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From the Editor: Rhetoric is a tool that is only as good as the person using it

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

PUNGO — The words we use matter, and there is a word I care about that is unfairly maligned in our increasingly partisan discourse. That word is rhetoric, misused by opponents of certain ideas as shorthand for what they consider misleading statements by politicians, advocates, scientists, etc. 

Rhetoric is as good or bad as its speaker and the truths behind the ideas their words carry. I used a simple definition of rhetoric when I taught college to remind students that all of us engage in rhetoric whenever we try to persuade another person to see something our way.

My definition, after more complex ones, is: Rhetoric is the use of language or symbols to achieve a goal. I will talk about spoken and written language because we often use arguments to appeal to those who hear or read us. 

When we make arguments in our lives, the weight of what we say or write can be given consideration because of our standing as a speaker. For example, a reader may consider something I write about journalism because I am a journalist. In comparison, something I write about science could be less convincing unless I explain clearly to you what my sources are because I am not a scientist.

People may base arguments not on experience but emotion. Such arguments, perhaps merely simple appeals to an understanding or bias of listeners or readers, can be misleading because they ignore the brain. They seek support or action sometimes by asking us to consider a minute aspect of a situation rather than its larger implications for others. They may appeal to common bias among a group at the expense of the targets of said bias.

The strongest rhetoric, in my mind, is rooted in logic, and logic is strengthened by research and careful thought that challenges assumptions and prejudice. It uses clear examples to illustrate why the speaker or writer’s logic makes sense. Generalities and vague reasoning suggest a person trying to persuade us is presenting a half-baked idea. Worse, they may show themself to be dangerously half-baked.

Recent rhetoric at the national level has employed generalizations, not facts, in dealing with difficult topics. When a national leader equates Nazis and white supremacists with those who oppose such poisons, it is an appeal to prejudice. It is hard to see it as an accident when that leader repeatedly appeals to racism and bias. Or lies about the implications of those words and what was said in the first place. Or attacks the news media for accurately reporting his words in response to a situation.

There is no logic behind the words of those who say the gathering in Charlottesville was about historical preservation when those who organized it believe in white supremacy. This is a distinction that should be clear to anyone who truly opposes Klan and Nazi groups.

The challenge of consuming and engaging in rhetoric is to understand that trying to seek change or find common ground is not a negative pursuit. Like a gun, rhetoric can be misused. Some ask us to ignore logic, even morality. I abhor political violence whatever its source, right or left, because nonviolent protest is the most effective form of citizen dissent. Nonviolent protest reveals the villainy of an oppressor through contrast. Violent protest undercuts those who agree yet express themselves peacefully, and so it hurts any common cause.

However, violent counterprotest by some to Nazis and the Klan is not the most pressing takeaway of Charlottesville. An apparent empowerment of white supremacy is a far greater evil. An illogical speaker lacking ethics favors rhetoric that appeals only to base emotions. Listen for this.

Thanks for reading.


© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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