I would then introduce Burke’s concepts of terministic screens and the pentadic ratios. Using a jigsaw activity, I would have students, in groups of four, dramatistically analyze one of the two articles, and then the groups would be reconfigured and discoveries shared.

Once students have a firm understanding of each article, especially in terms of terministic screens, I would introduce the writing project. This project, based on Mead’s suggestion that there are other ways that corporations subtly influence us, would propel students beyond the issue of egg freezing into the broader concern of “the more invisibly pervasive force of corporate control.” How else might corporations “engineer” our lives? Potential topics for investigation could range from the issues of net neutrality and corporate political contributions to the influence of corporations on education. However, because I value the invention process that takes place when students discover and define their own projects, I would avoid the current-traditional rhetoric stratagem of assigning a “topic” and would instead use whole class and individual inventional strategies to help students generate ideas of areas to investigate. The writing project would be to discover an area of their personal lives that is in some way under the sway of corporate influence, analyze the multiple perspectives that are represented in this issue (students would be encouraged to avoid a one-sided pro- or anti-corporation stance), and synthesize these perspectives (i.e., the multiple terministic screens) so that other students will be better able to understand this complex issue. (I am indebted to John Bean, Virginia Chappell, and Alice Gillam for their outline on p. 103 of Reading Rhetorically of an approach to researched assignments that avoids the narrow “pro/con” pitfall.) Depending on the amount of time that can be devoted to this project, students would write a paper reporting their findings and post it to the class blog, and/or develop a curated blog in which they present the multiple perspectives, and/or give an interactive presentation to the class. This assignment would be an attempt to encourage students to go beyond what Burke calls “the second rung of the ladder,” in which others’ perspectives are investigated merely in order to combat them, and to expose students to the third, or dare I hope, the fourth rung where “the various voices, in mutually correcting one another, will lead toward a position better than any one singly” (284).

Works Cited

Bean, John C., Virginia A. Chappell, and Alice M. Gillam.Reading Rhetorically.4th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. “Linguistic Approach to Problems of Education.” Modern Philosophies and Education: The Fifty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I. Ed. Nelson B. Henry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955. PDF file.

Cussins, Jessica. “Dear Facebook, Please Don’t Tell Women to Lean In to Egg Freezing.” The Huffington Post. 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

Mead, Rebecca. “Cold Comfort: Tech Jobs and Egg Freezing.” The New Yorker. 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

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