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An Important Rhetorical Summary (2018-10-23)

Photograph by José Luiz Bernades Ribeiro of bust of Cicero at Palazzo Nuovo, Musei Capitolini in Rome. Photograph by José Luiz Bernades Ribeiro of bust of Cicero at Palazzo Nuovo, Musei Capitolini in Rome.
Photograph of bust of Cicero at Palazzo Nuovo, Musei Capitolini in Rome, courtesy of wikimedia commons. José Luiz Bernades Ribeiro, september 2016

Possibly we have all heard someone declare in an unimpressed tone that some statement is "just rhetoric" or "only rhetoric." Perhaps more of us have heard its synonym, "it's only words" or "they're just saying that." Or the ever obnoxious and unhelpful, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." The neutral definition fo rhetoric is simply "the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing" although "persuasive" and "effective" are both weasel words that beg questions. Effective for who or what? Persuasive to who, about what? Is a persuasive element always required? My OED doesn't say, although it also notes a more overtly pejorative definition of rhetoric, as "language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, most often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content." The sayings noted already are most consistent with this second definition. But I think it is fair to say that whatever else the current holder of the title "president of the united states" may have done recently, he has shown everyone and sundry that rhetoric is never empty and words can indeed be harmful and brutally effective in the real world. He has made it very hard to avoid those facts by his desperate efforts to keep attention focussed on himself as if he was afraid he would suffocate and shrink away without it. In any case, over a year ago now, Feminist Current featured an article that includes a neat summary of the shock tactics currently in heavy-handed use by "falsifiers and deniers in any debate" and I think that it is well worth quoting it here, courtesy of columnist Janice Williams. Ellipses reflect deletion of topical references to a movie that framed Williams' discussion.

  1. Claim to have been attacked and treated rudely when you have actually only been disagreed with and, in fact, you are the one attacking and being rude. Trade on the fact that your opponent will behave well (often under obligation to appear professional) when under attack and you will gain an attentional advantage.
  2. Shout loudly, be colourful and entertaining, maybe crack a few jokes. You know that on a grim issue like the Holocaust (or other nasty issues, like Female Genital Mutilation or prostitution), this will bring the many who cannot face brutal reality onto your side where you hope to keep them. Disparagement humour has been shown to allow haters to deny their own hatred by claiming that it is "just a joke." That your opponent does not engage in this way will work in your favour – they can be mocked as dour and humourless (especially if your opponent is female!)
  3. Whatever you do, don't distinguish between assertions and claims vs. evidenced facts and expert opinion. Act as if these are all equally valid and very much the same thing.
  4. At every opportunity set up an apparently simple challenge like, "Who can show me a single document that proves the Holocaust happened?" This is attention-grabbing and exciting (a welcome escape from the grim issue under discussion), but is virtually impossible to do, because real history is built up by evidence upon evidence, not (in modern times at least) by a single document.
  5. Above all, create the (totally false) impression that there are two equally valid sides in this "debate." This is how the media often tackles controversial issues: by setting up a short discussion, allowing each side make a point or two, and considering the job done. However, we know... that on big issues, one needs to look deeply at the evidence and engage in critical thinking in order to form a valid conclusion. Simply having an opposing viewpoint doesn't mean it's of equal value....

The running theme in these techniques is that of distraction. Suddenly the debate or discussion is no longer about the topic at hand, it is about being entertained by loudmouths and their ability to hijack the proceedings by behaving in a childish manner. The question we are supposed to be diverted onto is whether the loudmouths will be able to reduce the other participants to shouting back. None of this is good for anything practical or ethical. It's just good for a solid does of distraction for the audience and a dose of endorphins and adrenalin for the loudmouths who bask in the attention.

Contemptible as these techniques are, they are all too effective on the unforewarned and therefore unarmed. Merely feeling scornful after the fact or otherwise apart from actually experiencing them is no help if you are in fact unable to resist their effects. The people who use them hope to keep us from listening and thinking to the actual questions at hand, and to fool ourselves that we are a step ahead even if we fall for them. Luckily the study of rhetoric is making a comeback, even though it remains under heavy siege along with any other area of study or general interest falling under the label "humanities," surreal as that ongoing attack is. Not that rhetoric is making a comeback under its own name necessarily. Often it percolates back up in the genre of "media studies" and "critical reading," where people can learn either how to parse the nonsense out of advertisements or, as is at least as common, learn that they already know how to do that and that they can apply those skills to many other areas of life. Or even that "critical" doesn't always or only mean "find something negative to say" and in fact ideally means "find something thoughtful to say" which helps spawn or continue a helpful conversation.

The rather doubtful fellow whose bust illustrates this thoughtpiece, Marcus Tullius Cicero, whose tumultuous life spanned 106-43 B.C.E. and a significant portion of the implosion of the roman republic, is still a renowned rhetorician. He made his reputation and fortune as a lawyer and politician. Many of his speeches have survived along with philosophical writings, many letters, and the once standard text Ad Herennium was attributed to him for centuries. It would be well worth rereading some of Cicero's more famous orations with Williams' summary in mind, especially his speeches against Catiline. (Top)

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23