When former prosecutor Nancy Grace and host of Court TV’s “Nancy Grace: Closing Arguments” and sundry primetime specials appears on Larry King Live, a call-in love-fest invariably ensues. Callers lead off their call-in questions about the crime du jour with declarations of love and admiration for Nancy who, like John Walsh, has made a media crime-fighting career out of her own tragic victimization and loss.
As most of her fans know, a young Nancy Grace lost her fiancé to a random murder/robbery. The violence of the loss, which could destroy anyone, instead motivated her to become a prosecutor and, eventually, to speak out for crime victims everywhere.
In classical rhetorical terms, Nancy Grace possesses exquisite “ethos”, the quality in a speaker that lends credibility to her position and persuasiveness to her arguments. When we say, “She has earned the right to speak about X or Y,” we are talking about “ethos”, and Nancy Grace has it in spades.
Grace also argues cogently, marshaling the evidence and connecting all the logical dots. The Greeks called this rational aspect of persuasion “logos”. She argues with great passion, as well, what rhetoricians call “pathos”, or the appeal to the emotions. In every aspect of persuasion–“ethos, logos, and pathos”–Nancy Grace excels. No wonder, then, that as prosecutor in Georgia she accrued a perfect 100-of-100 record of convictions.
As she appears on TV, of course, Nancy Grace also poses the proverbial triple threat: she’s beautiful, smart, and funny. So what’s not to love about her?
Putting aside the obvious fact that Grace turns crime and people’s fear and loathing of crime and violence into entertainment for profit (she is a veritable one-woman industry), what is most not to love about Nancy is the immoral effects of her self-righteous, over-zealous, and very often gleeful condemnation of violent offenders-mostly child-molesters, rapists, and murderers.
All but the most perverse among us condemn child-molestation, rape, and murder. Most all of us also want to see violent offenders caught and punished, if not rehabilitated (many of us do believe people can change). So Nancy has no special claim to condemnation or desire for justice.
But she clearly wants something more.
Nancy relishes vengeance, and she wants us to relish it with her, to dwell on prospective or actual vengeance (for example, lethal injection) in what amounts to an endless feedback loop of righteous indignation, shock, and horror.
As she (and we along with her) dramatically abhor all there is to abhor about perfidy and violence, Grace draws such a bright line between Us and Them (“scum,” “dirt bags,” “monsters,”) that we can no longer see violent offenders as human beings . . . or ourselves as potential violent offenders–capable of cruelty, inhumanity, and callous disregard of others (torture, bombing of civilians, that sort of the thing).
TV icon Nancy Grace thus serves as yet another pied-piper of tried and true American denial and disavowal. She leads us straight to the perfect scapegoat (itself already “evil”), loads it up with all we hate about ourselves, and with great fanfare sacrifices it on the alter of ideological purity.
This fantasy ritual, played out day after day, night after night, may soothe our psyche but does nothing to change our nature, or improve the world we live in. Our difficult, unruly emotions and our own cruel impulses stay with us, but are so deeply repressed that we become numb to the full scope of our humanity, which includes, significantly, mercy.
Nancy’s own voluble assurances that Stan Tookie Williams deserved to die prove she is numb to mercy. When you divide people into the good and the evil, mercy, which requires empathy of tremendous force, becomes virtually impossible. Good, as any English teacher will tell you, cannot empathize with Evil. Only people can empathize with other people. As the embodiment of unadulterated Good, Nancy could not empathize with Williams.
As a popular entertainer, Nancy Grace exploits the yawning desires associated with vengeance and the scapegoat pleasure of unburdening oneself of one’s own demons, but in the end she makes the world a more dangerous, more brutish place for us all.
TOM KERR, Ph.D., is professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Ithaca College. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org