Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
personal photo of headline USA Today Sunday, July 10, 2016 "Rhetoric not meant to be taken literally?"
Rhetoric gets a bad rap
I opened up the USA Today insert in my local newspaper Sunday to find this headline: “RHETORIC NOT MEANT TO BE TAKEN LITERALLY?" Here’s the article, with a video report of the story though without the grabbing headline. Aside from the discouraging political comment in the article— that voters might not expect politicians to follow through on their campaign promises—I was struck by the popular meaning of the word “rhetoric.”
It’s just rhetoric. It’s not real.
I study rhetoric, and as an academic subject of study rhetoric is real. Rhetoric is the way language affects people. When I teach rhetoric as part of writing courses, I’m trying to help writers learn how to write more effectively—for their writing to have the kinds of effects they want it to have, whether they’re writing a business memo, engineering project report, research paper, memoir, greeting card, or tweet; whether they're choosing photos for their personal websites or creating slides for a speech.
So rhetoric for me is a good thing, a necessary thing. This post is not news for my readers who study or teach writing or communication. Aristotle wrote about rhetoric in the 4th century BCE, defining it (in one common translation) as
the art of discovering the available means of persuasion for the given situation
Linguist Anne Curzan offers a brief informed history of the meanings of rhetoric in a radio interview on Michigan Radio on “Rhetoric: positive, negative, or both?” She notes that the word “rhetoric” has a long history and gives a definition of rhetoric as
the art of using language effectively in order to persuade others
Curzan also notes that “rhetoric” today is often used to mean just “talk” as opposed to reality.
Ah, there's the headline--rhetoric that’s not meant to be taken literally
Rhetoric has become associated with politics and with empty talk. As in
“It’s just rhetoric”
A quick search for “empty rhetoric” on DuckDuckGo brings up this headline on Frontpage.mag (an online magazine that asserts that “Inside every liberal is a totalitarian screaming to get out”)
OBAMA DELIVERS EMPTY RHETORIC ABOUT ISIS
Searching “just rhetoric” revealed this headline on Inequality.org (a website of the Institute for Policy Studies)
The New War on Inequality: Just Rhetoric?
The problem for me as someone who studies rhetoric is that everyone understands what those headlines mean. It’s not a good thing for Obama to deliver empty rhetoric, or any rhetoric at all for that matter. That would make him just talk, no action. If the war on inequality is just rhetoric, then no one is going to do anything about it, not really. And if rhetoric is not meant to be taken literally, then it’s just rhetoric, not real, not something to believe (the meaning of “literally” here is another interesting word use—are we supposed to take the politicians’ rhetoric metaphorically?)
Curzan defines the problem for me and others who study rhetoric as a positive or neutral thing
Once words take on negative connotations, it can be hard to bring them back to more neutral ones
Those negative connotations give me lots of grief in explaining my work to others. And the lack of recognition of rhetoric’s positive power brings me pain for the misunderstood opportunities.
I study rhetoric—how language influences others when the “truth” isn’t as simple as a matter of the facts but requires judgments and values and beliefs in particular situations. I don’t actually study that empty talk that lets people get away with not doing anything. If I tell people I study rhetoric—or tell students a class is about rhetoric—most either don’t know what I mean or assume I study how to manipulate people into believing what isn’t true.
In fact (or is that “in rhetoric)?), most of the time when we’re using language the “facts” aren’t what's in question. What is true isn’t so obvious. The “truth” isn’t often about the facts but about perspective. So how we say something makes a difference, even when we’re trying to be as honest as possible. Trying to get others to see the world as we experience it is rhetoric.
Obama’s words after the Orlando nightclub shooting are rhetoric:
This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.
Words made even more powerful when heard and seen as well as read
youtube video from abc news of Obama's speech after the Orlando nightclub shooting
And when Taha Abbas recites the names of the dead after the July3 bombing in Baghdad, that is rhetoric
photo of Issa Obeida, a victim of the July 3 truck bombing attack in Baghdad, photo collage AP photos
Posting a photo of bystanders surrounding a baby carriage in Dallas during the shooting at a protest rally is rhetoric
Screenshot of bystanders surrounding stroller during Dallas shooting from kesq.com
#BlackLivesMatter is rhetoric.
gif of scrolling #BlackLivesMatter from the-weird-wide-web.tumblr.com
These are all rhetoric. And that’s a good thing
Rhetoric is how we try to express what matters to us so that others might understand.
That’s why rhetoric enters in. Not because we’re trying to dodge reality or offer empty talk instead of action but because we have to use this imperfect language system to express what we think and to try to reach others. People, including politicians, can misuse that system and can use rhetoric to hide and lie. But that’s not the fault of rhetoric. That's the fault of dishonest politicians and liars.
Since negative connotations are so hard to break once they’ve begun, and since, in the end, words mean what people use them to mean, I don’t hope to change the common meaning of rhetoric. But for those of you who might be reading my blog, where the word “rhetoric” might mean something more interesting and important than empty talk, I’m glad to take this chance to say what rhetoric means to me. And for those who are watching the world at these pivotal moments, pay attention to how we try to express what we think and influence others.
Because rhetoric gets a bad rap. Rhetoric is necessary. Rhetoric matters.