More Than Mere Rhetoric

[Note: Some of today’s posting comes from a chapter on rhetoric in Critical Voter.]

Before launching into a discussion of persuasive language, sometimes referred to as rhetoric, it is worth considering why this body of knowledge is often not included when students are taught critical thinking.

One reason is caught up in a tendency to dismiss rhetoric as “mere rhetoric” rather than as a subject once understood to be a cornerstone of proper education. In this case, the phrase “mere rhetoric” implies that any use of crafted language represents nothing more than a trick or gimmick designed to confuse and obscure rather than clarify and convince.

This distrustful attitude towards even the word “rhetoric” fits a wider modern belief that if we can only rid ourselves of stodgy and dishonest rhetoric, we can enter (or perhaps re-enter) a world where communication consists of nothing but honest and sincere discourse.

But is this realistic? Or are we more likely to create a world where those (such as advertisers and politicians) who have not chosen to ignore the study of rhetorical techniques will be able to use those skills as they like with the rest of us no longer possessing the skill or even the vocabulary to defend ourselves?

Another reason critical thinking and rhetoric are often considered separate domains is that most critical-thinking courses (commonly taught at the college level) are taught by people with philosophy backgrounds, and the competition between philosophy and rhetoric goes back more than two-thousand years.

This rivalry can be traced to ancient Athens where a group of itinerant teachers, called Sophists, provided Athenians who could afford their services lessons on how to skillfully use crafted language to convince an audience, such as a governing assembly or court. In that early democratic society, the ability to move a crowd was a key to power, which is why teachers of rhetoric were in high demand.

In contrast, philosophers like Socrates and Plato expressed hostility to techniques that could be used to make the weaker argument appear the stronger. For philosophy was interested in the truth, rather than the “mere” appearance of truth, which is one of the reasons hostility between theorists and practitioners of philosophy and rhetoric continues to this day.

Yet the need to persuade an audience persists, and rhetoric can be used to persuade people to accept truth just as easily as falsehood. Which is why I will be using the next few postings to help the critical thinkers/logic-checkers you have all become discover those choices in wording, phrasing, or verbal organization that, for whatever reason, tend to make persuasive speeches moving, memorable, and, most importantly, effective.

You will notice that I did not include “great” in that list. That’s because the techniques we will be discussing, while enormously useful and even powerful, cannot turn a bad argument into a good one.

You may recall from what you have read so far that a strong argument has certain components: sound logic; the right balance of logic (logos), emotion (pathos), and connection to the audience (ethos); and the correct use of verb tense reflecting what kind of argument you are making (forensic, demonstrative, or deliberative).

Now if based on these foundations your argument is strong, then adding effective rhetorical styling can turn a good argument into a powerful one. But juicing up a poor argument with such verbal pyrotechnics might, at best, obscure how bad the case you are making actually is. More often than not, however, it makes you come off as untrustworthy, or a muddled thinker (and thus not very convincing).

So think of these rhetorical techniques as similar to garnishes or decorations rather than as the core of argumentation. Depending on the uses they are put to, they can either be icing on a cake or lipstick on a pig.

By the way, those last two phrases were clichés, which I’ll get to towards the end of this series.

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