Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Photo of roses and Vive la France sign placed near French Embassy in Rome, credit Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images
Until Thursday night, July 14, I was drafting a follow-up on last week’s post about why rhetoric matters in the world at large that ranged from Black Lives Matter to next weekend’s movie releases.
Then the terrible attack in Nice, France, happened.
Frankly, my first thought was that they're right. It is “just rhetoric.” What good is talk in the face of such horrible actions? We have to stop offering condolences and hashtags and speeches and eulogies and stop changing our Facebook photos and DO something about it.
But as the initial anguish edged toward despair I realized: Where do those horrendous actions come from? Why would someone think to plow a truck into people celebrating independence? As I write this post the news reports can’t yet confirm whether the perpetrator was connected with any terrorist organization, but they are calling him a terrorist. What makes a terrorist? Many, many things, of course, including material realities and things that evade rational explanation and things we can't possibly understand. But surely part of what makes a terrorist is rhetoric—rhetoric used for bad purposes.
Rhetoric can persuade people to do evil as well as to do good.
In last week’s post, I cited and linked Obama’s speech after the Orlando shooting, Taha Abbas’s listing of the names of the dead after the bombing in Baghdad, the photo of bystanders surrounding a baby carriage in Dallas during the shooting at a protest rally, and #blacklivesmatter, and each, I said, is rhetoric. “These are all rhetoric,” I wrote, “And that’s a good thing.”
Today, I cite (but will not link to) an ISIL recruitment video, Moroccan soccer fans chanting “ISIS, ISIS,” a photo of US soldiers’ bodies being dragged through Mogadishu, and #[AllEyesonIS]S. These, too, are all rhetoric. And that’s the bad side of rhetoric
Rhetoric is not empty. It is not just rhetoric. Rhetoric is powerful.
So at the moment we might feel the need to do something, anything. We want action not talk. But once again the rhetoric called for now is for condolences, for healing and unifying. And the rhetoric called for now is to persuade people to agree to actions that might help prevent terrorism in the future.
In a small, small way, one action that might help minimize terrorist propaganda in the future is rhetorical education. Learning to see the practice of persuasion can help minimize its effects on us. We can learn to recognize how someone is linking our goals and aspirations to their motives. We can learn to spot the language choices that make someone a martyr rather than a corpse. We can learn to notice the power of rhetoric, and to decide for ourselves what we believe and how we want to act.
That’s true whether the rhetoric is for good or evil. Whether the rhetorician uses persuasion for purposes we agree with or ones we resist.
After my post last week and before the terror in Nice, Adam Banks, a former colleague and now professor at Stanford University, wrote a series of tweets that did a great job of capturing what rhetoric is and why it’s important for us to teach.
I was especially struck by Adam Banks' rightful turn to the need to study rhetoric in order to understand it.
That last tweet appeared July 12, not July 15, but this moment, too, shows why rhetoric should be central in education. It surely will not stop terrorism. But the more of us who are aware of the powerful effects of rhetoric the more of us who can notice and resist being persuaded against our better selves.
Because, fortunately and unfortunately, talk does lead to action