The meaning of the word “rhetoric” seems to differ depending on how the word is used and who's using it. You've probably heard politicians some time or another dismiss the positions of their opponents as “mere rhetoric.” You're probably also familiar with the idea of a rhetorical question—a question that is meant to make a point and not meant to be answered.
But rhetoric, as we use it in this class, means something different. Rhetoric is simply the ways in which we try to persuade a given audience, for a given purpose.
So what does that mean more precisely? It's a simple idea, but once you begin to see it, you can find rhetoric acting everywhere there is an audience and a someone trying to make a point with that audience. Here are some classic (and some might say less-than-reputable) examples of rhetoric:
But rhetoric can be much subtler (and quite positive) as well:
Throughout most of history, rhetoric referred to the arts of speechmaking and oratory. In this class, we will use it to refer to persuasion that occurs through any medium, not just text or speech. In this class, I hope you will start to see all communication as rhetorical—that is, as a set of deliberate, strategic decisions that someone made to achieve a certain purpose with a certain audience. You will also learn how to develop effective rhetorical strategies for your own communication.
The rhetorical triangle is a way of thinking about what's involved in any communication/persuasion scenario. It involves (no surprise here) three main parts:
An important part of the rhetorical triangle is that these three “variables” are mutually interdependent: in successful rhetoric, each of them must be reconciled and made appropriate to the other two. The purpose, for instance, must be appropriate to the rhetor and what that rhetor is capable of achieving with the audience. Similarly the audience must be appropriate to the rhetor and the rhetor's purpose. And finally, the rhetor has to be appropriate for the purpose and the audience.
Perhaps examples would help here. Say I am the rhetor, and my audience is my boss. I want to make more money, so I make it my purpose to get a raise. However, that purpose has to be reconciled between factors regarding who I am as a rhetor (am I credible or well-liked? am I worth the money?) and who my boss is (is she generous and understanding? Does she even have the money to give?). If I make it my purpose to make $1 million a year, I'm not likely to be met with much success. Therefore I must reconcile my purpose to what is possible—given both who I am as a rhetor and who my audience is. I should probably make my purpose more realistic by asking for a more reasonable amount of money.
In the same scenario, I also have to make sure my audience is appropriate to my purpose. It doesn't make any sense, for instance, to address anyone without any control over my salary (like the guy on the bus, the Emir of Qatar, the janitor, or some other person's boss). Rather, I need to talk to people with the ability—either directly or indirectly—to effect my purpose.
And of course, the rhetor has to be appropriate to the audience and the purpose. Having my sister ask my boss for a raise on my behalf wouldn't likely work. Or if who I was changed—if I just won the lottery, for instance—I might have a hard time making the case for needing more money.
Now, what if I could go to my boss and say that the vast majority of people in my line of work actually were making $1 million a year? Or, what if I lived in a cash-strapped state where there was no money to give or where the cost of living was decreasing? Or, what if I lived in a culture where it was considered shameful to ask your boss for a raise? These things would go beyond just the immediate players in the rhetorical triangle, and extend to something that surrounds all of it: context.
Context refers to everything outside of the immediate rhetorical situation that also shapes the rhetoric and determines its likelihood for success. This can include what comprises “appropriateness” in the situation (what the ancient Greeks would call to prepon). Examples include:
Context also encompasses the timeliness of rhetoric (or what the ancient Greeks would call kairos). Even with all other “variables” in the rhetorical situation remaining the same—the audience, the purpose, and the rhetor—the timeliness of an act of rhetoric alone can determine it's success or failure. For instance, if your purpose was to convince the U.S. government to relax standards for airline passenger screening, your odds of success would vary tremendously depending on whether you offered your argument in the year 2000 or in the year 2002. The very same argument presented in either of those years would be met with very different reactions due to intervening historical factors.
Some ancient Greeks identified three major tactics that we use when we go about persuading people, what we call rhetorical appeals:
It's important to recognize that ethos, pathos, and logos appeals are rarely found independently of each other, and that complex and effective persuasion usually involves all of them in varying measure.
For instance, logos appeals by themselves are rare and seldom effective—they invariably rely on pathos and ethos as well. If I wrote an essay that included the statement “five people die of AIDS every minute,” it doesn't just convey a logos appeal in the form of a statistic. It also includes an implicit pathos appeal: a sense of the emotional tragedy that is AIDS and a sense of the ferocity and terribleness of the disease. And it also includes an implicit ethos appeal: it establishes my belief in the moral unacceptability of the disease and it may establish admiration in the eyes of my audience for holding such a stance.
It may be tempting to think that logos trumps all other appeals when it comes to successful rhetoric, and that appeals to authority or character (ethos) or appeals to emotion (pathos) are spurious. It may also be tempting to think that if something is logically correct it must automatically be persuasive.
But the above statement “five people die of AIDS every minute” is a good example of why such assumptions don't necessarily hold. The statement itself doesn't mean much of anything until it is connected to other ethos and pathos appeals and, ultimately, until it is connected to a purpose (such as promoting AIDS awareness, ridding the world of the disease, etc.). The statement must be tied to beliefs and values common to an audience—such as the undesirability of death and disease—before it becomes persuasive in any meaningful sense.
© Copyright 2004–13
by Jim Nugent