Why does rhetoric matter?

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Rhetoric gets a bad press. Familiar phrases like 'empty rhetoric' and 'cutting through the rhetoric' create the impression that rhetoric is little more than a linguistic back alley – a dark and dangerous place teeming with dubious characters who spend their time perfecting ways of pulling the wool over our eyes. A destination honest folk, like you and me, steer clear of.

We know that what goes on there has something to do with the dark art of persuasion. We know it involves ever more sophisticated ways of deceiving us into thinking and doing things without us even being aware of it. And, most worrying of all, we know we’re powerless to resist its chicanery.

When you take a closer look, however, there’s an inherent contradiction in the commonplace view of rhetoric. It supposes there are two distinct, but irreconcilable, types of rhetoric. On the one hand, there’s the rhetoric of the back alley; on the other, there’s the exalted rhetoric of inspiration and enlightenment that has the power to lead us out of the darkness towards the sunny uplands of salvation.

But does this stack up? Are there really two kinds of rhetoric? One good, the other bad? Or perhaps we are talking about a single rhetoric which can be used by bad people to manipulate us and by good people to inspire and enlighten us. Neither possibility stands up to careful scrutiny.

In his seminal work On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, Aristotle makes it clear that rhetoric is an essential property of language, not an optional extra. He defines rhetoric as “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion." Whatever the situation, the rhetorician is someone who is always able to see which of the various options available to them will prove most persuasive. Despite this ability, Aristotle accepts that the rhetorician won't, of course, be able convince in all circumstances.

Aristotle illustrates his point by comparing the rhetorician to the physician. He tells us that the physician can only be said to have a complete mastery of their art if they take into account every possible treatment that might heal their patient – though this doesn't guarantee they'll be able to heal all their patients. Similarly, he says the rhetorician can only be judged as having achieved a complete grasp of their art, if they are able to discover the available means of persuasion in every situation, though this too doesn't mean they'll be able to convince everybody.

Everything we say could be said differently. In any situation, we are always faced with a choice. Imagine, for instance, you are sitting in a cafe and a waiter politely asks for your order. You could respond in a variety of ways:
"Tea, please".
"Bring me a tea".
"I'd like a tea".
And so on.

The list of possible responses is extensive, but each one will have a different impact. Some responses might feel abrupt or rude to the waiter, while others might feel polite and respectful. The important point about rhetoric is that in any given situation, however quotidian or momentous, our sensitivity to linguistic nuance can make, or break, our attempts to persuade and influence those around us.

Understood in this way, rhetoric is indeed an intrinsic quality of language and communication. One that we choose to ignore at our peril, especially if we seek to persuade and influence others. After all, no one wants an indignant waiter pouring hot tea over them, do they?

Monday April 19th, 2021

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