Forget for a moment long-range missiles and nuclear fears. North Korea’s threats have already wreaked havoc on Americans in a far different, and possibly more nefarious, manner. Even as the media jabber excitedly over the impending menace, they little realize the real destruction has already begun: an infiltration of our very language itself, inciting prolific misuse of a word that once denoted the epitome of educational achievement. It is time to acknowledge the danger and stop misappropriating the word rhetoric.
The direness of the situation became apparent as I casually listened to “All Things Considered” on NPR recently. The lead-in about “escalating rhetoric” evoked an eye-roll from me, but when the term rhetoric had been flung out as an upscale substitute for bombastic grandstanding no fewer than four times in under four minutes, I was astonished and alarmed.
When, later at a coffee shop, my husband casually pointed out a Wall Street Journal headline declaring “Trump Ramps Up Rhetoric,” my crusade became real. A quick Internet search confirmed that Trump + rhetoric = lots of alarmist headlines. The irony in these ubiquitous references is that President Trump, the media, and Americans in general could, in truth, benefit from ramping up their rhetoric, if only we could regain a proper understanding of rhetoric as the quintessence of civilized discourse.
Let’s Brush Up on What Rhetoric Means
Begin with a thought experiment. Let your mind wander over the past decade or more, searching for all references to the word rhetoric. Unless you happen to live in a commune of classicists, this exercise will inevitably reveal that rhetoric is now used almost exclusively in reference to political speech and exudes entirely negative connotations. This is a noteworthy shift.
Such pejorative use of rhetoric is not, as might be expected from its pervasive usage, dictionary definition 1a, but rather, in Merriam-Webster’s online entry, falls only under 2b’s “also” section. Before you write this off as the nitpicking crankiness of an old-school prescriptivist grammarian and go blithely back to berating the “rhetoric” of your least-favorite politician or political group, consider what the term rhetoric denoted for several millennia prior to our little slice of time.
In his book on the topic, Aristotle defines rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Rhetoric’s lone goal is to persuade, and according to Aristotle, it does so through the “available means” of logical arguments and precise words (logos), emotional response elicited in an audience (pathos), and the moral character of the speaker himself (ethos).
Note that in current usage rhetoric implies words devoid of logical thought, spoken without consideration for the feelings they will evoke, by an immoral person whose goal is to have his own way despite his inability to persuade others to his ideas. In other words, rhetoric has become a negative image of its true self.
The Lost Art of Persuasion
What should concern us is not simply the wild swing in a word’s meaning but the loss of an entire branch of the arts, specifically the art of persuasion. All the more tragic is the fact that this lost art is one our social media culture desperately needs. Words we have in abundance. Honest desire to persuade is scant.
The implications of losing the rhetorical art are staggering. When human beings cease seeking to persuade, society breaks down. Whether it is Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump shooting off bellicose threats into the international airwaves or you and your politically other-minded Facebook friend relentlessly posting rah-rah articles that disparage the opposition and pat yourselves on the collective back, it is obvious we are not talking to one another. We are talking past one another.
Verbal fireworks displays—large, loud, impressive, and fleeting—are not what rhetoric is about. Words should communicate. Properly used, they provide warm and steady light to guide others, to persuade them to walk in the right way. Athenian citizens, Roman orators, medieval scholars, Renaissance writers, Enlightenment thinkers, and generations after them perceived rhetoric as the pinnacle of education and culture. Clear, persuasive use of language was considered essential for any fully educated person, particularly if he had a role to play in the realm of politics.
Classical rhetoric is beautifully adaptable to all subject matter because it rests upon the twin pillars of audience and purpose. Any words spoken or written ought to take into account to whom they are directed and what they hope to accomplish.
However, rare are the pundits, empowered with the infinite realm of the Internet, who consider either of the rhetorical pillars in their writing. We blog our thoughts to an audience of all seven billion human beings on the face of the earth. Or maybe just our grandma and her best friend’s sister-in-law. Who knows? We rant and quip and philosophize so we can look awfully clever and garner lots of followers. That is, quasi-anonymous followers whose interaction with our words is relegated to comment sections where the erudite and troglodyte mingle indistinguishably.
Start With Yourself
“More words, less communication!” is the de facto creed of the day, and then we have the audacity to term such meaningless loads of language rhetoric. My dear audience of culturally engaged, politically-minded readers, let me persuade you to reclaim rhetoric in its true form. Start with your own speech and writing.
Remember that words mean things, and select each for its clarity and power. Think of your audience and how they will respond to your words more than of yourself and how to attract attention by what you say. Think about what you want your words to accomplish, and wield them astutely to win that goal. Realize that your reputation affects how people respond to your words, and acknowledge that humans are moved by a complex combination of logic and emotion, both of which you must engage in your writing and speaking.
Reviving rhetoric as the art of persuasion would go a long way not only toward honing our language, but also toward reviving civility. The goal of persuading another human being to agree with us requires that we actually care about that person and what he or she thinks. It demands not only a precise use of words, but also personal integrity and the conviction that it is more important to win minds and hearts than to win arguments. Or, as the Roman orator Quintilian asserted, the rhetorician should be “a good man, skilled in speaking.”
We could use more good men skilled in speaking. We could also use more honest persuasion. That is why we could all stand to ramp up our rhetoric.