In Amy Lewis’s essay Cultivation Theory and Black Stereotypes, the author uses several tactical devices to attempt to make her central thesis more compelling. This thesis is the validity of the cultivation theory, which states that popular entertainment shapes social attitudes. Lewis uses examples of popular films over the last 100 years to illustrate this. The tactics she uses include the “naysayer,” quotations from outside sources, repetition (of both themes and phrases), and a form of the “they say/I say” device. Interestingly, none of these devices strengthens her argument as such; what they do is dress it up so that it is more compelling.
A standard rhetorical device is the “naysayer,” or the anticipated counter-argument. The idea is to imagine someone who might be in opposition to what one is saying and then shoot that imaginary opponent down. This is most effective when one’s argument raises an obvious objection, or “begs the question.” Lewis uses this tactic in support of cultivation theory: “With white-on-black violence being glorified and even justified in such popular forms of entertainment, it is hardly an outrageous extension of logic to make the correlation between what occurred on-screen and what transpired in real life” (Lewis 5). It, in fact, may very well be, and probably is, an outrageous extension of logic to postulate such a correlation, if for no other reason than that even the most popular films are only seen by a small fraction of the public. But by in one breath anticipating and then dismissing this perfectly valid objection, Lewis deflates it before it is even presented. How could anyone possibly raise that objection, she says. It is an effective tactic.
Quotations bolster one’s argument(s) in a very basic way: “See, this person (of authority, presumably), agrees with me.” It is a bit of a sham tactic in that for just about any point of view or statement, it is possible to dredge up somebody who agrees with it and quote them. Lewis uses a quote from Guerrero (Lewis 7) to bolster her contention that Sidney Poitier’s appeal to white audiences was due to his having been emasculated and therefore stripped of all the qualities that might have made him objectionable to those audiences. This, however, is two drops in the ocean instead of one: Lewis’s opinion added to Guerrero’s. It is a very weak validation at best, but it is nonetheless effective as a tactic.
Lewis uses the repetitive theme of the historical mistreatment of blacks by whites to bolster our perception of the correctness of the cultivation theory. Yet, she does little or nothing to establish a correlative, let alone a causal link between popular entertainment and racial prejudice. Additionally, she uses “black” as an adjective over and over: black race, black man, black representation, etc. This subtly implants the impression in the reader’s mind that there are two worlds, even two realities: the black one and the white one. This bolsters the cultivation theory in that it plants the idea that popular entertainment creates its own reality.
A fourth tactic used by Lewis is the “they say/I say” device. This is implied rather than stated outright in her essay. Lewis criticizes what she sees as a disproportionate and therefore unfair portrayal of and concentration on African American violence in the popular news media. For example: “In reality, white victims are three times more likely to be attacked by another white person than by a member of any minority” (Lewis 13). Interestingly, this statement proves very little in the case of black-on-white crime, since in the U.S., whites do, in fact, outnumber blacks by about a 3-1 ratio, making it statistically three times likelier that the perpetrator of a crime against a white person is also white rather than black. But Lewis doesn’t rely on the use of logic in her essay; she is trying to support a dubious premise, and therefore the tactics mentioned here rather than logical argumentation serve her best.
I have attempted here to outline some of the tactical/rhetorical devices used by Lewis to support her contention that the correctness of cultivation theory is validated by the changing portrayals of blacks in American film and those portrayals’ correlation with real-life race relations. The correlation, however, exists but is weak. Lewis distracts the reader from this conclusion, though, by her use of those devices.
Lewis, Amy. Cultivation Theory and Black Stereotypes.