The War on Rhetoric

Rhetoric, as a discipline, has gotten a bad rep. I blame the media pundits. They have unfairly referred to whatever garbage that spews forth from the mouths of politicons as rhetoric. (I just misspelled politician as politicon and now I am going to use that word forever, emphasis on the “con”.) Referring to politicons’ words as rhetoric is the grossed pejorative use of the R word ever. Unlike Joan Jett, who cares not for what others think of her, I do give a damn about the bad reputation of my chosen scholarly field. Stop blaming stupid political ideas on a useful and ancient art form. Put simply, rhetoric is the art of persuasive discourse. Whatever Ted Cruz said recently about the gays was not art. I’m not sure it counts as discourse either. Perhaps Senator Cruz needs to attend my undergraduate communication course.

Every semester when I teach a rhetoric-based communication class I give students the nickel tour of rhetoric through the ages. Mostly that involves name-dropping Aristotle and then skipping ahead a couple thousand years. I get from the “Sophistic Greeks” slide in my PowerPoint to a cartoon asserting that “Stephen Toulmin was a 1950s beatnik” in about five minutes. It’s an awesome lecture. Okay, it’s probably not worth a nickel.

While it is true that rhetoric’s history does begin in the political arena way back in the Greco-Roman forums, the people (the white male citizens, lest we ignore privilege in history) were trained to speak eloquently about a number of topics, not just politics. Also, they sat under trees because it was hot in Greece and air conditioning hadn’t been invented yet. Ancient rhetoric bears little resemblance to whatever the politicons are spouting these days. I’m not going to give the full history here. Anyone who has studied rhetoric can tell you that a big part of the study of rhetoric is figuring out what the study of rhetoric is. We’re still arguing about that. I’m in the big R camp. Go big R. That’s a joke for my fellow big R rhetors and anyone who went to Roosevelt High School with me. My jokes are way inside today. I am a super dork. That’s like a regular dork, but with a cape. I am currently flying over tangent land.

Rhetoric, the art of persuasive discourse, requires more than cramming some buzz words together into a mostly grammatically correct sentence. “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is a grammatically correct sentence, but as Noam Chomsky pointed out, it doesn’t have any meaning. Let me demonstrate the kind of vapid buzz-wordy yammering I’m talking about, as spouted by politicons (on multiple sides of the spectrum) “Freedom.” “Natural.” “Terror.” “Rhetoric.” (Yes, the use of the term “rhetoric” is itself a buzz word devoid of actual rhetoric. Oh the irony. ) There is neither art nor discourse taking place when politicons use these words in sentences. They don’t have any clear meaning. For example, what does “Protect our freedom from terror” actually mean? Whose freedom? What terror? Protect how? From whom? Politicons are just trying to get people riled up, not artfully persuade them of anything.

Such utterances are really more along the lines of what George Lakoff describes as linguistic framing. Don’t think of an elephant! Ha ha, you’re picturing a pachyderm. Yes, when politicons use words like “freedom” they are trying to frame us. We’re being framed, not persuaded with artful discourse. Senator Ted Cruz described gay rights activists as “jihadists” waging war on Christians. Jihad is a buzz word, not a rhetorical strategy; although, his strategy does seem to be one of inciting the hillbillies to violence over imagined wrongs. I don’t think Cruz has access to the internet. If he did, he could look up the actual meaning of jihad on I’m not waging a holy war. I just want a pizza.

In summation, I want credit for inventing the word politicon, Joan Jett is a rock star who should asked me out on a date, Ted Cruz is trying to get me killed by rednecks, I cited a lot of scholars in this blog, and Rhetoric with a capital R deserves better than to be associated with U.S. politics.