Is All Fair in Love and Rhetoric?

At the end of the last post in this series on rhetoric, I indicated that things often considered positive qualities, such as fairness and sincerity, might not always be considered virtues when it comes to rhetoric.

Ethical issues related to use of persuasive communication have caused problems for centuries for those who make their living off convincing others.

Today, we like to sneer at lawyers who use their skill with language to make a weak case seem better than it is. But this is the same criticism the citizens of ancient Athens used against a group called the Sophists, traveling teachers who taught the rhetorical skills you’ve been reading about in this series to the ambitious and wealthy. And the same jokes and accusations today targeted at attorneys were used in ancient times to mock the Sophists for using their word skills to make a weaker argument seem the stronger.

The problem with such value judgments is that in the real world you often have to move a conversation one way or another for reasons other than trickery.

For example, if you are one of those aforementioned attorneys, you owe your client the best defense possible. So if the facts are not on your side, it’s perfectly reasonable to appeal to something else, by making an emotional appeal to pity or justice, for example.

Is this cynical and manipulative? Well, the facts weren’t on Martin Luther King’s side when he was hauled into court for breaking the law since he was actually breaking the law of his day. But by appealing to something other than the facts (in this case to justice), using exquisitely crafted rhetoric, he was able to move audiences, move lawmakers to act, and ultimately move the world. (I just used anaphora, by the way.)

To cite a less lofty example, let’s say you are selling the most expensive product in a category and you are talking to a potential customer who tells you his or her top priority is price. At that point, you can either accept what the person is telling you and walk away from the deal or drop your price to meet the customer’s demand. Or you can try to convince them to think about something else, like features, quality, or service, all of which might be your strengths. Alternatively you can redefine price as the total cost of buying, implementing, and using a product over time, which might also be to your advantage if your solution is cheaper to maintain once implemented.

Keep in mind that rhetorical tools cannot turn a weak argument into a strong one, even if they can mask those weaknesses or distract an audience from what they should be thinking about. But if you have a strong argument and have also mastered the rhetorical techniques you’ve been reading about on this site, you can easily nullify an opponent’s ability to manipulate an audience into accepting a position weaker than your own.

So persuaders have an ethical obligation to hitch these rhetorical devices to strong arguments, ideally ones that are also moral and honest. As for audiences for persuasive arguments (such as political speeches or television ads), we have an obligation to know what persuaders are trying to do when they use these rhetorical devices to try to push us one way or another.

Having brought up ethical matters, I’d like to close this series by talking about a topic not usually thought of in the context or rhetoric or ethics: clichés.

Most writing instructors will say that you should avoid them like the plague since sentences with clichés, such as “avoid like the plague,” are a sign of lazy writing. But persuasive arguments can sometimes be streamlined through the careful use of clichés that allow you to communicate a fair amount of information using a simple, well-known phrase.

For example, a president can go on for several paragraphs explaining how her administration takes responsibility for both the good and bad things that happened on her watch. Or she can simply reach for the Harry Truman quote that summarizes this sentiment in four powerful words: “The buck stops here.”

Clichés that have withstood the test of time because of their ability to deliver what is commonly called “folk wisdom” (like “a penny saved is a penny earned”) are called aphorisms and they can be used effectively in persuasive rhetoric as long as they are used sparingly.

The real problem with clichés is not with these self-contained, time-tested, well-meaning aphorisms. Rather the problem comes from the overuse of shorter, tired phrases used to make written or spoken arguments seem better thought out than they actually are.

Most of you are probably familiar with George Orwell through his famous novels 1984 and Animal Farm. But in addition to writing these immortal titles and other important but lesser-read works, Orwell was one of the greatest—some would say the greatest—political essayists of the twentieth century.

One of his most famous essays, called Politics and the English Language, talked about the corrupting influence lazy, clichéd language can have not just on politics but on thought itself. In that essay, Orwell was railing not against folksy aphorisms but against the modern tendency to dress up speech in strips of prefabricated phrases and tired metaphors chosen to give the appearance of weight and thoughtfulness, regardless of how weak, thoughtless, or even horrific the argument.

One of the most famous quotes from that essay is Orwell’s translation of an honest (if hideous) political sentiment into contemporary, immoral doublespeak:

“Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that certain curtailment of the rights to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."

One doesn’t need to go this far to see this stringing together of reasonable-sounding but utterly vacuous language as a substitute for serious thought and honest communication. You see it whenever a press release or corporate memo is larded with dying metaphors (such as “play into the hands of,” “grist for the mill,” or “anytime soon…”), verbal false limbs (like “render inoperative,” “be subjected to,” “exhibit a tendency towards…”), or pretentious diction (including words such as “categorical,” “virtual,” “ameliorate,” “extraneous,” or “synergy”).

We should also be on the lookout for use of the passive voice such as “mistakes were made” or “conditions rendered previous estimates inaccurate” vs. the far more accurate “we screwed up” or “our original predictions were absurdly optimistic.”

Orwell suggests a way out of this language trap: begin our thinking about an argument not by selecting language that seems convincing, but rather by determining the fewest words needed to make our case. After that is done, if ornamentation seems necessary it should be done only using vivid and original images and metaphors rather than tired clichés.

Now this may seem to fly in the face of what you’ve read in this chapter (“fly in the face” is another cliché, by the way). But really, Orwell’s advice is just one more step you should take to create a strong argument before you start dressing it up with persuasive rhetorical baubles.

Does your argument already possess the right balance of logos, pathos, and ethos to be effective? Are you using the right verb tense and is your argument built on a strong foundation of accurate facts and strong logic? In that case, your next step should be to determine the fewest words necessary to deliver your message.

Once you’ve got your argument boiled down to its essence, then and only then should you start reaching for rhetorical devices that will allow you to expand this “elevator pitch” into a fully articulated spoken or written presentation where rhetorical devices can turn your strong argument into a crowd-pleasing triumph.