Rhetoric … or rhetoric?
When talking about what a politician just said, people often say, “Oh, that’s just rhetoric.” What it means, of course, is that the politician is being deceptive, he is avoiding a problem, he is being less than honest. That common sense attitude toward rhetoric is quite at odds with the Merriam-Webster online dictionary in its academic definition of rhetoric:
the art of speaking or writing effectively
That academic definition of rhetoric (who but a professor of rhetoric, a true expert in it, would Merriam-Webster turn for definition?) Clearly shows the wide gulf between the formal and academic dictionary definition — the art of speaking or writing effectively — and daily experience and wisdom about rhetoric — be misleading and misleading. But it is not only ordinary people who see the strong negative aspects of rhetoric; quite a few important and highly educated people have also pointed to the downside of rhetoric.
Even rhetorical experts such as Professor Wayne C. Booth (1921-2005), a professor of rhetoric at the University of Chicago, have openly admitted the negative and misleading side of rhetoric. In his latest book, The rhetoric of rhetoric; (2004), Professor Booth points out many, many times that in the United States and surely much of the world we are harmed on a daily basis. by bursts of careless rhetrickery or even deliberately damaging media rhetrickery;.
Media Rhetrickery (abbreviated as “MR” throughout his book) is Booth’s unique term for the widespread abuse of rhetoric in the media, incessantly employing rhetoric for deceptive, deceptive, and corrupt purposes. So Booth spends a great deal of time in his book apologizing for various forms of tricks (he clearly means exactly what the term sounds like), apologizing for the corrupt use of rhetoric that occurs so frequently in all walks of life. Coming from Booth, this is really a harsh indictment of Rhetoric. It seems to me that he doesn’t want it to be an indictment against rhetoric, as he has always been a highly respected advocate and authority on the positive values of rhetoric, but clearly it is an accusation.
At the beginning of his book, Booth relates that in 1960 he was at a post-conference reception at Oxford and was chatting over a drink with an Oxford professor when he asked what subject he taught. The Oxford professor replied: Mainly 18th century literature. What is your field? Booth replied: It’s basically rhetoric, although I’m officially in ‘English’. I am trying to complete a book to be called “The Rhetoric of Fiction.” The Oxford Literature professor frowned, spat unpleasantly Rhetoric!, he turned his back on her and walked quickly away. This experience is an example that shows the traditional academic disrespect for rhetoric that most of the academy and the world have had for centuries, even millennia.
Another authority who agrees with Booth on the quality of the rhetoric was a Roman, Lucian of Samosata (125-180 AD). Lucian was formally trained as a rhetorician, and claimed that a Rhetor is a pushing, driving, and money-seeking operator who leaves any sense of decency, decorum, restraint, and shame at home when he goes to work..
An even more important Roman rhetorician who could not deny the element of rhetoric in rhetoric was Quintilian. As one of the most renowned masters of rhetoric of all time, Quintilian (35-100 AD) felt that the virtue of verecundia (Latin for a combination of modesty, decency, and restraint) was an absolute vice in a speaker. Why? Because, Quintilian said, It would make you hesitate, change your mind, or even stop talking to think things over! We can’t let that happen to respectable rhetoricians, can we? It could even result in turning them into honest men!
John Locke (1632-1704), the great English thinker and philosopher, expressed probably the strongest condemnation of rhetoric ever expressed. Locke pointed out that the purpose of rhetoric was hint at misconceptions, ignite passions, and thereby mislead the audience’s judgment. Locke claimed that the techniques of rhetoric are perfect traps … to be avoided entirely … rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deception..
Clearly, Booth is not a lone voice talking about the rhetorical aspect of rhetoric. I suppose the real question is: Why have Booth and other defenders of rhetoric clung to such deceptive discipline, knowing full well its morally repulsive qualities?
Perhaps Steven Spender (1909-1995) — modern English poet, novelist, essayist — had the correct perception of the matter when he expressed the idea that, Rhetoric is the art of deception, isn’t it? And when you get good at using rhetoric with other people, you eventually unknowingly use it on yourself..
As the old adage goes, power corrupts, and rhetoric — or should we call it by its proper name, Rhetrickery — it is, in fact, powerful.