This week’s episode is posted as a written essay/blog post instead of a podcast.
There are a lot of people in the public eye trying to be persuasive right now. Ketanji Brown Jackson is trying to persuade Congress she is fit for the Supreme Court. President Zelenskyy of Ukraine is trying to persuade other world leaders to establish a no-fly zone over his country and supply him with supplies to fight off an invading force. And President Biden is trying to convince the American public to trust him to lead them through some financially difficult times, while Republicans are trying to persuade them to ditch Democrats because of their economic failures.
Maybe this is no more or less public persuasion than is usually going on, but it certainly seems like there is a lot being spotlighted right now. And it got me thinking about some broader, bigger, rhetorical questions. How does one persuade? What is persuasive? What makes us think, yeah, I buy that.
These questions are at the heart of the study of rhetoric, and we’ve been asking them since the time of Socrates, at the very least. So this week I thought we’d explore the most fundamental of rhetorical questions – what is persuasive?
When Aristotle was writing the works that would define my field for a few millennia, he said that rhetoric came in three different varieties: forensic, deliberative, and epideictic.
Forensic rhetoric encompasses any discussion of past action including legal discourse—the primary setting for the emergence of rhetoric as a discipline and theory. Forensic rhetoric is generally concerned with what has happened – so we often associate it with a court of law. Did they do it? Was this the chain of events? Forensic rhetoric is often associated with guilt or innocence, or at least the perception of guilt or innocence. And some might say it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a legal court – you can be tried in the court of public opinion just as well as you can a court of law. But forensic rhetoric concerns itself with what has already occurred.
Deliberative rhetoric juxtaposes potential future outcomes to communicate support or opposition for a given action or policy. In Rhetoric (4th century BCE), Aristotle wrote that deliberative rhetoric is relevant in political debate since the “political orator is concerned with the future: it is about things to be done hereafter that he advises, for or against.” Juxtapose this with forensic rhetoric. Where forensic rhetoric concerns itself with the past, deliberative rhetoric concerns itself with the future – it is a matter of what SHOULD happen. Deliberative rhetoric is classically persuasive rhetoric. Deliberative rhetoric aims to convince an audience that certain actions should be taken or certain ideas or policies should be supported – the rhetor is trying to persuade the audience that their position is superior to another. Deliberative rhetoric is often what people think of when they think of rhetoric. It is intentionally persuasive speech.
Epideictic rhetoric is a whole other ball game. This is rhetoric of ceremony, commemoration, declamation, demonstration, on the one hand, and of play, entertainment and display, including self-display on the other. It is also the rhetoric used at festivals, the Olympic games, state visits and other formal events like the opening and closing ceremonies, and celebrations of anniversaries of important events, including illustrious victories, births, deaths, and weddings. Its major subject is praise and blame, according to Aristotle in the limited space he provides for it in the Art of Rhetoric. This rhetoric deals with goodness, excellence, nobility, shame, honor, dishonor, beauty, and matters of virtue and vice. Epideictic rhetoric is the rhetoric of ritual and tradition. It builds community and appeals to values and communal ethics. If forensic rhetoric is rhetoric of the past, and deliberative rhetoric is rhetoric of the future, you could say epideictic rhetoric is rhetoric of the present because it is who we are in that moment. It is what we are doing together, be it celebrating, mourning, or commemorating, and marking time together.
If you’re trying to persuade someone, it seems pretty clear that you would use deliberative, or possibly forensic rhetoric. I mean, that’s definitively what they are – rhetoric designed to persuade. When people think persuasive rhetoric, they generally have deliberative rhetoric in mind. But maybe the question of what kind of rhetoric is most persuasive is a different thing all together.
When you make an argument, as in deliberative rhetoric, you have a number of options available as to how to do that. There is the classic Aristotelian approach with syllogistic arguments – we think of the kinds of persuasive writing we learned all throughout school: Claim, evidence, conclusion. Hopefully as you got older you learned that was just slightly more complex and you wrote claim, support, explanation claim and support, implications, and conclusions, then transition into another claim. For a lot of people that’s the definitively how you make an argument.
But there are other ways. We know from Burke that an argument can be a kind of a drama. Consider when Franklin Delano Roosevelt argued to the nation that we should declare war and enter into World War II. It’s commonly known as the “Day of Infamy” speech for poignant description of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
This speech is an excellent example of how dramatistic rhetoric operates. First, there is the act – the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt tells us, “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
Then there is the agent, Japan. He says, “Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.”
There is the scene, which is Pearl Harbor. He describes, “the attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.”
There is the agency, which is the planes and the bombs.
And there was the purpose, which he is somewhat vague about. But that may be purposeful. He says they were “deliberate” and “surprise” and “treacherous.” And this only serves to emphasize the ruthlessness of the attack.
And throughout all of this the focus, the ratio, is on Japan and the attack. The narrative is primarily about the agent and the act. Because the nation needs to know that the enemy acted upon us. It was intentional and specific. This was no accident. Japan bombed us. They were in control of this situation. The agent acted.
Walter Fisher also lays out the narrative paradigm to explain how stories can be convincing. There have been a number of theorists who have thought about how we persuade each other to one idea or another.
But, and I ask this as a question, not an argument, can anything ever be as persuasive as epideictic rhetoric?
Epideictic rhetoric is ritualistic. It is where we confirm our beliefs and our sense of community. Is anything more convincing than coming together to share a sense of identity?
I have often wondered if maybe epideictic rhetoric is the most persuasive because Burke had it right about identification. Epideictic rhetoric is where we come together to build community and share our values and our ideals. It is absolutely consubstantial. And Burke knew that real persuasion happened not when somebody made the best argument, but when people came together.
One of the best examples of epideictic rhetoric that we are all familiar with is the Pledge of Allegiance. We grow up saying it ritually, most of us every weekday, all together, as part of our morning ceremonies, together as a community. We say it before we even know what it means. And somehow, over the course of the years, it becomes this really powerful mantra for many people that can’t be questioned or changed.
The Pledge, written in the 1860s, had been a mainstay of school mornings and opening ceremonies of various lodges and clubs throughout the country for decades, but, in that time, the political context in which it operated had changed. The Pledge was as much a by-product of the Civil War as anything else, hence the emphasis on a unified Republic. If one posits that the Pledge of Allegiance was a rhetorical product of a particular context, then we may hypothesize that a change to the recitation itself is a response to a change in context, and the repetition of epideictic rhetoric, such as the Pledge of Allegiance serves an important function: to display, praise, and affirm as truth certain communal values.
One of the functions of epideictic rhetoric is to re-affirm values and standards of the community. The Pledge of Allegiance itself is a ceremonial speech, in which we pledge to be faithful to the flag, which itself represents an America that is described in that very pledge. The Pledge of Allegiance not only fulfilled this need, but because it was repeated in almost all schools, and at many club meetings and opening ceremonies at special occasions, on a daily basis, it continually constituted this version of American identity.
Epideictic rhetoric is performative, ceremonial, and is a matter of “display,” according to Scott Consigny. Aristotle emphasized epideictic’s “focus on values,” which the Pledge elucidates rather clearly. It provides a list of characteristics for us to value and embody: “indivisible,” “with liberty and justice for all” are a public affirmation of accepted American values. Chaim Perelman notes that epideictic “is uncontroversial because the values it brings to the forefront are not available to dispute,” according to Bernard K. Duffy. The communal values in epideictic rhetoric are those that, supposedly, the community has already accepted and has ingrained into the very fabric of their being. The Pledge highlights those virtues Americans hope to instill in those who recite it. It reminds participants of allegiance, unity, and “liberty and justice for all” that, as Americans, we are supposed to espouse above all other ideas. The Pledge unifies Americans in thought and deed; after all, the indivisibility of the Republic was its main focus originally. Its very purpose is spelled out in the speech.
A rhetor utilizing epideictic rhetoric “delineates his task as one of advocating his own position in a manner that is fitting with the ‘norms’ of the discourse at hand” according to Consigny. In this sense, epideictic re-affirms social norms and helps those norms reproduce themselves, and the Pledge requires no interpretive effort because it provides an explicit list. The performance of the Pledge is an act of constitution. Adding something to epideictic rhetoric that is already set and accepted is a somewhat radical move, then, for in that action the author is adding something to communal values and identity.
Epideictic rhetoric facilitates “the instilling of philosophically correct values” as they are presented by the rhetor, according to Duffy. A rhetor who engages in epideictic speech is tasked with proclaiming and embedding community values. Epideictic rhetoric is the verbalization of the ties that bind, so to speak. It “must amplify belief in the values which inform decision in every sphere of human activity,” which creates a particularly powerful piece of discourse. If epideictic rhetoric encourages us not just to believe particular ideas, but to believe in ideas that will affect our behavior, then even small and subtle changes to ceremony cannot be taken lightly.
Part of the power of epideictic rhetoric, specifically in the case of the Pledge, is the ceremonial nature of it. Since the Pledge is a ceremony that is repeated frequently, the Pledge continually re-affirms the explicit American identity it is spelling out. It praises American virtue and, as we participate, we literally pledge to be subject to those virtues because we are Americans; and so the cycle continues. The repetition of the Pledge creates its own narrative that gets told and re-told with every recitation. As Duffy argues, an epideictic rhetor has the option to prioritize persuasion and “appearance” over accuracy or the facts of a situation, and in the case of the Pledge of Allegiance the importance is not whether all of America believes in God, but that we create a collective identity. The Pledge has particular persuasive power because of its pervasiveness. The job of the Pledge is to publicly normalize attitudes toward America and define what America stands for.
But the Pledge is not just random or meaningless words. It has specific structure and meaning.
When we recite the Pledge, we proclaim our devotion to the flag first and foremost. Our initial allegiance is given to that thing which represents America, not America herself. At first glance this seems to confuse the issue – we technically give our allegiance to a piece of red, white, and blue fabric.
The flag is a symbol – and a symbol gives the rhetor more leeway to create a definition than “the Republic.” Beginning with the flag gives us the opportunity to describe what that flag represents. So, the Pledge defines the nation by defining those things that represent the nation. By using a mediator the rhetor has more license to define her or his terms. It is interesting to note that this is not a matter of synecdoche. The flag is not used as a smaller thing to represent the Republic. The flag is something in and of itself and should not be diminished. The Republic was a related, but not interchangeable, entity. The language is not particularly metaphorical or poetic, but rather straightforward and organized in a list fashion in simple, declarative clauses. I pledge to the flag, then to the Republic which is represented by the flag. The flag serves a dual purpose here – on the one hand it is physical, and we can easily see and understand it as an object, solidifying in our minds a concrete image, but on the other hand it is symbolic, and the bulk of the Pledge is spent defining what that symbol stands for.
Next in that list is “one nation under God.” The phrase “one nation under God” acts as an appositive. The Republic for which the flag stands is renamed in the Pledge as “one nation under God.” “One nation under God” is not just a description; it is a re-naming of the preceding noun phrase. So the Pledge of Allegiance has changed from a pledge to a flag and a unified Republic, but a pledge to a flag and a Republic that is unified under God. Appositives are usually defined as a single noun which follows immediately after another noun, identifying or supplementing it, not a noun phrase. In the case of the Pledge, it is a complex version of the appositive. It is, as J.E. Norwood describes, attached to a statement or clause and functions as an explanatory mark. An appositional relationship is more than just the standard “an appositive could replace its antecedent noun.” As Diane Blakemore points out, appositional structures can give the audience the opportunity to consider the differences and similarities between two things. The listeners get the opportunity to compare and contrast for themselves. An appositive can also encourage the reader to “explore the total set of contextual assumptions made accessible” by all parts of the sentence. In other words, an appositional phrase encourages a reader (or, in this case, speaker or listener) to consider all of the assumptions about the flag, America, and the Republic that are connected through the phrase. The words “under God” were not minor additions; they were adding to the identity that millions of people performed regularly.
The phrase “under God” is inserted between two descriptors: “one nation” and “indivisible.” Together these might seem somewhat redundant but separating them with “under God” changes the meaning. The new sentence reads “one nation Under God.” That is, we are united through a common God. Being under God is one of the bonds we all share as Americans, according to the pledge to the flag. Continuing with another descriptive, we are “indivisible,” strengthening some idea of unity. When we say the Pledge out loud, we are effectively renaming the nation with each new descriptor. We pledge to be faithful to the flag, and that means being faithful to the nation, which in turn means liberty and justice for all. Adding under God does not change the nature of the appositive, but strengthens the nature of our indivisibility. We are not just one nation, but we are united through a specific idea. In this case, God. Calling ourselves a nation that walked with God or a nation that God favored would not have the same rhetorically unifying and definitive power as being identified as “under God,” and in the face of an enemy like Communism such unification through the very force that made us “not” them was powerful and important.
The final part of the pledge assures us that the Republic will guarantee liberty and justice. Liberty and justice rank high in the pantheon of American god terms, and like most god terms they have a completely malleable and vague definition, but regardless all other terms are defined in relation to them. The Pledge reminds us, as Richard Weaver describes, that we stand whole and we stand for noble and glorious concepts, hard as they might be to define. Weaver makes a similar comment about Abraham Lincoln in his essay “The Argument from Definition.” He describes Lincoln’s tendency to argue from principle, but more specifically from definition. This form of argument postulates that “there exist classes which are determinate and therefore predicable.” That is, there is an assumption that something is so, and in making such an assumption, the rhetor defines the terms that set the parameters for an argument. The Pledge functions in just this way – it defines a state which we assume exists so that we may argue from that definition of the Republic.
So what seems a simple recitation, a meaningless ritual that we put school children through every morning, has profound implications for how we think about ourselves and our nation. And we repeat this over and over – until it becomes part of our psyche. It’s a part of who we are. It is embedded within us.
So of course some people take it personally when some people don’t want to take part in the Pledge. Or stand for the anthem. Or do any of the performative acts of patriotism we demand of each other. Look at how we have made them a part of our lives.
Which is why I wonder if epideictic rhetoric is maybe just as persuasive as deliberative and forensic. Because if you can convince a person of who they are and what they believe, that’s as powerful an argument as there is to make.
For more on the Pledge and epideictic rhetoric see:
Thorpe, M. Elizabeth. “‘Under God:’ An Epideictic Weapon in the Fight Against Communism.” Re/Framing Identities. Michelle Ballif, ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2014.