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Why “Honest”?

27 January 2010 3 comments

So why is this blog called “The Honest Rhetorician” anyway?  What’s a rhetorician and why is it significant that he be honest?

Well, let me change the subject for a second.  If you google the word “rhetoric,” you will instantly be met with a barrage of academic definitions and discussions, a sampling of which I have provided here:

Along with grammar and logic or dialectic, rhetoric is one of the three ancient arts of discourse. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric

Aristotle’s rhetoric has had an enormous influence on the development of the art of rhetoric. – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/

In its long and vigorous history rhetoric has enjoyed many definitions, accommodated differing purposes, and varied widely in what it included. – http://rhetoric.byu.edu/encompassing%20terms/rhetoric.htm

Yay. OK, now you click on “News” to find recent mentions of the word “rhetoric” in the news.  Here are the sort of headlines you might see:

America needs reality, not soaring rhetoric, from Obama

Begala: McDonnell’s rhetoric rings false

Obama to address nation tonight; residents want answers, not ‘more rhetoric’

Those are just small snippets in both cases, but hopefully you get the picture:  that we’re looking at vastly different ideas of what “rhetoric” means.  Now let’s take you, the average reader (OK, so you’re not average; neither is anyone else, but for the purposes of this discussion, that doesn’t matter).  If you ever think of rhetoric at all, chances are you think of it more as a smokescreen than an art.  That’s because the only place it is regularly used these days is in politics, where partisans will accuse each other of attempting to hide poor leadership through “empty rhetoric.”

If you listen to the politicians, you will come to view rhetoric as

Rhetoric (rět’ər-ĭk), n. The practice of giving speeches designed to make you think the speaker is a wonderful person doing a wonderful job when in fact he’s so far from great leadership that he wouldn’t recognize it if his plane crashed into Mount Rushmore.

This negative view of rhetoric is nothing new; Plato once compared rhetoric to clever cookery that masks a dish of spoiled food.  But I disagree with Plato — and the politicians.  I think rhetoric is a valuable tool.  Like all tools, it can be used for good or for bad.  It’s certainly worth learning how to use.

That’s what I’m doing, and what I invite you to do with me.  In the course of this blog (Lord willing), I’m going to try to nail down precisely what rhetoric is and why it’s important for everyone to know and use effectively.  I call the blog “The Honest Rhetorician” as a reminder that rhetoric is so much more than what the politicians and columnists say — and that it’s possible to speak (or write) rhetoric honestly.

No, it really isn’t an oxymoron.

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Categories: rhetoric

Of Rhetoric and Writing

26 January 2010 1 comment

A guest post by my wife, Lana:

Is Rhetoric just a fancy word for ‘writing’?  (I hope not; otherwise UAFS’  “Rhetoric AND Writing.” degree contains a hated Redundancy – one of the worst beasts a writer can face.)  The two words are certainly very similar in their denotation, but as Dr. Jennings – infamous teacher of HEL – once said, there are no perfect synonyms in the English language. Rhetoric and writing have many overlaps, but are not precisely the same thing. Well actually, they are the same in some people’s minds. Rhetoric is one of those words whose definition scholars debate. Some would say any use of language is rhetoric. I’m more exclusivist.

Rhetoric is an Art form which uses Language – the spoken or written Word – to produce Reactions. It differs from writing in that it is more artful and deliberate than writing necessarily is. Writing, in its broadest sense, contains what I would call rhetoric and also what I would call, for lack of a better term ‘just writing’. I’m not trying to be a snob, just trying to make the term rhetoric more useful. A short mindless chat on gmail, a freewrite journal entry, a facebook status update, a shopping list, an instruction manual – those things I would not consider ‘Rhetoric’.  But the lines are blurry. A chat thoughtfully written to encourage or enlighten, a pondering status update (believe it or not, Art exists on facebook!) – I would include these in my definition of Rhetoric. An essay or speech would easily fall into the category.

Rhetoric is, in my mind, more or a creative act than ‘just speaking’ or ‘just writing’.

This may not help very much, but abstract words are hard to define – it’s much easier to explore them and see where they fit and where they don’t.

But still, words need definitions. Here’s the one Luke and I came up with during his last semester of school, after many readings of and about Rhetoric:

Rhetoric is a purposeful and creative reaction that uses language to produce a specific change in the way the audience thinks or feels.

Lord willing, we will explore the meaning and importance of rhetoric in blog posts for years to come.

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