Loosely put, rhetoric is the art of persuasion. More specifically, on Aristotle’s definition, rhetoric is “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”
We all use rhetoric to convince others of some thing or other, but some of us are more skilled than others to this end. Some become especially skilled at rhetoric because persuasive arguments are part and parcel of their careers. Lawyers, advertisers, clergymen, and politicians are at the top of this list.
What I want to emphasize here is that rhetoric not a bad thing. Rhetoric is a tool and, as with all tools, it serves the purposes of its users. Hence notable rhetoricians include Churchill and Hitler, Mandela and Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Lincoln and Gandhi, Plato, Jesus, and Tommy Douglas.
“[The] possible abuse [of rhetoric] is no argument against its proper use on the side of truth and justice. The honest rhetorician has no separate name to distinguish him from the dishonest.” (Aristotle, Trans. W. Rhys Roberts, Rhetoric, Contents, Book I, p vii)
Aristotle categorised rhetoric as a form of argument counterpart to dialectic and belonging to the study of ethics, particularly because practiced rhetors become adept at leveraging hearts and minds. Or, more-so, the mind through the heart. This leverage has three components: logos (the giving of reasons or logical arguments), ethos (the appearance of good character), and pathos (emotions). These components have perdured for the past couple thousand years chiefly because, to some people’s consternation, they work.
Since Plato, people have equated rhetoric with sophistry which is in turn associated with deception. This characterization of both rhetoric and sophistry is neither fair nor accurate, at least not always. But listeners do worry that rhetors manipulate the truth.* Let’s consider this worry.
As much as speakers throw around the words “facts” and “truth”, and denigrate their opponents as “liars” who spread disinformation, most of us — political rhetoricians included — haven’t a clue what in the world these words hook up to. We couldn’t in a thousand lifetimes garner the expertise we need to evaluate the truth, nor even who has the truth for the thousands who lay claim to it.
Yet politicians aren’t necessarily being disingenuous by making truth claims. Rather they, like us, trust the people they trust. And politicians aim to persuade us, too, to trust their trusted people. We’re more likely to trust these people if we trust the politician. And so the politician must convince us he’s trustworthy, and often times he does so by convincing us that his opponent isn’t.
In Rhetoric, I draw your attention to 1356a (Book I, Chapter II) where Aristotle observes,
Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.
[ The speaker’s] character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.
With these passages in mind, consider some of the rhetorical activities leading up to the US election (Nov. 3, 2020). This election-run garners considerable global attention.
Viewers of a two-hour CNN documentary entitled “Fight for the White House: Joe Biden’s Long Journey” (Sept 7, 2020) might believe Biden a candidate for beatification. That is to say, the documentary amplifies Biden’s goodness. So Team Trump’s counter-strategy is to undermine Biden’s goodness, especially in the eyes of particular voting blocks; e.g. Biden’s turnabout views on fracking to oil workers and environmentalists.
Just as Team Biden amplifies Biden’s goodness, they correspondingly amplify Trump’s badness. This amplification is made explicit when Biden promises, “I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness.” (Caitlyn Oprysko, Politico, 08/20/2020) Those persuaded that the election is a battle between good and evil might vote in answer to this call to arms. Others will find this apocalyptic characterization over-the-top or even attributed to the wrong parties, respectively. And for these reasons they, too, might be moved to the polls.
[Addendum November 15, 2020. Keep in mind how close the outcome between Biden and Trump this past election! An extreme call to arms might get one side out to vote, but it gets the other side out to vote as well. I’ll have more to say about this phenomenon when I discuss Political Rhetoric and Carl Von Clausewitz’s analysis of war, “War is nothing but the continuation of [politics] by other means.” Or, as Michel Foucault suggests, the inverse, “Politics is the continuation of war by other means.” ‘Other means’ includes discourse, and particularly rhetoric. ]
Here’s what troubles me. Since this election is cast as a battle of good versus evil, one is by extension morally good or evil according to how she casts her vote. Or would if she could. And this sortal is not confined to the US. Positions held on one candidate or the other, Biden or Trump, are causing social strife in Canada and beyond.
While US media — CNN, MSNBC, and FOX — bleat about foreign interference in US elections, the waves they make by bleating their 24/7 polarised propaganda are interfering with social flourishing beyond their borders; that is, foreign interference. Consequently, a number of Canadian families, co-workers, and communities are being divided and polarized by US politics! So as far as foreigners not only taking but also having an interest in the US election, the borders are NOT closed.
What can be done to combat this toxicity? Arm yourself with a study of rhetoric, understand the beast that moves you.
And keep in mind the following before you think your neighbour good or bad for the candidate she endorses,
Look below a grand narrative, e.g. left vs right, dark vs light, and you will discover people doing the best they can with the circumstances in which they find themselves.
*There’s so much more nuance on truth that I’ve omitted from this post. I’ve left out discussion of the noble lie, a lie intended to contribute to social flourishing; e.g. inventing an enemy to unite a divided polity. A familiar parallel is telling your child the awful-tasting life-saving medication is yummy so she will swallow it. The ethics of the noble lie is a whole other debate.