The Art of Rhetoric: Working through the challenges and disagreements that arise from our shared lives. Series 4.3.

In my previous post, I suggest Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion are complementary reads. Why? Because a study of Haidt’s moral theory alongside Kahneman’s work on our cognitive/perceptual errors and biases might well make the barriers to both offering and receiving criticism a little more surmountable. To this end, I’ve another suggestion. Pick up a book on the study of rhetoric.

Rhetoric is broadly conceived as the ‘art of persuasion’ or, as Aristotle says, “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” (6)[3] Rhetoric has long been tarnished with a bad name, often being associated with manipulative advertisers, smooth-talking lawyers, fast-talking politicians, snake oil salesmen, and swindling preachers. These characterizations are wrong-headed. Not only do we each regularly make use of rhetoric, but also it is vital to our communications and negotiations; e.g. convincing one’s spouse to buy a new home, negotiating a raise, and boosting a friend’s confidence or calming her rage. As such, rhetoric is a skill one should endeavour to improve. Consider the following excerpt from my Defence of Rhetoric. 

“‘The ancient rhetoricians taught their pupils that no man is an island, and our politics, morality, and sociality depend on beings who think and feel.”[1]Ancient practitioners of rhetoric recognized that people hold diverse opinions on matters of moral and political import, and so on such matters they will inevitably disagree. Rhetoric was used to “make decisions, resolve disputes, and mediate public discussion of important issues.”[2]And so, as Aristotle says, rhetoric does not arise “from the fancies of crazy people, but out of material that calls for discussion.”[3]

[1]Crowley & Hawhee p 38;  [2]Crowley & Hawhee p 12;  [3]Aristotle. Rhetoric.Trans W. Rhys Roberts. Mineola: Dover Publications Inc. 2004. Print. p 10 (*Aristotle wrote what’s widely thought to be the first systematic study of rhetoric. You can read Rhetoric here at The Internet Classics, MIT.)

A persuasive argument for the need to hone one’s rhetorical skills is found in the following excerpt from Ancient Rhetoric for Contemporary Students by Sharon Crawley and Deborah Hawhee (available for purchase here and here.)

Say Crawley and Hawhee, “Given that argument can deter violence and coercion, we are disturbed by the contemporary tendency to see disagreement as somehow impolite or even undesirable. We certainly understand how disagreement has earned its bad name, given the caricature of argument that daily appears on talk television. In his column “On Television” Bill Goodykoontz had fun with the typical dialogue heard on news talk shows:

After hour upon hour of watching political “discussion” shows, a fever dream follows:

“Good afternoon, and welcome to Crossscreech,where we don’t just report the issues, we discuss them—loudly—and offer you the insight into the story behind the story.

“Let’s join our panelists, Larry Liberal and Ronnie Rightwing. Larry?”

LARRY. “Thanks. Lets just jump right to the news of the day: Iraq! Bush! What?!”

RONNIE:”Communist! Traitor! Turncoat!”

LARRY. “Lackey! Bootlick! Lickspittle!”

RONNIE. “I’d just like to say that ANYONE who expresses ANY doubts about ANYTHING the Bush administration proposes is NOT a patriot! WHY DO YOU HATE THIS COUNTRY?”

Larry: “Can you not SEE the conspiracy at work here? Are you BLIND? It’s all about OIL OIL OIL!”

RONNIE: “I will NOT feel guilt or remorse about driving my Suburban two blocks to work every day.”

LARRY: “When I’m riding my bicycle constructed completely out of hemp, I actually feel sorry for you.”

RONNIE: “Moron.”

LARRY: “Pig.”

RONNIE:”OK, let’s welcome our first guest, Sue U. All, an attorney for the ACLU. Sue, one question: “WHY DO YOU HATE THIS COUNTRY?”

“Uh …”

“Sue, can you please tell this animal in human clothing that until we get the words ‘under God’ removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, the American people will be living in a virtual police state?”

“Actually …”

RONNIE: “What’s next, Sue? Another merry skip down the road to socialism? Stricter gun control? Why not reveal your real plan—to not only have every gun taken away from all God-fearing Americans, but to DISARM THE AMERICAN MILITARY?”

SUE: “Well…

LARRY: “Sue, please inform this troglodyte that all this country REALLY needs is a good tax increase to get the economy stimulated, to get more money—money without the words ‘In God We Trust’ preferably—into the hands of ALL the people?”

“That’s not really my . . . “
Thanks, Sue, but we’re running short on time. Informative as always.

OK, parting shot. Can I just remind you, Larry, to KEEP THE GOVERNMENT OUT OF OUR LIVES. Except our bedrooms. We really do need to monitor what goes on there.”

LARRY: “If I want a Druid commitment ceremony performed in the middle of the town square, I WILL HAVE ONE!”

RONNIE: “And that’s it for us, folks. Tune in tomorrow night when we discuss Sesame Street—kids show or tool of the creeping enemy?”

LARRY: “And tax cuts—of the nondenominational evil supreme being? Good night.”

“On Television,” Arizona Republic December 17, 2002, E6.”

Sharon Crowley and Deborah Hawhee. Ancient Rhetoric for Contemporary Students. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004. Print. Chapter 1, p 2

*Bill Goodykoontz is a media/film critic for the Arizona Republic and for Gannett.

Moral: Don’t be Larry and Ronnie.

Categories: Political Rhetoric

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2 replies


  1. Aristotle and Pam on The Political Orator. Series. 6.1. –
  2. A meditation on the character of a political speaker and, by extension, a voter –

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