Chapter 10

What is Rhetoric?

 

1. One of the most important philosophical discoveries of the 20th century was the idea that truth cannot be passively "discovered," and that once discovered, truth is not readily accepted by all.  Early philosophers and scientists had assumed that truth was easy to find, and that once found, everyone would simply agree on the truth because it would be obvious to all.  These early philosophers and scientists had naive beliefs about the simplicity of the natural world, the powers of the human mind, and the existence of a divine order, which is why they thought knowledge was so easy to find and prove.  The universe turned out to be a lot more complex than people realized, and scientists discovered that our brain and cultures had many flaws that influenced, and sometimes distorted, our knowledge. 

2. In the 21st century, we now know that "truth" or "facts" have to be actively constructed by critical thinkers through meticulous and rigorous scientific methods.  Further, truth is never obvious to all people and truth does not fix anything by itself.  One has to argue for the truth in open debate in order to convince a skeptical public, which includes arguing about how to use the truth to solve specific problems.  Debating with others about truth means both arguing for the truth and demonstrating how it is true with valid logic and evidence.  It also means arguing against false opinions, manipulations, and lies.  21st century literacy entails not only being able to construct knowledge with scientific methods, but also openly arguing with diverse groups of people to explain and prove the truth.  This is never an easy task.

 

10.1  Rhetoric: Persuading an Audience with Arguments

3.  Rhetoric is a very old tool that humans have been using for thousands of years.  For as long as there has been language, people have been using words to convince others to accept particular beliefs and act accordingly.  The ancient Greeks were one of the earliest cultures to devise rules for speaking persuasively to an audience.  This was largely due to the democratic nature of their political system, which required citizens to be able to speak knowledgeably and persuasively in order to influence public policy.  The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (1995) wrote Rhetoric, a textbook on rhetoric in the ancient world.  In this well-known book, Aristotle taught his pupils how to engage in "political debate" by arguing persuasively about different topics and making reasonable "judgments" (p. 2153).  But rhetoric involved more than just an argument being made by a speaker.  It also involved creating a "persona," which helped the speaker appeal to an audience (p. 2155).  Aristotle's three parts of rhetoric have become known as the "rhetorical triangle": text, speaker, and audience.  But as I'll explain in this chapter, the rhetorical context is much more complex than Aristotle originally thought.

4. Up until the 19th century, most scholars and speakers understood rhetoric in the simple formula Aristotle had first conceived back in the 4th century B.C.E.  But our understanding of rhetoric would greatly change in the 20th century.  The American philosopher Kenneth Burke formulated a new conception of how rhetoric works. Burke (1950/1969) explained how difficult it is for a speaker to persuade an audience with good reasoning, and how it is even more difficult to "move people" into action (pp. 41, 42, 46).  Most speakers fail to move their audience.  It is so difficult, in fact, that many, if not most, speakers cheat by using dishonest language in order to "mystify" their true purpose (Beach, 2012, pp. 79, 81). 

5. Speakers will often try to appeal to their audience using plain-spoken language and common sense appeals.  This tactic supposedly proclaims in an honest and direct way, "no rhetoric here" (Beach, 2012, p. 79).  But Burke warned that this tactic is dishonest because the speaker was still employing rhetoric.  Rhetoric always shapes our communication (Beach, 2012, p. 79).  Even simple and clear language can be used to manipulate people.  Simple language often only appears clear when, in fact, it disguises hidden assumptions and manipulative agendas.  Burke was one of the first philosophers of language to delve into the revealing and concealing nature of language.  He argued that we need to focus on what people don't say just as much on what they do say.  Likewise, we can detect the motives and truthfulness of speakers from how they speak just as much as what they say.

 

Handout:  The Rhetorical Context

 

6. When we communicate, we share not only our personal beliefs about the world, but we also share our cultural world-view, often unconsciously.  Aristotle didn't really know about culture because all Greeks were mono-culturalists.  They thought that Greek civilization was superior to all other cultures, and that all non-Greeks were inferior "barbarians."  The Greek word barbaros was antonym for politis, which meant citizen of a Greek city state.  If citizens of Greece were good, then everyone else was bad and treated accordingly.  From birth we are shaped by our culture (parents, teachers, priests, politicians, media, and peers) to see the world in a very particular way.  This cultural "common sense" is reflected in the ideas we talk about (or don't talk about), the language we use (or don't use), and the behaviors we do (or don't do).  We usually don't see or understand this cultural process until we meet someone from a different culture or travel to a different country.  When this happens the familiar becomes strange and we learn to see the world in a new way.

7. When we talk about our knowledge, we often use "loaded" language that reflects our own cultural biases of what we consider "normal."  Our common sense knowledge usually consists of stereotypical truths.  As the journalist Walter Lippmann (1922/1997) once explained, we use language to create and reinforce cultural stereotypes.  We use "a small vocabulary" to "express a complicated world" (p. 18), and thereby, we "represent" the world as "a simpler model" that we can use to "manage" our lives and navigate our environment (pp. 10-11).  Stereotypes make us feel safe because they take "the great blooming, buzzing confusion of reality" and "order" it with simplistic and familiar cultural categories (p. 63).  Lippmann (1922/1997) pointed out, "the way we see things is a combination of what is there and of what we expect to find" (p. 76).  Stereotypes can be quite comforting, but they can also create conflict and lead us into trouble.      

8. While we would like to think that our 21st century civilization is much more advanced than the ancient Greeks, in fact, we are still constrained by the same problem that even the wise Aristotle could not see or understand.  We are all brought up to think that our culture and values are "normal," while other cultures and values are weird or wrong.  This attitude creates a lot of unnecessary conflict, and it is a constant cause of violence.  Kenneth Burke helped revise the old mono-cultural concept of rhetoric to fit the multi-cultural realities of the modern world.  Thus, we need to revise Aristotle's rhetorical triangle to include the cultural influences of the speaker and the audience, and also of the text itself. 

9. Burke (1941/1973) argued that we use language in "strategic" ways to achieve specific purposes (pp. 1, 109).  A good speaker should use rhetoric honestly by using open and appropriate language to make a direct argument with sound reasoning and evidence.  Open rhetoric allows the audience to understand an argument in a clear way so that they can weigh reasons and evidence in order to make up their own mind.  But we must always guard against speakers who use rhetoric dishonestly.  These speakers "mystify" their argument with language tricks and lies, thereby manipulating the audience and coercing them to do things they might not want to do.  We will discuss these tricks, which are called "fallacies," later on in this chapter.  First, we need to understand Burke's revised rhetorical triangle, which I will call the rhetorical context for argumentation (see chart below).

10. We need to investigate the "rhetorical context" of an argument in order to understand what people say, why they say it, and whether or not it is true.  Likewise, if we are going to argue effectively to an audience, we need to first understand the rhetorical context of our argument.  Knowing this context allows us to present our ideas clearly and effectively. 

11. Unlike Aristotle, we now know that the first and most important part of the rhetorical context is our own culture.  This cultural context is often taken for granted by many speakers because it seems like "common sense" that is shared by all "normal" people in a particular community.  However, we are now more aware of our globalized world, which is full of diverse, multicultural countries.  Every nation has lots of "sub-cultures," which are different ethnic, political, and religious groups – all of which hold different beliefs, practice different customs, and usually speak different languages.  We are born into the nation and sub-culture of our parents, but as we grow up, we make decisions to accept or reject our parents' culture.  We also can voluntarily join new cultures, adopting new beliefs, practices, and languages. 

12. Our personal acceptance, or rejection, of cultures and sub-cultures shapes our individual identity and character, making us who we are.  Social scientists call this subjectivity, our own personal world view.  We partially create ourselves as "subjects."  We also partially create our views of the world.  As individuals, we have the power to accept and reject the subcultures in which we are raised.  We use our subjectivity to understand our world, create knowledge, and communicate with others.  As speakers, we present our subjectivity as a "persona," which is the particular role we play when we argue in front of an audience.  Often, we adopt different personas for different audiences.  For example, a person might present one persona at church, a different persona at home, and a drastically different persona with friends at school.  We often take it for granted that our audience will understand and accept our persona and will share our "common sense."  These assumptions are not always true.  Sometimes our audience will reject our persona as disingenuous or even fake, thereby cutting off any hope of communication.  Thus, before we begin to communicate with an audience, we first need to explore who we are (our subjectivity) and where we are coming from (our culture). 

13. Once we understand our cultural background, beliefs, and identity, then we need to investigate these same items in our audience.  This is the second part of the rhetorical context.  Who are we speaking to (subjectivity)?  Where do these people come from, and what beliefs do they hold (culture)?  Understanding an audience requires some research into their culture, history, and geography.  Speaking to one’s local community is relatively easy because there is a lot already known about the audience.  But what about a diverse audience at a university lecture in Los Angeles or an art gallery in New York?  What about the audience for a talk show interview on national television?  And how about speaking to a group of businessmen in Hong Kong, China, or to government officials in Paris, France? 

14. You have to know about who you are talking to in order to decide how to effectively communicate: What language should you speak?  What words should you use (or not use)?  What topics should you discuss (or not discuss)?  How much should you explain?  What kinds of examples should you use?  What cultural assumptions might your audience share that differ from your own?  Every speaker always fails to reach the whole audience because it is impossible to anticipate the background of every single individual in the audience.  You will always be disliked and/or misunderstood by someone.  But a good speaker will make an effort to understand the basic cultural characteristics of the audience so as to communicate with the majority of listeners.  There always needs to be some modification of one's persona and one's text in order to more effectively reach a particular audience.  If you are locked in your own subjectivity and culture, and if you try to speak to all audiences with the same persona in the same biased way, then you risk being rejected and misunderstood.

15. Once you have analyzed both yourself and your audience, then the final part of the rhetorical context is the text you are composing.  Now, many might consider the text to be the most important part of any argument, but it is not.  First, you need to understand yourself before you start writing.  You need to critically analyze your subjectivity and culture.  This background will affect your choice of topic, thesis, main ideas, logic, and evidence, not to mention the language you use and the assumptions you make.  So you need to make sure you know where you are coming from and why you are speaking, especially if you are creating an academic or scientific text that will demand a high degree of objectivity.  Second, you need to understand your audience before you start writing.  Who will you be speaking to and how will you persuade these people to accept your thesis and evidence?  It is only after you have investigated both your subjectivity and your audience that you are ready to research your topic and outline your essay or speech.  But even writing your text involves culture – the culture of the text, or "intertextuality." 

16. We never write or speak in isolation.  What we say is always connected to what other people have said before us.  Thus, we need to be aware of not only what other people have said about our topic (the conversation), but also how they said it (genre), and how previous audiences accepted or rejected those arguments (history).  All of this is called intertextuality because this historical context is preserved in other types of texts, which you will need to research before writing.  Most students don't realize that they need not only to research their topic, but they also need to research the long conversation that people have been having about this topic.  Some of the oldest and most important topics on religion, government, or art might involve researching several thousand years’ worth of data from cultures all over the world!  

17. You need to be aware of intertextuality for three main reasons.  First, you need to know what others have said.  You want to avoid past errors, build on agreed upon facts, and hopefully, say something original that will drive the conversation forward.  You also need to know about intertextuality so that you can better reach your audience.  Many people in your audience will have already heard about your topic from a diverse variety of sources.  Some of these people might be very old and have a very large historical context, and some people might be very young and have no context at all.  You have to think about your audiences' previous knowledge of the topic in order to situate your text within the context of previous writers in the history of your topic. 

18. A third reason to be aware of intertextuality is "genre."  This term refers to how you speak – the form of your writing or speaking.  Most audiences will expect you to speak in a very specific way based on what they've heard before or the conventions of specific social contexts.  Take for example the university lecture.  You have to know what discipline you are working within so that you can follow the professional conventions and use the professional jargon that your audience deems essential and appropriate to the topic.  If you do not meet these formal expectations of your audience, then they might consider you an amateur (or worse) and not listen to what you have to say.  Likewise, speaking in verse at a political rally, or using prose at a poetry reading, might also get you into trouble with your audience.  You need to know not only what to talk about (topic), but also how your audience expects you to communicate (genre).  

 

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To cite this chapter in a reference page using APA:

Beach, J. M.  (2013).  Title of chapter.  In 21st century literacy: Constructing & debating knowledge.  Retrieved date from www.21centurylit.org

 

To cite this chapter in an in-text citation using APA:

(Beach, 2013, ch 10, para. #).

 

 

© J. M. Beach 2013, Revised 2016

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