Notes on Rhetoric
by E. John Winner
Words are instructions or directions for behavior, and they may be responded to either appropriately or inappropriately, but the appropriateness or inappropriateness depends upon the judgment of someone.
— Morse Peckham (1)
A dialogue between a rhetorician and a logician
R–Let’s say we have one audience that sets stock in logic-based discourse; another prefers appeal to emotions. The issue is not how each target audience has its base preferences triggered rhetorically, but why it is they wish their preferences appealed to. The one identifies with their intellect, the other with their “gut feelings.”
L–This sounds like you’re saying that both audiences are being manipulated.
R–I wouldn’t say manipulated. Their responses are directed toward a preferred end.
L–But surely an appeal to reasoning is simply part of an effort to find a common truth.
R–Are you not listening to yourself? “An appeal to our reasoning”? what could be more rhetorically directive?
L–But if I am faced with a choice reasonably presented, allowing me to judge on logical grounds…
R–And how does that make you feel? Isn’t that the person you always wanted to be? and would you submit, if you did not feel this?
L–But I am trying to convince you.
R–You want my assent; and how shall this be evidenced?
L–If my logic is sound, you will agree.
R–You want me to engage a speech act, “yes;” and further, don’t you also want me to go about “convincing” others on your behalf?
L–On behalf of the truth!
R–It may be; but that’s beside the point. Therein lies your dilemma: Everything you want me to say may be true; everything you want me to do may be based on true beliefs. But first, you must have me acquiesce. You must persuade me to your cause. You can appeal to my previous experience and education; you may appeal to my inculcated beliefs; you may appeal to my sense of self or to the values with which I identify. But you will never get my assent with pure logic. ‘If’ covers a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘then’ only follows, necessarily, as part of a truth-table.
Rhetoric: the practical value
There is not a single thing we say that lacks rhetorical value. The art of rhetoric – and the critical response to it – begins with admitting that. Rhetoric is the verbalization of our desires and our fears – our lust, our wish for power, our frustrations and anxieties, our self-identifications, i.e., our images of ourselves. It defines us socially and in terms of how we interact with others (the others we always want something from, whether good or ill or even if it is perceived as somehow benefitting others). (2) We use it on others – there is no socialization otherwise – and others use it on us.
The question is how to navigate in its stream, not whether we wish to stand apart from it – which is impossible – or what we can know independent of it, which is nothing. We might want to be disembodied intellects, entirely separated from material reality, but that is not how nature made us. We are as we are. My dog will use every sign she can present to get me to pet her, to feed her, and to let her out at night. Our signs are far more complicated, but they also originate in similar needs for recognition and social stroking. What a wonderful thing it would be, if we were “spirits in a material form!” Unfortunately, we are merely animals, trying to get the world around us to do our bidding.
The goal of all argumentation (…) is to create or increase the adherence of minds to the theses presented for their assent. An efficacious argument is one which succeeds in increasing this intensity of adherence among those who hear it in such a way as to set in motion the intended action (a positive action or an abstention from action) or at least in creating in the hearers a willingness to act, which will appear at the right moment. .
We have developed a great many technologies with which to do this, but the first and foremost is rhetoric. Who cares if you can upload consciousness into a computer? The important question is whether you can persuade a plumber to clean your pipes on Saturday! (Extra points if you get weekday rates.)
Rhetoric and Criticism
Can ‘critical thinking’ be taught successfully in the schools? This question has been debated for decades, but the argument has been largely cooked by the mistaken presumption that there is some discursive space from which to criticize efforts to manipulate people – whether through propaganda or advertising or political speechifying. Unfortunately, that’s not true. The problem with rhetoric is that it can always get us what we want, but is rarely what we want it to be.
We want rhetoric to be controllable by reducing it to social protocol. The notion is useless and untrue, even though this is the common understanding of it (e.g., it’s the founding premise of so-called “composition studies”).
The supposition that there can be a clear distinction between rhetoric and traditional logic (which is the logic we commonly use in daily life) is false, and Aristotle noted this, which forms the basis of his Rhetoric. (4) All modern studies on response patterns to common public argumentation (e.g., behavioral responses to advertising or political speeches) seem to confirm this.
If this is the case, then there can be no clear distinction between “mindfucking bullshit” and reasonable persuasion. The distinction is between what the target audience of the former believe, and what the target audience of the latter believe. And the problem is not that the target audience of the former is somehow getting hoodwinked or manipulated, but rather, why they want to be manipulated.
Rhetoric is simply the practice of using language to influence the behaviors of others. And we all use it, specifically to that purpose. We are fooling ourselves (and doing disservice to our young) to pretend otherwise.
As is well remembered: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar). But the complete sentence Shakespeare has Cassius say: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The assumption of writers who argue that we can be free of rhetoric – that rhetoric is some evil manipulation of people (who need to think more rationally) – is that most people would not be “underlings” if they were better informed and rhetoric better controlled, something that, unfortunately, is untrue.
The two crucial speeches in Julius Caesar are by Brutus and Antony. (5) Brutus’ speech is modeled after Cicero, and is an impeccably reasoned appeal to the reasoned identification of the audience with the interests of the Roman city – an abstraction. Antony’s speech is an indirect appeal to the individual citizen’s immediate emotional response (probably modeled on the sermons of Shakespeare’s Reformation England). The ethical backdrop to these speeches is ambiguous (acceptable to Shakespeare’s audience, since Romans were pagans, thus doomed to hell). Brutus has helped murder a man recognized as a capable governor, because of what he might have become. Antony seems to be revenging a beloved mentor, but has a hidden agenda.
Ethically, both men are in the wrong: Thus their differing speeches need only be judged rhetorically as to their differing success (and Antony’s clearly wins out).
Shakespeare not only had a better grasp of rhetorical practice than most rhetorical theorists, but also of rhetorical theory. The problem is how the audience sees its own interests, not what is in their best interest, reasonably assessed.
One can’t “manipulate” racists into engaging in racists acts. They are ready and willing to do so. Is racism in their interest? Unfortunately, they think so. So we begin undoing racism by undoing racists beliefs already held. Pretending they are being manipulated seems rather overly charitable.
America invaded Iraq because the American people wanted to do so. The Bush regime gave them the excuses they needed to feel satisfied in their personal identities as citizens of “the world’s only super-power,” a ‘Christian nation’ sitting as a “City on the Hill,” an “exceptional people” with a “manifest destiny.”
Fools do not fly where angels fear to tread; they walk about daily, going to work, coming home, pretending they have a good idea of how the world works and what is expected of them.
My mother often said, that we are all born slaves, and once I asked her if she had been hired to work at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, would she have taken such a position? She said “well, it would have been a job, of course.” Before we are the “rational animal,” we are the “rationalizing animal.” Never underestimate that – especially when it comes to the power of rhetoric to persuade.
The Socratic notion, that language and knowledge can be melded together to cut through rhetoric and thereby delegitimate the powerful, rests on shaky epistemic and psychological grounds, not to mention that there also is a sociological problem, namely that the powerful will use any means necessary to maintain power; rhetoric, lies, and even the application of force. We only have discussions like these, because we live in a culture where rhetoric and lies are fairly successful, thus perennially deferring any sense of the powerful that they must employ force against us. But we have plenty of examples of cultures where discourse doesn’t really matter, because everyone knows the powerful will use force.
I’m not saying we need to avoid being critical of the powerful. On the contrary, in a culture where we can do so, I’m suggesting that we need to mount a rhetoric more powerful than that which currently operates – persuasion increases our numbers, and there is strength in numbers. But in doing so, we would be in a stronger position the more certain we are of our own motives, so that our rhetoric doesn’t catch us by our tails. Antony’s rhetoric engendered a bloody civil war and led to the establishment of the Roman Empire, hardly a model of what we would consider a liberal democracy. My caution: give up hope for perfection (“utopia” – Latin, translation: “no place”), and surrender any claim to glory or grandeur.
Judgment in Rhetoric
Judgment in rhetoric has two jurisdictions. The first is that of public discourse, and anyone is invited to the jury. The other is that of those trained in rhetorical analysis. That sounds as if the trained critic of rhetoric ought to be considered the “Supreme Court” of the whole domain, or at least, one might say, “the final court of appeal.” But in fact the matter is the other way around; the public decides whether rhetoric is persuasive by their active responses to it, i.e. by being persuaded by it. The critic has largely an advisory role. The critic clarifies the claims, discovers the fallacies, weighs the epistemic ground of the rhetoric – the unstated assumptions, the evidence provided for the claims, the implications of tropes and innuendos and their possible consequences.
Several problems recur in the court of rhetoric, which explains why many people, from fascistic censors to critically minded philosophers, mistrust it. But as I have discussed before, whether or not rhetoric is successful cannot be determined on the basis of whether its claims are right or wrong. To understand rhetoric as rhetoric, the principle determination can only be whether it works or not – whether it persuades its intended audience. So rhetoric arguing for ethically repugnant positions may be considered successful, if in fact it wins over its audience. Nobody’s really happy with that (except the successful rhetorician), but it is true nonetheless. How could it be otherwise? Rhetoric is a tool, not a strict form of communication. Its sole concern is with getting others to do what one wants, whether voting a certain way, buying a certain product, or simply experiencing certain feelings leading to certain acts or behavioral responses. There is no logic to the statement “I love you,” but its rhetorical value is clear, and lovers have been relying on it for millennia. What does the statement communicate? Hopefully that the utterer loves the person who is the object of his statement; but maybe not. That judgment depends on the consequences.
Rhetorical analysis and criticism, like any analysis, always is directed towards the past – to what has been said and what its effect has been. But rhetoric in practice is always directed towards the future – to hoped-for states-of-affairs, actions, and consequences. This makes it difficult to judge a rhetorical performance successful or not until it has actually proved successful (or not). What a critic of rhetoric can achieve, concerning a current rhetorical performance, is some determination of the strength of its claims, the assumptions it depends on, the nature of its tropes and implications, and the possible consequences of accepting these.
Yet this leads to another problem. The court of rhetoric does not employ the same standard of judgment as that of logic. Logic judges much like a criminal court: the judgment is supposedly decided as absolute – “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The court of rhetoric, like civil procedure courts, decides on the standard of “the weight of the evidence.” This is actually makes sense, as claimants before the court of rhetoric have opposing beliefs, not simply opposing interests. It would be unjust to one who actually holds a position that is morally repugnant to others to assert that “no reasonable person would believe that, therefore they are lying.” Of course they believe it; we believe a lot of objectionable, even repugnant things. They aren’t lying; they believe in what they are saying. The question then is whether their claims are weaker or stronger than the counter-claims offered by those who believe otherwise. Judgment of the rhetoric cannot proceed on any other basis without injustice to the parties involved. Otherwise it becomes mere tool to a censor’s agenda.
Yet a strong and well-informed critic of rhetoric ought to be able to demonstrate when ethically questionable rhetorical claims are also weak rhetorical claims, because what is ethically questionable often relies on prior claims that are inadequately supported. Donald Trump’s claim that most Mexican immigrants are involved in criminal behavior or that American Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks can be easily undercut through reference to statistics in the first instance, or reliable reports by those on the scene in the second. So these are weak claims before the court of rhetoric. Yet Trump’s rhetoric resonates with a percentage of the population that is preoccupied with fears about different ethnic groups and different religions. This must not only be acknowledged, but addressed. Simply saying that what Trump says is untrue or unjust misses the complexity of what is going on (and frankly does injustice to his presumed audience). Also, it renders Trump’s opponents somewhat blind. First, they lose sight of the appeal he has for his audience, and thus will find it more difficult to understand that audience and find some way to appeal them with a countering rhetoric. Then, if they think the issue is Trump’s being “wrong,” or simply lying, they may be lulled into believing that all they need do is dismiss what he says. But in the public arena, this amounts to ignoring what he says. That means that his potential audience has only what he says to rely on, to feel some comfort in their already held fears and beliefs. That means that Trump’s essentially weak claims will appear stronger to his audience than they actually are. The danger, then, is that Trump’s rhetoric may persuade a potential audience without any adequate response. Then, as has happened all too often in the past, weak rhetorical claims could prove successful. So it’s not enough to say that Trump is wrong; one has to win over his audience, or at least his potential audience. And what that requires is a stronger rhetoric than that which Trump himself deploys, supplementary to any logical or other reasonable arguments one makes against what he has to say.
As with courts of civil law and unlike criminal courts – or that of logic, whose scale is limited to the black-and-white of true-or-false – the court of rhetoric must adjudicate cases on a grey scale. That is because opposing interests are rarely easy to decide between, especially if grounded in beliefs sincerely held by the opponents; and because rhetoric triggers a host of responses – emotional, social, cultural – that are not reducible to “reasonably held” positions.
The art of persuasion – its theory, its practice, its criticism – is not about what is wrong or right or true or false, and never about some “view from nowhere” or what some god might want us to be and certainly not about what world we might prefer to live in. It is about the world as it is, and about people as they are. That understandably frustrates us; but the world is by nature a disappointment.
- Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior, U Minnesota, 1979.
- “Eat your spinach and you’ll grow up healthy as Popeye.”
- Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (J. Wilkinson and P. Weaver, Trans. ), University of Notre Dame Press, 1969. This is probably the most comprehensive text on rhetoric in the modern era, and links well with classical rhetoric without simply re-iterating it, since the authors were well aware that they were writing in the post-propaganda era following WWII. It had considerable influence on Continental philosophers, but is written in the straight-forward academic prose preferred in the Analytic tradition.
- Act 3, scene 2.