- an academic field that studies how people use symbols, particularly language, to understand the world, to communicate, and to persuade.
- a theoretical perspective that empowers people to analyze their rhetorical situations so they can ascertain if, when, and how they should respond to an exigency, an issue or problem in the world.
- the ability to develop effective persuasive appeals and arguments.
- the ability to identify specious reasoning, harmful appeals to emotions. and inauthentic, manipulative appeals to ethos.
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.
In popular discourse, the term rhetoric may be used disdainfully. In everyday conversations, people may say That’s just rhetoric! or He’s being rhetorical to suggest a statement is facetious or specious. Given the incessant bombardment of Breaking News by news media (CNN, Huffington, Fox, etc), we are well schooled in ways people use rhetoric to misrepresent narratives and manipulate audiences regardless of truth. Lately, in fact, people 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).
Clearly, Rhetoric can be a tool of deception and dishonesty. The notion that rhetors can use rhetoric for disgenous purposes is not a new idea. 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).
Thus, to avoid being duped, people need a grounding in rhetorical principles. Moreover, it’s important to recognize that rhetoric also informs people’s efforts to help people in positive ways. Knowledge of rhetorical principles is more than an antidote to bad actors. Knowledge of rhetoric–particularly the importance of crafting discourse in response to thoughtful analysis of the rhetorical situation–is essential to successful communication.
Here at Writing Commons, we refer to Rhetoric with respect, if not reverence. For writers, Rhetoric is a foundational concern for any communication situation–whether the ultimate goal is to inform, persuade, or entertain. If knowledge of writing processes can be compared to having a road map for a journey, then Rhetoric can be compared to the North Star.
Rhetorical theory holds that rhetors (writers and speakers), shape their discourse in response to
- their Rhetorical Situation (especially audience, medium, occasion or exigency, and purpose).
- Rhetorical Appeals (especially ethos, pathos, and logos).
- Rhetorical Modes (such as causes & effects, classification, comparison and contrast, definition, description)
- their Rhetorical Stance (especially persona, tone, and voice.
In summary, being a rhetorician is a way of perceiving the world, a way of reasoning, a way of critical thinking. Who we are, what we believe is, and what we believe is possible is shaped by rhetoric.