Rhetoric is Not a Four-Letter Word

It’s literally an eight-letter word. But you know what I mean.

Politicians like to throw the word rhetoric around like it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. They pair it with adjectives like hateful, divisive, or violent. They use it to talk about why their opponents are wrong or bad.

These are not incorrect uses of the word rhetoric. But here’s the thing. Calling out someone else’s rhetoric is, in and of itself, an example of rhetoric.

Academics (and recovering academics, like myself) like to quibble about definitions of rhetoric. They’ve been writing about it pretty much since writing became a thing. Socrates didn’t care for it. Aristotle thought it was a core component of civic life.

But what is it?

Aristotle said that rhetoric was all about persuasion, but I think it’s more than that. Rhetoric is about the choices we make whenever we communicate, not just when we’re trying to be persuasive.

If you believe that, then you start to see rhetoric everywhere around you—and that’s a good thing. Learning more about rhetoric can help you become a better communicator. It can also make you a savvier consumer of contemporary media. It can help you see when you’re being manipulated, and it can help you identify fake news.

It’s also a great at removing warts! Just kidding.

Rhetoric 101

Hopefully by now, you’ve been persuaded by my rhetoric to keep reading and learn more about, well, rhetoric. There’s a lot to cover, so while I’ll give an overview of a few concepts in rhetoric in this post, it’s just the beginning of a whole series on rhetoric. I’ll do some deeper dives into particular topics, and I’ll dissect rhetoric as I come across it in the wild.

To start with, in this post, I’ll cover the rhetorical situation and rhetorical appeals.

The Rhetorical Situation

Any time you communicate, you find yourself in a rhetorical situation. A rhetorical situation consists of four main parts: an author (or speaker), an audience, a message, and a context. Let’s take this blog post as an example. I’m the author, you’re the audience, and you’re reading the message. The context is that I want to talk about rhetoric to people outside of academia.

Let’s take another example, though. Say you’re writing a cover letter for a job you want to apply for (incidentally, something I can help you with). You’re the author, and the message is the contents of your letter—the experiences you share to illustrate your qualifications for the job in question. But who’s the audience?

That’s actually a more complicated question than you might think. You’re probably trying to get it on your future boss’s desk, but before it makes it there, it makes a few other steps along the way. First, it might go through an ATS, or automated tracking system. ATSes skim application materials and use machine-learning algorithms to select a few candidates out of several hundred to be forwarded on to HR. Then, someone in HR will likely look at it, and then finally, your cover letter might make it all the way to your (hopefully) future boss. So, your audience is not just your future boss, but also the HR department. You could even consider the ATS to be part of the audience!

So there’s more to the rhetorical situation than meets the eye. I’ll talk more about each component of the rhetorical situation in future posts, so stay tuned!

Rhetorical Appeals

If we think about rhetoric as persuasion, then one problem we have to solve when communicating is how to persuade. Rhetorical appeals are tools for persuasion.

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle talks about three rhetorical appeals, using some Greek words to describe them. These Greek words have stuck around since his time, so I’ll use them here, too:

  • Logos: Appeals to logic
  • Pathos: Appeals to emotion
  • Ethos: Appeals to credibility

As examples, I’ll talk about some popular commercials that use each appeal. Analyzing commercials is a great way to hone your ability to spot rhetorical appeals, by the way. And getting better at spotting them helps you get better at using them yourself.

Logos. Verzion makes several appeals to logos in this commercial. They say switching to Verizon makes more sense than “settling” for less 4G coverage.

Pathos. Old Spice has been the king of comedic commercials for awhile. Here’s an example of an Old Spice commercial appealing to pathos, or emotion.

But joy isn’t the only emotion that can be appealed to. The SPCA used to have a commercial featuring sad animals set to Sarah MacLaughlan’s song “Angel.” To this day I can’t watch it; press play at your own risk.

Ethos. Trident uses two main appeals in this commercial. It’s a funny commercial, so they’re appealing to pathos, but the phrase “four out of five dentists recommend…” is actually an appeal to ethos, or credibility. Dentists know what’s good for your teeth, so if four out of five dentists recommend it, then it must be good!

Rhetoric is an Eight-Letter Word

To recap, rhetoric isn’t inherently a bad thing. It can certainly be used for causes we disagree with, but it can also be used for good. Have you ever donated to a cause you care about after seeing a post on social media about it? That’s rhetoric at work!

Rhetoric and communication exist to get things done in this world. If you want to get things done, stay tuned for more discussions of rhetoric!

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