14 June 2006, 3:19 PM
Gentle Reader Irilyth asked for Your Humble Blogger’s opinion on rhetoric, to contrast (I think) with somebody’s idea that rhetoric is evil. I don’t want to pretend to argue for Irilyth’s friend, since I have no idea what his actual position is (he is, of course, welcome to state it here) and such things usually wind up as straw man arguments. I will say that I suspect that Irilyth misstates his friend’s view, probably due to a confusion of terms.
Rhetoric doesn’t strike me as something you can be for or against. It’s like physics. It just is. I mean, you can be against physics, but it won’t do you much good. You can be against the study of rhetoric, I suppose, but again, that’s like being against the study of physics: it won’t change the nature of the thing, and it certainly won’t help you deal with it. I’ll take as an axiom that knowledge is good, myself. What I suspect Irilyth’s friend is against is what he considers the immoral use of that knowledge to persuade people against their better interests, what some people call sophistry, although that’s an insult to the Sophists. I’m against that, too, although like being against immoral use of the knowledge of physics, it’s the use that draws the objection and not the knowledge, and certainly not the physics. And, of course, there’s the insurmountable objection that people have different opinions on the morality of actual uses, and while I am willing to legislate against certain egregiously harmful rhetorical acts, I would do so reluctantly and slowly.
On the whole, though, I feel, strongly, that the antidote to bad rhetoric is knowledge about rhetoric. A speaker who knows that her audience will recognize the cheaper tricks that are often used to mask illogical arguments may well pay more attention to the arguments themselves. If she doesn’t, she may lose the audience. That’s good. Even if all she does is use fancier tricks, well, I’m in favor of that, too. A little variety in our discourse would be swell.
This doesn’t just apply to political speeches, of course, although I happen to enjoy breaking those down for my own enjoyment. No, all speech (and all acts of communication) has rhetoric, and even clumsy speech is worth studying. On the whole, the world is people trying to get you to do something—vote a particular way (or at all), buy a particular product, watch a particular show, stand to the left, increase your productivity, exercise, wash your hands, eat fruit. Many of those are good things to do. The difficulty is knowing which ones. Since all those messages are communicated using some form or another of rhetoric, a knowledge of rhetoric can help you strip the actions from the persuasion to the actions, which is all to the good.
As for all the things you want other people to do—vote a particular way (or at all), watch a particular show, share the covers, attend a party, exercise, wash their hands, eat fruit—well, a good working knowledge of rhetoric can help you to persuade them. Yes, some of the tricks are essentially dishonest, but many of them are just ways of getting and keeping a person’s attention, making clear what it is you want them to do and why, and perhaps entertaining them a bit while you are doing it. Which is, of course, part of persuasion. An audience is easier to persuade if they are in a good mood, in part because they have given you a power of authority by virtue of their good will. This isn’t dishonest, nor would it be more ethical if everybody were grouchy all the time. Using rhetoric carefully, honestly and beautifully is just communicating well, and who could be against that?
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,