In a not-too-distant previous life, when I thought that standing in front of dozens of apathetic teenagers in hope of teaching them why learning proper grammar, writing, and argumentation skills was a worthwhile vocation to pursue, I came up with a nifty little speech to start off every semester.
I would say:
I know exactly what you are thinking right now. It’s the same question every student, in every course, in every land thinks every time they enter a classroom.
Why do I need to learn this?
The simple answer is that it’s because the law requires you to; at least until you turn 18. For most of you that’s a good enough answer to put up with my incessant talking for a few months, scrape together enough effort to satisfy the course requirement, and move on to your next classroom, until the law finally says that you’ve gone through the motions long enough to be let loose into the real world, full of non-classroom-type duties and responsibilities. For most of you this answer is good enough. But there’s a few of you for whom this sort of reasoning is not anywhere near good enough to make you put up with what the education system expects of you for an hour and fifteen minutes of your day.
If you fall within that group, I want you to listen very closely. In life you will meet many people. A great number of these people will make prejudgments about you from the first moment they see you–both good and bad. The good prejudgments will work to your benefit, and the bad will be obstacles that can make your life very, very hard.
People will make prejudgments about you based on your height, your weight, your race, your gender, the way you dress, the way you stand, even the way you choose to cut your hair. The negative opinions formed by these prejudgments, no matter how unfair or shallow, will for the most part be things you have little control over. Except for one important component: The way you communicate. Yes, people will judge you by how you speak, too. And while you can’t do much about someone who simply hates you for the way you look, you can sure as hell do everything to deny them the pleasure to dismiss you for the way you communicate. Even if they still hate you at the end of the day for all the bigoted ways available to them, you should at the very least do everything in your power to make it impossible for them to dismiss you for the way you write, the way you argue–the way you speak! That is entirely within your power, and it is a power that’s learned, not inherited. This is your opportunity to learn it, if this is a power you wish to possess. If you don’t, any prejudgments others make about your person as a results of your decision right now, will be entirely on you.
I’m biased, but I like to think it got the point across as well as anything else could. And while the point was of course to get the students to feel somewhat enthused about the lesson plan, there was also a deeper purpose to my little pep-talk. Namely, I was demonstrating the use of rhetoric to argue the case for learning about rhetoric (none of the students ever really picked up on this, though).
Rhetoric has a few technical (read boring) definitions floating around, but the basic gist of it is that rhetoric is a form of discourse meant at persuasion (typically of a person or audience). This is the part about rhetoric that most philosophical commentators agree on anyway. Opinions regarding the use or ethical standing of rhetoric have been more polarizing, however. Plato looked down on rhetoric as mere flattery that could be used to manipulate the masses, as it’s primary purpose was to convince you to side with the argument, and not to impart knowledge or truth. His student Aristotle took a more favorable view, and considered rhetoric to be an important discipline (and art form), and a necessary part of any well-rounded civics education. Much of the writings and social revolutions that emerged from the Enlightenment relied heavily on rhetoric to persuade the public to a new way of thinking about life (and liberty, and even the pursuit of happiness). The same goes for anti-Enlightenment reactionaries, who argued in favor of preserving the status quo in society.
In the modern world, rhetoric (in its purest form) is most readily seen in courtrooms and legislative bodies, and the political spheres that surround them. It’s no surprise that so many politicians start out as lawyers, and go on to use the same rhetorical tricks they learned in law school on the campaign trail. It’s for this reason that rhetoric takes on a negative connotation in many people’s minds.
Memorable (yet content-empty) slogans, propagated by conscience-devoid politicians, whose only concern is scoring a victory in their (and their donors’) favor. Arguments put worth by their mouthpieces in the form of public commentators and pundits, serving the sole purpose of winning over the electorate’s hearts, often at the expense of their critical thought and personal long-term interests. Honorable mentions also go to the rhetorical tactics of self-professed experts who peddle pseudoscience and conspiracy theories to the affect of fostering a perpetually misinformed populace for the sake of monetary gains. These can all be counted as examples in support of Plato’s skepticism towards rhetoric as a virtuous mode of discourse.
Even my speech above is arguably laced with unwarranted rhetorical hyperbole. (Honestly, most people you meet will probably not form good or bad opinions of you; they’ll probably look right past you with complete indifference, if you offer no value to them as a person). However, one should refrain from getting distracted with unwarranted equivocations. I sincerely believe there’s a big difference between educators using rhetoric to motivate their students to succeed in their coursework, and the sort of rhetoric that contributes to public policy meant to misinform the public (if you don’t, I hope you never get picked to serve on any jury).
I already mentioned the culpability of politicians making use of rhetoric to spread propaganda for ideological gains. And while this is universally snubbed as somewhere on the edge of morally questionable behavior, the only reason its done is because it works so well. In other words, people get manipulated by the bells and whistles of skilled rhetoricians because they don’t care to educate themselves about the hogwash they are being fed (usually because they agree and want to believe what’s being said to them, even if it’s factually baseless).
The public (at least its voting component) is the primary check on politicians in a democratic republic. However, given the ease by which we will readily be swayed by faint words of praise and reckless fearmongering, its not absurd to thing that Plato may have been on to something when expressing doubts with the public’s ability to combat against rhetoricians whose only purpose is to persuade with complete disregard for the truth of their words.
A secondary check on the rhetoric of public officials is the part of the voting public that makes up the free press. The reason why the founders of the United States explicitly mentioned protection for the free press from the government in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, relates back directly to the role the press (ideally) ought to have as the fact-checkers holding those in power accountable. Unlike the public, a respectable free press has several internal mechanisms in play that work to sift through credible and credulous information. It’s also why the first thing clever rhetoricians do is undermine the very credibility of the free press. “Fake News” is a beautiful example of manipulative rhetoric at its finest, as it plays on the public’s distrust of media sources (i.e. its only reasonable to believe that some news outlets fail to overcome the biases of their presenters) and gives it a credulous dose of self-serving generalization (i.e. all news outlets that disagree with me are the biased ones, regardless of any evidence they present to support their position).
Any reasonable amount of critical thought on the subject clearly shows that the fact that news sources can be mistaken (or even outright deceptive), does not therefore warrant the conclusion that all media must be wrong and lying when they report something you don’t want to be true. Once again, it’s up to the public to follow-up on the sources any reputable press will readily provide for them to check the merits of what’s being reported. Shouting “Fake News,” however, makes it easier to muddy this relationship between the public and the press, by equating all sectors of the press as untrustworthy in general, and allows people to lazily self-select only the media they are already disposed to agree with, without having to be burdened with doing any intellectual legwork.
Journalists are also rhetoricians by trade. Unlike politicians and lawyers, however, members of the free press ought to strive to belong to Aristotle’s more virtuous sect of the rhetoric spectrum, which aims to persuade the masses towards truth and knowledge. As journalism moves more towards competing for public viewership to continue to operate–thereby having to appease to the whims and tastes of the public, rather than seeking to simply inform them–the concept of fact-based reporting threatens to descend completely into the realm of vacuous rhetoric meant to do little more than keep up viewer support (which, as mentioned, is prone to succumb to some flimsy and fickle interests).
The elevation of online personalities, whose sole journalistic experience is being able to cultivate an audience around themselves on video-sharing sites like YouTube, under the neologism of “alternative media,” is an example of a free press where rhetoric takes precedence over fact-based reporting. Not to smear those personalities who make every effort to be a respectable source of information, the reality is that the environment of being an online news commentating source is inherently prone to undermine the fact-checking mechanism of traditional journalism, mostly by side-stepping it completely in favor of peddling rhetoric.
These online outlets have little in the way of field-based journalists doing the legwork to uncover newsworthy stories, let alone teams of fact-checkers tirelessly looking through sources and notes to determine the veracity of a story prior to its reporting. In truth, they rely almost entirely on the work of traditional journalists, whose work they present and provide opinionated commentary over, while ever-so-often throwing in jabs at how ineffective traditional journalism is, despite most (if not all) their actual “news” content coming through the efforts of said traditional journalism. The reason why this matters is that it is a clear example in which what could be a respectable profession, and a reliable venue for information for the public, is sacrificing its responsibility to dispel factual knowledge for the convenience of mindless rhetoric because it offers them popularity and financial gains in terms of viewer support and sponsorship.
Understanding the role of rhetoric–its values, its uses, and its prevalence–is vital in being able to identify the difference between an impassioned speaker fighting on behalf of a just cause, and a demagogue looking to manipulate the mob to his advantage. Its vital in being able to distinguish between journalists who go through many painstaking, sleepless nights to report a truth to the people as a public service, and pundit blowhards using the cover of journalism to propagate misinformation for their own gains and egos. In general, to understand the use of rhetoric, is to be able to identify it and (if need be) ward yourself against its more dire influences.
Rhetoric is not, and should not be, a dirty word. Like most things, in the hands of benign and well-meaning hands, it is a powerful tool of communication that can inspire immense good in the world. In the wrong hands, however, it can be the barrier that keeps us permanently free-falling in the abyss of credulity and self-destruction.