Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Use and Abuse of Rhetoric

Much has been written on rhetoric. Rhetoric is essentially the art of effective or persuasive conversation, using certain language techniques to make your position believable to an audience. To use rhetoric, you use figures of speech and compositional techniques to make believe what you are saying, even if your arguments are devoid of any substance. Donald Trump has mastered the art of rhetoric. Very little of what he says is substantive, but he has the majority of Republicans eating out of his hands.

So just like with any tool, rhetoric can be abused. You can use rhetoric to appear you know what you're talking about, when in fact your arguments are poor. Those who are not trained in logic will have a much more difficult time seeing through mere rhetoric. Examples of rhetoric abound in advertising slogans and among used car dealers, and many conversations on contentious topics contain rhetoric because we can often refuse to want to grant intellectual ground to our interlocutor so we use rhetoric instead of conceding defeat.

The term "rhetoric" has taken on a modern definition of any emotional argument that is devoid of substance. The pro-choice argument "pro-lifers just want to oppress women" and the pro-life argument "pro-choicers are just baby-hating monsters" are rhetorical in this sense. However, traditionally rhetoric has been seen  as useful for getting your point across when your argument is sound. It's not enough simply to give someone a valid and sound argument. Using rhetoric will make your argument memorable and emotionally impactful. We should respect our ideological opponents enough not to use rhetorical but bad arguments in the hopes we will convince them. Not only is it needlessly disrespectful, but if we use a bad rhetorical argument they may come across a good response to it and return to being pro-choice, more staunchly than before.

My main inspiration for writing this post came from a recent outreach I participated in with Justice for All at University of Colorado, Ft. Collins. A woman approached me and asked, "are you anti-choice?" I tried to explain my position to her, that since the unborn are human beings and abortion kills them, we should oppose abortion as a human rights issue. She responded, "so you're anti-choice?" I tried to clarify my views again, to no avail. She seemed intent on seeing me as anti-choice, nothing more. If I had a good rhetorical response, I may have been able to make some headway with her.

So rhetoric is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you're not abusing it by making bad arguments to guard intellectual turf. Let's open it up to the comments section. How would you respond to someone rhetorically who was intent on seeing you as anti-choice?

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