One day very recently, I attempted to explain why I have come to the conclusion that the use of rhetoric as a tool in dialogue, political debates, or any other form of communication is undeniably unethical. If you can make it all the way through what was admittedly written under the influence of some exceptionally potent, um, herbs, I welcome your thoughts.

From Dictionary.com:


1. the study of the technique of using language effectively
2. the art of using speech to persuade, influence, or please; oratory
3. excessive use of ornamentation and contrivance in spoken or written discourse; bombast
4. speech or discourse that pretends to significance but lacks true meaning: all the politician says is mere rhetoric

Rhetoric is a method of persuading a person or group of people of an argument by appealing to human emotions in order to obscure or avoid potentially logical points made by the opposing side, in order to further an agenda that is based on human emotions and little reason. Rhetoric’s very nature lies in deceit, and attempting to legitimize deceitful practices, statements, or behaviors– always in order to further one’s own agenda– is always unethical. While the intent of some agendas may be innocent, progressive, and beneficial to many, not all are, and no agenda that is not innocent, progressive, and beneficial should be legitimized. No legitimate agenda should need rhetoric– or rather, tools of successful deceit. If the attempted legitimization of dressed-up deceit stops being accepted as a legitimate “science,” intellectual honesty will be the prevailing expectation in dialogue.

Use of rhetoric is unethical because of the basis of deceit, which is the foundation of its entire academic existence. It is unethical because deceit, with few exceptions, does not provide optimal results for all involved parties that honesty wouldn’t have accomplished more efficiently or with better results, while applying an agreed-upon, objective law of justice and personal responsibility and acceptance of negative consequences for unjust behavior. This attempts to legitimize an “ends justify the means” mentality, which can be a slippery slope. Slippery slopes are both fallacious and avoidable, but they are only fallacious because they’re avoidable. To give consideration to avoiding anything factual, honest, or necessary would imply that the action in question is likely identifiably inadvisable and potentially problematic; therefore, slippery slopes are a fallacy and justifying certain actions by citing the “slippery slope” fallacy is a common way to employ the science and study of rhetoric.

Without rhetoric as a popular, accepted, and therefore socially legitimized method in which to have a dialogue, we would be left with no choice but intellectually honest and objectively truthful in dialogue, which would only precede a more universally accepted and progressive method of scientific processes, which would help immensely in eliminating alienating, violent ideologies which are based on that which cannot be proven, punctuated with an unwillingness to accept that which can. As the acceptance that humans will naturally be curious to find the answers to such as of yet unexplainable phenomena rather than assume we have found Ultimate Truth of some kind and halting potential progress when there are still more questions continues to increase, so too will the intolerance of the currently accepted legitimacy of an authority figure basing their ideologies and potential subsequent cultural formations and strongholds on unproven, dangerous, and inequitable myths. The path in our collective human quest for answers and truth would be clearer, without being derailed and delayed by unsubstantiated what-ifs. Studies of scientific innovations like as stem cell research won’t have unnecessary stumbling blocks because of ideas of a supreme being– who is popularly known for his/her/its refusal or inability to communicate with any human in a way that is universally understood– are interpreted and reinterpreted over the course of a few thousand years in such a way that suggests that stem cell research could be problematic, but are argued in such a way that both suggests there is a scientific or objective wrongness, and also fails to cite any relevant or reputable scientific facts to support its claims.

Perhaps an attempt to delegitimize rhetoric is problematic for the very same reasons that attempting to legitimize it is; maybe the attempt is one that is based on a silencing of opposition or challenging viewpoints. There is a problem with that assertion, which is that the opposition to science, reason, logic, and intellectual honesty do not tend to argue their points in the same way that atheists, “free thinkers,” or others who reject religious doctrine, or those who refuse to employ rhetoric, are arguing. One side is using substantiated and scientific facts for support, while the other is using unproven, mythical examples as support for their agenda. While the unproven is not always currently answerable by any reputable source– like the idea of an afterlife or soul, for example–, the rationalists or the scientific community tends toward a continually searching and researching method of answering, rather than the more religious tendency of stagnation. There are also problematic implications of treating all viewpoints as valid; see Can Science Answer Moral Questions, a talk by Sam Harris, or the often repeated adage that “you are entitled to your own opinion; you are not entitled to your own facts.” When do we stop arguing in circles, and become able to find “Truth”? When we eliminate the widely-accepted notion of deceit as a legitimate debate tactic.

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6 Responses to Rhetoric

  1. David K says:

    By way of an answer, while I think about it, an extract from ‘1982, Janine’ by Alasdair Gray (1984) – in which Jock (an alcoholic security systems engineer) contemplates what he should have told his girlfriend of 20 years before, Denny (a cafeteria worker from a poor family in Glasgow) when she wished to know what the most important thing to know was:
    “…All the powers that be are in some sort of disreputable alliance, and they continue to be by allowing people like you, Denny, as little as possible in the way of knowledge and wages and living room. You were born in a trap Denny, and you will live and die in that trap, and if you bear a child the trap will pinch both of you harder and harder because the trap is getting fuller all the time… Eastern communists grasp and increase their social privileges as much as our own Sunday-supplement-swallowing middle class who, if the ever notice you, Denny, will find your wish to understand the trap you are in amusingly naive, quite charmingly pathetic and touching, really. But if you go on strike and demonstrate for higher wages (you won’t, you have no union, but if you do) then cabinet ministers drawing salaries of one-hundred-and-thirty-four-thousand-five-hundred-and-sixty-five-pounds-a-year (on top of interest from private investments) will appear on television to explain in brave, loud, haw-haw voices that there is not enough money to help you, that your selfish greed is the thing that has brought Britain to it’s present deplorable plight. And if you were asked to say something in your own defence, Denny, your voice over the wireless waves will sound stupid and funny because you don’t know how to address the public. Your school did not teach you to speak or think, it taught you to sit in rows and be quiet under strong teachers or rowdy under weak ones. The people who manage you, Denny, have been taught to make brazen speeches in firm, clear voices, THAT is FAR more important than geography or technology because RHETORIC RULES, O.K.?”

    • April says:

      Hmm… that’s definitely a good point, that the person speaking is making to Denny. But is every instance of good and effective communication always rhetorical?

  2. Jim says:

    Rhetoric is manipulation. There is a time and place for that, and it’s not always unethical. Believe me there are times when soemone is in full agreement with you but needs some soaring rhetoric to work up the stuff to go and do what needs to be done,a nd they count on you for that. But in honest discussion it really has no place.

    • April says:

      I agree that rhetoric is manipulation. I’m also of the belief that manipulation is unethical, as well.

      The way I see it is that, if in order to frame an argument in a way that the receiving person would understand it will require a different approach, that’s perfectly fine– we frame our arguments,words, interactions with everyone we come in contact with in order to better help them understand where we’re coming from. We do this by keeping in mind their life experiences and perspectives, and using that knowledge when communicating with them. While we may do that in a way that is different than the way we communicate with someone who is more closely aligned with us ideologically, it isn’t manipulation or rhetoric when done in a way that is still honest and includes zero “talking points.”

    • Jim says:

      You know, the more I think about the more I agree with your hard line. Think of sermons – some are flatly manipulative with all the shouting and emotion-mongering and all that. If I need to be spun up that much, maybe I need to rethink what it is I am planning t do that needs so much manipulation.

      Reframing and rephrasing are different. That is just using a broader range of communicative strategies.

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