5.23.2006

Rhetoric in Today's News

Like most people who teach courses with the word "rhetoric" somewhere on the syllabus, I often find myself defining the term. I've done this a number of different ways, but what I've found most productive is drawing the process out a bit—having students recall and research uses of rhetoric, come up with definitions and examples, and then add academic dimensions if need be. One of the more common ways rhetoric is used, of course, is to mean "b.s., often of a political nature."

In an article in today's Kansas City Star, that's pretty much what we see:
And the two major parties do little more than endlessly recycle their stale, overheated rhetoric.
Similarly, Senator Inhofe is quoted in today's Human Events, the National Conservative Weekly as saying:
Senator Clinton's rhetoric doesn't match her Senate record.
In another article published today, this one titled Ethiopia—Donor 'Good Governance' Rhetoric vs. Democratic Governance (in the Sudan Tribune), rhetoric is used to describe something more specific ("good governance"), but it is still a term with scope that does not extend beyond the political.

In yet another article published today, we can see the pejoration of the term rhetoric (that is: it's seen as "bad stuff") along with how it is largely limited to political commentary:
Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Joe Wineke said Mark Green's campaign rhetoric just doesn't match up with reality.

In several of the articles published today that use the term rhetoric, rhetoric is posed against "reality" and/or reason. (Of course, this recalls Berlin's Rhetoric and Reality, though I don't recall Berlin engaging claims that rhetoric is devoid of reality in that book—but then, it's been a few years.) For instance, in the article "Shell rhetoric or reality?" for the Daily Guardian, Terry Macalister writes about the rhetoric of two major oil companies as it stacks up against actual performance. Similarly and in another piece published today, "Reason, not rhetoric, should guide debate" (Citizen-Times.com), we see such a juxtaposition.

Now, this kind of thing bothers some rhetoricians and scholars of rhetoric. This banter is devaluing my field! they call out over cocktails or in the ornate lobby of the conference hotel. I'm not bothered by these uses of rhetoric—neither the associations of rhetoric pretty much exclusively with politics nor the semantics of meaningless associated with the term. If you work on rhetoric, these uses of the term make it hard to define what you do—but that can be a conversation starter.

With that said, I think I could stand a few more popular associations between rhetoric and the representation in social domains outside of politics. "Audience members noted that Martha Stewart's rhetoric changed markedly after her recent return to the air," a TV Guide article might read, or "Have you ever wondered what rhetorical training employees at the Gap receive?" an op-ed piece could intone.

In another article published today, this one a bit odd since it's a republished excerpt from an essay by T.S. Eliot, we see a resurgence of another kind! Check it out: the article is in the Daily Times—what, you don't read the Daily Times?—and a section of Eliot's essay reads:
At the present time there is a manifest preference for the "conversational" in poetry—the style of "direct speech," opposed to the "oratorical" and the rhetorical; but if rhetoric is any convention of writing inappropriately applied, this conversational style can and does become a rhetoric—or what is supposed to be a conversational style, for it is often as remote from polite discourse as well could be. [...] if we are to express ourselves, our variety of thoughts and feelings, on a variety of subjects with inevitable rightness, we must adapt our manner to the moment with infinite variations.
I'm gonna start reading the Daily Times more often.

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