- “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 350 B.C.E.)
- a heuristic, a tool of invention, that people use to identify persuade audiences and discourse communities
- a research methodology (rhetorical analysis) that analyzes compositions, texts.
- a theory of human interpretation and communication
- an academic field that explores the practices and study of communication.
Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.Niccolo` Machiavell
In popular discourse, the term rhetoric may be used disdainfully. In everyday conversations, people may say That’s just rhetoric! or Oh, ignore that guy. He’s just being rhetorical to suggest a statement is facetious or manipulative. In modern discourse, the use of rhetoric to scam or persuade others is called rhetrickery.
As a consequence of the incessant bombardment of Breaking News by news media (CNN, Fox, Huffington, etc.), we are well schooled in ways people use rhetoric to misrepresent narratives and manipulate audiences regardless of truth. Lately, in fact, some socio-cultural critics are calling our times as the Post-Truth Era. To support this proposition, note, for example, that by his 558th day in office, President Trump had lied 4,229 times according to The Washington Post (see President Trump has made 4,229 false or misleading claims in 558 days). By the time President Trump’s four-year term as president, The Washington Post estimated he’d made “30,573 false or misleading claims as president.”
The evidence is clear: rhetoric may be used to weaponize deception and dishonesty. The notion that rhetors may use rhetoric for disingenuous purposes is not a new observation. In fact, Plato debated with the Sophists regarding the use of rhetoric for deceit. (For more on this, see Rhetoric, Post-Truth Politics, and Fake News at Wikipedia).
Although the use of fraud in every action is detestable, nonetheless in managing war it is a praiseworthy and glorious thing, and he who overcomes the enemy with fraud is praised as much as the one who overcomes it with force.Niccolo` Machiavelli
But focusing on rhetrickery is only a partial view of what rhetoric is and can do. The truth of the matter is that you need rhetorical knowledge to navigate difficult circumstances and stakeholders. Understanding rhetoric is crucial to developing persuasive arguments that make the world a better place.
Historically, it is also important to note that rhetoric has also been conceptualized to be a heuristic, a tool of invention. Rhetoricians (aka, writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . .) engage in rhetorical analysis in order to under analyze the rhetorical context. They try to understand the needs, values, and concerns of their audience. They plan. They reflect on the exigency, the occasion, that calls for discourse—some sort of text, some act of composing. They evaluate the kairos of the situation. They consider, e.g., whether silence is the best response–i.e., if it’s the wrong time to respond to a situation.
In 21st-century discourse, thanks to ongoing scholarly discussions, rhetoric is defined very broadly. Andrea Lunsford, a contemporary rhetorician, defines rhetoric as “the art, practice, and study of human communication.”
In short, rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action.Loyd Bitzer, The Rhetorical Situation
Rhetoric is so integral to reading and writing that the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) identifies Rhetorical Knowledge as a core outcome of postsecondary education:
The assertion that writing is “rhetorical” means that writing is always shaped by a combination of the purposes and expectations of writers and readers and the uses that writing serves in specific contexts. To be rhetorically sensitive, good writers must be flexible. They should be able to pursue their purposes by consciously adapting their writing both to the contexts in which it will be read and to the expectations, knowledge, experiences, values, and beliefs of their readers.Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing …
Rhetoric & the Writing Process
When facing an exigency, an occasion, that calls for some sort of written response, a text, take a moment to analyze rhetorical situation. What does your audience, your discourse community, know about the topic? What’s the current status of scholarly conversations about the topic? What medium is the best choice for your response? Engage in rhetorical reasoning so you can adjust your point of view, rhetorical appeals, stance, persona, tone, voice, and style in response to your rhetorical situation.
Rhetors are writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . who engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning to interpret and compose texts.
Rhetoricians (people who study rhetoric) are especially curious about the role of Rhetorical Situations, Rhetorical Appeals, Rhetorical Modes, and Rhetorical Stance on communication and interpretation.
Technorhetoricians focus on the effects of technologies on composing, composing processes, and cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies.
Rhetoricity is the degree to which a rhetor’s written, spoken, and visual language addresses the rhetorical context and engages in rhetorical reasoning. Rhetoricity is the defining characteristics of reader-based prose.