Toward a definition of moral decorum: Understanding the Pennsylvania Hall Address as an ethical response to the constraints of public expectations through Angelina Grimke’s use of sacred kairos and Biblical allusion
On the 17th of May, 1838, Angelina Grimke addressed a promiscuous audience in the newly-built Pennsylvania Hall. By speaking publicly on abolition and women’s rights, Grimke responded to the exigencies of her space, her audience’s (dis)interest, and the violent protestations of the mob which interrupted her remarks, but broke with the societal decorum. Decorum has been central to rhetorical theory since the classical period, functioning as an element of audience analysis. Although decorum has been traditionally considered as saying what is “right” given societal expectations, sometimes it is impossible for the rhetor to follow decorum when reacting to moral exigencies (such as the horrors of slavery).
Some scholars have analyzed why defying the restraints of decorum is sometimes necessary to effect a rhetorical change. For example, Schilb explored “rhetorical refusals” (3) as deliberate violations of conventions. A theory of non-traditional decorum based on higher ideals has been well established by scholars, and I propose to build on these theories by offering a concept of moral decorum as a lens through which to view subversive rhetorics that find justification through the moral exigencies to which they respond. This thesis explicates a theory of moral decorum and uses two of its related components – sensitivity to sacred kairos and the reliance on an ethical framework – to perform a concept-oriented criticism of Angelina Grimke’s 1838 Pennsylvania Hall Address as an example of the theory at work. Through this effort, I hope to expand the understanding of the negotiation between decorum and the rhetor’s ethics, to offer new insights into Grimke’s Pennsylvania Hall Address, and to introduce a new theoretical lens for analyzing the indecorous discourse of protest and change.