It’s an interesting time to be paying attention to public discourse because we’re in a time of isolation, so it’s not like there’s a lot of public activity going on. There’s no rallies or political events, there’s not a lot of “civic” stuff going on in the traditional sense. But at the same time public discourse is almost more important than it has ever been. We’re looking to our leaders, elected, expert, popular, and otherwise, to do a lot of things for us. We’re looking to them to provide examples, information, unity, hope, and in some ways company. So we’re really paying close attention to public speech right now. And finding it makes a really big impact.
So today we’re going to go right back to the beginning. This is a podcast about the way rhetoric can help us understand the world we live in, but what the crap is rhetoric? That might be an intimidating word to people who are just trying to live their lives and don’t have their nose in a book all day. I know my students are always telling me they have no idea what it means – even after they have take a class or two with me. So let’s spend some time today talking about what rhetoric is and then talk about the ways things can be rhetorical.
So today we’re going to demystify some terms and then talk about a completely nondescript, unimportant address and how it is an example of rhetoric. We’re going to be looking at Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s public address from April 29th to the press! Who’s excited???
So – what on earth are we talking about when we talk about rhetoric?
Rhetoric has a bad connotation for a lot of people. You hear people say things like “we need more action, not just rhetoric!” implying that rhetoric is useless and forceless. And if you play a word association game people tend to think of politicians and lawyers when they think of rhetoric, which don’t rank real high on the “people I want to spend a lot of quality time with because I trust them so much” scale. Rhetoric has a reputation or being either impotent or dishonest, and there’s a long history to that. Some of it is because of various philosophers over the last 2500 years or so that hated rhetoric and tried to define it specifically as something useless. But some of that is because rhetoric is associated with power, and power is frightening.
Rhetoric first became a THING in the 5th century BCE. I mentioned the Sophists last week, and they are important because they are some of the first people to really come up with any kind of theory or definition of rhetoric. But it was a little slapdash and people like Plato hated it, because it flew in the face of things like “ultimate truths” and “objectivity.” For the Sophists rhetoric was persuasion, but it was more akin to magic or drugs – it could make a change in a person or the world by the power or prowess of the speaker. It was a truth-maker. Then along came Aristotle, the real patriarch of all things rhetoric, and he wrote a bunch of books (such as they were at that time) and systematized some stuff at that time. For Aristotle (and this is painting in broad strokes) rhetoric is discovering in any particular case all the available means of persuasion. In other words, what are the most effective ways to be persuasive in particular circumstances? And Aristotle wrote COPIOUS amounts on this with all kinds of observations about people and arguments and society. Some of it is just grand generalizations about the world as he saw it, but some of it is really useful classifications of kinds of arguments, organizations, and approaches to persuasion that have stood the test of time for 2500 years. So, was Aristotle a misogynist and a racist and a classist and an ageist who was more than ready to make all kinds of generalizations about people and questionable “scientific” observations to promote his theories? Absolutely. Did he have a keen grasp of things like logic and organization? Unfortunately, yes.
Now something important to understand is that rhetoric and democracy were developed at the same time in the same place, and in some cases by the same people. There’s reasons for this:
- In Greece (and mostly Athens) people were experimenting with new forms of government in which the people (or SOME people) had a voice. This group of people were called the demos. Hence, the word democracy.
- But think about the ramifications of that for a moment – in a democracy the people’s voice matters. The people make decisions. Prior to that there had been one leader who lead the realm and everything had been top down. That leader made the call and that was all there was to it. No debate necessary. Democracy is a radically different proposition. And here is where we have to make a connection. How do the people know what decisions to make? They are PERSUADED. People vote on elected leaders, the guilt or innocence of a person on trial, or the justness of a law because they are persuaded that one position is superior to another. So the art of persuasion developed when the people began to gain power. Before the people had a voice, there was no need to every persuade anybody in the public sphere – because on guy made the call and that was the end of it. But as power became democratized it became important for people to know how to communicate their ideas effectively and convincingly. The need for an understanding of persuasion was a sign that the people, not a monarch, were in charge.
- In short, rhetoric and democracy go hand in hand. One literally cannot exist without the other. In a democracy people have to be able to voice their arguments and bring people to their understanding of the issues. For rhetoric to exist there must be an ability among the people to make choices about what is the best decision – otherwise what are we convincing each other of? This becomes all too clear during Roman reign. When the Roman Empire moved away from a democratic organization to an Empire ruled by a caesar the understanding of rhetoric literally changed. It became less about persuasion and more about ornate speech. Because rhetoric began, and many ways has for thousands of years, been about a way to negotiate power.
So, for many people, that was the original definition of rhetoric and it is STILL the definition of rhetoric. If anybody ever asks you “what the hell is rhetoric?” and you say “it’s just persuasion” you have not answered incorrectly.
But over the last 2500 years or so many different definitions have been proposed. And I mean a LOT of different definitions. Way more than I could possibly go through in just a few minutes here. But if you’re interested a book called The Rhetorical Tradition does a pretty good job covering a lot of it. So does The Rhetoric of Western Thought (disclaimer – I’m an author of The Rhetoric of Western Thought). So instead of working our way meticulously through a bunch of different understandings of what rhetoric is, that all owe a lot to Aristotle anyway, we’re going to jump right to the 20th century to a guy I know my family loves to talk about – Kenneth Burke.
In some ways it makes sense to think about Burke as a product of his time. He was writing just before the turn of the 20th century, so like everybody at that point his thought processes were consumed with the Second World War.
Now just consider what was going on from an on the ground perspective – a relative nobody from a weak and struggling country in Europe had been able to convince an entire nation (and two others that joined them) to march across the continent and try and take over the world. That’s like, some comic-book level villain tomfoolery. But this guy had convinced Germans that they were superior to all other people and they had the right to LITERALLY rule the world. And basically the whole freaking planet had to get involved in a war to do something about it. Burke, like many of his contemporaries, looked at the state of the world, and asked himself “what on earth happened? How did we get here? How in the world do you convince people to DO THESE THINGS?” And he came up with a pretty provocative answer.
Burke re-defined rhetoric in a way that changed the way a lot of people think about communication. Burke said rhetoric isn’t so much persuasion, as it is how we identify with (or divide from) each other. Rhetoric isn’t about what decision I can convince you to make or what action I can get you to take, but who we are together. This is a pretty big step. And it ends up being kind of revolutionary.
So consider this change. Aristotle set rhetoric up almost procedurally – you make a claim, you support it with evidence, you have various kinds of proofs (both artistic and inartistic, as we noted last week), you conclude, and you are thereby convincing. Burke is talking about something completely different. Burke is talking about who we are as people. How we identify with each other and how we are moved to make decisions based on how we understand each other. It’s not a process of making an argument with proofs, it’s a process of coming together based on those things we share, or those things that divide us, and being convincing not because of a procedural argument but because of who we are as people. Now, some people would argue that identity is just a rhetorical construction, so you are still just being persuasive. But I need you to understand how much he moved the needle, here. Rhetoric was suddenly more than an argument it was a matter of being at the heart of who we were. According to Burke we were convincing not because of the arguments we made but the stories we told and how we showed people we understood them.
One of his real breakthroughs was understanding persuasion as drama. If you ever took a journalism course you may have learned that you always have to answer who, what, when, where, why. Burke had similar, though not exactly the same, ideas about how we are convincing. He said we tend to speak in narratives, or dramas, which can be broken into five parts, which he called the Pentad.
- The first part of the Pentad was the act. That’ simple, it’s what happened.
- Then you have the agent – that’s who is the actor in narrative. Or who performs the act.
- Then you have the scene – that’s the context in which this all takes place.
- Then you have agency – that’s the means by which the agent acts. Or the means by which the act takes place. HOW this things gets accomplished.
- Then you have purpose – why does the agent act?
The thing about telling a story is you can tell the same story different ways. You just emphasize different elements of the Pentad. You emphasize different elements of the Pentad depending on what your goals are. And that tells you something about the motives of the speaker. Let me give you an example. We’ll call it the Law & Order example
There’s a murder trial. In the opening statement the prosecutor tells the story of Jonathan who undoubtedly shot a convenience store working on April 28th. Jonathan callously shot the man, by himself, stole $700 dollars and was later found in his apartment. Jonathan was working alone this day and simply walked into the convenience store and pulled the trigger. There is not question that Jonathan did it. It is your duty to find Jonathan guilty and punish him to the fullest extent of the law.
The defense attorney tells this story: Little Johnny, as he is known in the neighborhood, grew up in an abusive home. His father left him and his sick sister when he was five and his mother is barely there, due to a drug problem. Johnny dropped out of school at 16 to take a job so he could help his sister, who has dealt with health problems since birth, and try to take care of his family. Johnny’s situation was, to be honest, untenable. One day, Johnny found a gun on the street. He started carrying it with him for reasons even he could not explain. On April 28th his sister’s health began to deteriorate to a point that Johnny feared for her life. Johnny was desperate. Not knowing what else to do, Johnny went to a local convenience store to ask for another job. The clerk laughed at him. Johnny was so angry he brandished his gun. The clerk threatened him with a baseball bad. Johnny was terrified. He didn’t know how to handle the gun and it went off in his hand. The bullet hit the clerk and Johnny panicked. He took the cash in the drawers in the hopes that he could pay for a visit to the hospital for his sister and left. As soon as he got to his apartment he called the police and told them what had happened. He asked them to bring the paramedics when they came. This is the story of a tragic accident in a tragic place. We ask for leniency.
This is at once the same story, but at the same time, totally different. The prosecutor emphasizes the act and the agent. Jonathan DID THE THING. By doing so Jonathan can be held accountable. The agent performed the act. The defense attorney emphasizes scene and agency. When the scene and the agency are in control of the story the agent is not. It’s the terrible situation and the fact that the gun went off in his hand that are in control of this narrative. So Johnny (note he is a child in this story as opposed to a grown up in the other) is not accountable.
Same stories, different controlling factors. And when the stories have different controlling factors, the accountability is different. So the question is, how do you identify with this story? How does the lawyer get you to identify with one of these narrative tellers?
So this shift in the way we think about rhetoric led to a new way of understanding the kinds of arguments we made and what rhetoric fundamentally is. For example, instead of talking about rhetoric as an argument, some people talk about rhetoric as constitutive (or constitutive) now. Which is just a fancy way of saying we make up who we are by talking about ourselves.
Think about it this way – what does it mean to be “American?” We could probably come up with a half a dozen definitions just in this room – and there are two of us here. The definition of American changes depending on time, location, and any number of other variables. So how do we know what that means? Basically, by defining it. We define American and that’s what it means. It’s kind of tautological. American means American because we talk about it that way. And not necessarily in that explicit “I am defining American thusly” though sometimes it is that blatant. But we speak about our nation, and patriotism, and citizenship, and politics, and American gets defined because we are basically making up who we are as we go along
So with all of these definitions I want to give an example of what it means to be “rhetorical.”
We talked about press conferences last week, and we’re going to return to that topic but talk about somebody completely different – today we’re going to talk about Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Specifically, let’s talk about her address on April 29th. Not because that one was special, but because it was typical. And that’s kind of the point I want to make.
First, let’s talk about how it was argumentative. It was a rhetorical piece in the classic sense because Gov. Whitmer was trying to make an argument to her listeners. What’s kind of interesting is that her biggest claims don’t come until the end of the presser. She kind of builds into her argument. But what she is really arguing about here is about her use of executive power in this time of crisis to keep Michiganders safe. There has been a lot of controversy and even protest in Michigan about Whitmer’s decisions and Whitmer is facing a public that may not be as receptive to her messages. So she is careful to present proof – she loads her message with expert testimony, specific data points, strong reasoning. Whitmer establishes herself as an authority and makes sure that everyone knows that she is not playing politics but is operating as thoughtful leader – thinking about the well-being of her constituents and not playing politics. She tells stories of the doctors and nurses who are working in the field and gives her listeners faces to go with the statistics she is using to make her points. In short, Whitmer makes good use of logos, pathos, and ethos.
This is not an argument in the sense that it starts with a claim, is followed by support, and then concludes. It isn’t organized the way your would write your freshman comp paper. It isn’t deductive or syllogistic reasoning in the traditional sense. She starts with narratives, stories, and data and moves to the conclusions that her actions are necessary.This is interspersed with proofs like expert testimony, and even some cross-examination by other speakers. Ultimately, it is a definitively traditionally rhetorical artifact.
But you can also look at this from a Burkean perspective, too.
Whitmer tells stories about specific people to get folks to identify with her cause. She talks about what it means to be a Michigander in this time of crisis. There is a lot of focus, especially in the beginning, on people – who they are as a community and how they are facing this pandemic. There’s a lot of identification going on. And there is a definite dramatic story being told here. The act is keeping Michigan closed. Whitmer is the agent. The agency is her executive order. The scene is the dire situation in Michigan. The purpose is to keep Michiganders safe. The ration (or the defining terms – the emphasis) is a little bit hard to determine. The first clear one is purpose. The whole point of all of this is to keep Michiganders safe. Whitmer emphasizes that over and over again. And we know that the emphasis is NOT on agent. She is not trying to center this story on herself. If anything she wants to decenter herself from this story. While she does make it clear she has the authority to do these things, this is not ABOUT her authority.
That leaves act and scene, and both are important. What is interesting is that when she talks about the act she actually is talking about re-opening parts of Michigan. The act she is talking about is the gradual re-opening, even if the implied act is keeping Michigan closed. And all of this is because of the scene in which she finds herself – the COVID crisis, which she describes in detail. So the question here is does the scene control the act?
And really, the answer is no. The act is taking place in the scene, and wouldn’t be happening outside of the scene, but the act is not CONTROLLED by the scene. The agent is controlling the act. So the act is the second element of the Pentad that is being emphasized.So once again, this is a definitely rhetorical artifact. It tells a story and identifies with the audience.
So what is the point of all of this? What am I trying to tell you?
When we talk about rhetoric, we don’t mean just useless language, or unanswerable questions. We’re talking about powerful forces.And it’s useful to try and understand how those forces work. Because they are working in the world in which we live constantly and they are moving in and around us all the time – it is important for us to think about why we are making the decisions we are making. Why do I like this idea? Why do I like this speaker or politician? What do they say that resonates with me? Is it sensible? What tools are being used here that I should be aware of? When we can answer these questions we can be better decision-makers. If we understand the tools of democracy we can make democracy work better.
If you have any questions, thoughts, or ideas shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.