Some kind words for rhetoric

If you watched the federal party leaders debates you may have felt as though you were subjected to "a bunch of rhetoric." If only. Rhetoric nowadays implies "city talk:" slick, plausible and either dishonest or a desperate attempt to cover one's own confused ignorance. As Neil Postman put it in his 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, "we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech -- most often pretentious, superficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it ... rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communicating truth." From Demosthenes to Aquinas, it enjoyed, and deserved, a glowing reputation.

If rhetoric were mere trickery, I would still defend its study; every card player should notice when someone slips an ace up a sleeve. But even honest persons assured of never falling in with rogues will find it helpful when exchanging ideas in pursuit of truth.

For rhetoric is the art and science of clear communication. Because it is an art, someone with no natural gift for expression will not profit much from studying it. But, as is so often the case, you must be able to walk before you can run. Thus even someone with abundant natural talent should approach communication methodically. Otherwise, what Cicero, mute, inglorious, stands babbling here?

My father, who taught rhetoric, frequently said that when we evaluate communications, including our own, we should ask four key questions: What is the author trying to do? How does the author try to do it? How well is it done? Is it worth doing? And to help make these judgments he urged attention to nine key elements of rhetoric.

1. Author. What does the audience know of the speaker (or writer, sender of Morse code or singer) and how does that affect their willingness to believe the message? Misjudge this point and you risk either patronizing or baffling them.

2. Purpose. What is the author's aim in making his argument? In ancient times, we are told, when Cicero spoke men said "How well he spoke" but when Demosthenes spoke they said "Let us march." The latter is not always better; raising untimely rabbles is bad.

3. Subject. What is the author talking about?

4. Thesis. Of what is the author trying to convince the audience on that subject? The most common weakness in communication is having no thesis or, what amounts to much the same thing in practice, having too many of them.

5. Audience. A candidate might prefer to address the undecided but find a hall filled with the faithful. If so, a different speech is called for. And sometimes the real hope is to be overheard; as, for instance, I think in the French-language debate Stephen Harper was largely aiming to impress Ontario voters with his Quebec-friendliness.

6. Genre. What sort of communication is it, with what advantages and disadvantages? Music has more direct emotional power than writing, but less precision. The modern political debate format is cramped compared to, say, Lincoln-Douglas, but until it is changed candidates must adapt to it. And rap can make you look hip if you pull it off, but excruciatingly dorky if you don't.

7. Occasion. A dirty joke under the wrong circumstances can be disastrous.

8. Resistance. Many things can interfere with an audience receiving a message, from jackhammers outside the concert hall to the Tory party leader staring at the floor while speaking the audience's native language badly to key audience beliefs hostile to the thesis.

9. Argument. After identifying and weighing all these aspects the author must seek a way to minimize the obstacles and exploit the opportunities they create. A good argument is well-organized and includes the vital Refutatio that acknowledges the best argument against the thesis and deals with it; failure to do so will persuade a sophisticated audience that the author is ignorantly unaware of the contrary case or dishonestly evading it.

There are further refinements. Among my favourites is the curiously named obligatio, in which you say you won't say something in order to slip it in, from "There is no need to mention my opponent's criminal record" to "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." Sly? Perhaps. Witty? Often. But the result is anything but trickery.

For years I had on my office wall this quotation from Hugh Blair, a 19th-century student of rhetoric: "We may rest assured that, whenever we express ourselves ill, there is, besides the mismanagement of language, for the most part some mistake in our manner of conceiving the subject. Embarrassed, obscure and feeble sentences are generally, if not always, the result of embarrassed, obscure and feeble thought."

So let's hear it for rhetoric. Indeed, let's hear some.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson