Crash- course in rhetoric

Crash- course in rhetoric, part 1

Rhetoric and so on.

Since the lot of you are worse than green when it comes to the discipline - and I'm infinitely bored today (it's saturday, and I have nothing to do) - I have decided to pause my other rants for a while, and instead dedicate a little time to constructing a straightforward crash- course in rhetoric.

And since I doubt it will improve things much all by itself, I hope some will have the balls to question the logic used as well as the rhetoric I make use of to state the various points. Since this is the only way anyone can truly learn to use a tool such as rhetoric - or so I believe, at any rate. So I encourage you to tear everything down, and propose weaknesses with the analysis.

From the outset, therefore, I will present you with what rhetoric is: a tool to use for a purpose. And a tool that is obvious, but also so subtle and complex that it can be fully functional even though it's internal operation may be built on questionable, or even illogical material.

Speaking of which, the crash- course will consist of the following parts:

Part 1: Form.
Part 2: Substance.
Part 3: Methods.
Part 4: Ends and means.

Each part will probably be around 5-600 words (seems like I hit the target, now that I've read through it). I'll post the rest of the parts later.

Part 1: "Form".

Before I begin, I would like to mention that in order to avoid plugging classical terms too much, for the sole purpose of looking intelligent and slighting people who do not enjoy reading Plato, I will instead try as best I can to explain what I'm actually saying.

But in order to do that, I need to establish a set of words, and define them properly. Words are typically defined in the following way: terms that in such and such defined circumstances typically mean a specific thing. In the way that a term used is dependent on the context it is written in. This holds true, fortunately or not, regardless of whether we're dealing with nominal or real terms - so we can establish the following:

Lemma 1: words are defined from context.

This means that the form of the rhetoric is important to examine, since we may find what the rhetoric refers to, and whether it is internally consistent (which we will learn to do in part 2, so we shall not get ahead of ourselves).

But the form of the rhetoric may be in different shapes. For instance, a scientific journal will typically be filled with a type of rhetoric that is intended to be clear, and a prose that is less convoluted, emotional, or fleeting than one would expect from for instance a Beatles- text. In this type of text, in other words, the rhetoric is deliberately attempting to convey a message as clearly and eloquently as possible, using known terms in well- defined contexts.

It would be unusual, after all, to find a scientific journal polemicising on an issue from a purely emotional standpoint. And unexpected to find a scientific text based solely on hope and belief, without physical evidence. So even though terms like "scientific" may be unclear, we can easily establish that scientific is associated with a specific type of rhetorical form.

Another example would be a political speech, where the form is perhaps as important, if not more important, than the substance. In the sense that a political speech will not be based primarily on established terms, but perhaps reference them in passing in various contexts.

Yet another example would be a religious sermon, where form and content also plays an equally important role, although here the form is recognised by being ritualistic.

More examples would include a school- teacher, who would deliberately appeal to both emotion and reason, quickly from one to the other, in order to engage the students as much as possible.

But - common for all of the different forms is that the form of the rhetoric does not determine the substance of it. Neither does a specific substantive and recogniseable point necessarily make the speech belong only in one of the different categories mentioned above:

Lemma 2: the form of the rhetoric does not determine substance.

This is important because to assume that the form of the rhetoric - what we can immediately see - determines the content, is the same as not taking whatever is said seriously. One simply recognises certain aspects of the speech, and then fills in what the speech must obviously be about through heavy personal, or externalised and assisted assumption.

We can then also propose that:

Lemma 3: Context does not determine the form of the rhetoric.

I am not suggesting with this that making assumptions and predictions is wrong, of course. Instead, it is an important and essential basic skill, which is made infinitely better by knowing the ways others and yourself can manipulate it. And knowledge about ways to manipulate those assumptions is called knowledge about rhetoric. Rhetoric being now defined, appropriately or not, as words shaped in ways that connect with the recepient's assumptions and thinking.

In other words, manipulating the form of rhetoric in itself is both a necessary and abused skill, like most other tools - even though the meaning of the word, injured as it may be through rhetorical skill, really is really pretty clear.

next: Substance.
Crash- course in rhetoric, part2

Part 2: "Substance".

Now that we have established what rhetoric is, we will establish what rhetoric does. Namely transform or enhance perception about the language used, or the meaning of the terms used.

For a demonstration, I will use this example from when one of our intrepid politicians (from the now largest party on the general right) responded on a net- talk, some time before the elections earlier this year:
Q:"I think you (FrP) are a bad party. Primarily because of your bad attitudes towards dark- skinned['s more politically correct in norwegian], the poor, and development- countries. Be ashamed[of yourselves]!
- Anonymous, Dunno.

A:"We have no bad attitudes we should be ashamed of. We stand for equal treatment of everyone, and think the norwegian government should primarily have a responsibility for the norwegian people."
Obviously, nothing in this response is incorrect. Even better, it's all internally consistent (or at least not contradictory), even though it is extremely ambiguous, as well as utterly light on actual facts, comparisons between even abstracts, as well as on examples. But what exactly is ambiguous here? Is it the policies conducted by the norwegian government, or is it the rhetoric used by this party's representative?

That question, while possible to answer in many different ways, is not immediately clear. And it therefore is a good example of how rhetoric can be used. Because the question we would have to try and answer, would be whether to believe the context associated with this person's rhetoric is plausible. In other words, we need to figure out whether the words said here square in some way with reality as we perceive it.

Therefore - Lemma 4: Success of rhetoric is determined by ability to manage perception (for good or bad).

The next important part of the rhetoric used is that it does not immediately jar the ears of the listener. "We have no bad attitudes we should be ashamed of" is one extremely characteristic statement from this politician. We might question whether he means they have bad attitudes, but does not think they should be ashamed of them, or whether he thinks they have no bad attitudes at all, of course - but the sentence that follows describes the implied aggressiveness towards foreigners (specially darkies) in the way that the party means only to treat everyone equally, and norwegians a bit moreso.

Which happens to be a construction that does not sound particularly racist, intolerant or xenophobic - which is the implied accusation - while also being an attack on the many and various social programs the corporation Norway offers to it's many different beneficiaries.

The statement therefore at once strikes back the attack, while elevating this party's platform to one that's perfectly main- stream (at least rhetorically.. ;) ), as well as natural and completely in tune with sound national policy for norwegian interests (equal to what might be argued is the current policies in actuality). It's then up to the reader to decide whether or not to believe whether that context describes reality, or this party, in any way. Or, perhaps, whether the reality this rhetoric (our permanent opposition party) describes should be pursued.

In other words, the rhetoric is measured not necessarily by the genius of the polemic, but on whether it's successful in shaping the recipient's thinking (as proposed in lemma 4).

We can therefore establish that while there is no particularly proper answer to exactly how to successfully use rhetoric, it is characterised in substance by being a way to change perceptions about reality by various compelling or perhaps ineffective devices.

mext: Methods.
Crash- course in rhetoric, part3

Part 3: Methods.

Obviously, there are many methods for achieving a compelling narrative. Emotion (in different and many forms), logic, reason, authority, literal skill, blooming language, setting, context, presentation etc., is all parts of how to convey something. And as mentioned in part 1, it's not very suprising that this is so. Humans, after all, say things - therefore, things said are measured by human qualities (and deficiencies). And I can only describe a cheap mimicry of these in a itemised list.

Lemma 6: Skill in rhetoric is not dependent on philosophical knowledge or intelligence.

It's worth mentioning after all that many, probably most, great speakers did not study philosophy at all, but studied speeches. And came to be good speakers from practising the use of their voice, the sound and rhythm, rather than practising on writing speeches with compelling content.

Which of course explains the problem typically associated with rhetoric - the ability to turn black into white, or make something utterly insane into acceptable and necessary. And yet the plain- talking no- nonsense figure that cuts through the linguistic expositions of his or her opponents will always have a very compelling message.

And in that way, managing perceptions on different levels is something that should be mentioned is essential in successful rhetoric. Something should, after all, be both compelling and true. As well as true in different contexts.

A good example of this is the example of the Greens in Australia. Who have been having a bit of a bumpy ride, but who have pushed climate change as a problem for years (even long before anyone really could explain why it was bad, or if it was happening). And they have, together with environment parties across the world, found a shift in the perceptions on climate change. In example, that is has gone from a discussion on whether climate change exists, to whether or how we should do anything about it. Something that no doubt is to account for their relative victory in the current elections (as of this writing they've won three seats, it seems).

But through the wonder of politics, the message has changed virtually from an appeal to go live in the bush, until today where they preach the necessity of having the big corporation onboard, if anything is to be done about climate change. However, most will still claim that the core message has remained unchanged from day one, and should therefore also appeal to the pro- bush people still.

The question would then be if that's possible - to change the words and methods that much, without working yourself into an impossible labyrinth of different inconsequential statements - that all are held, at least separately depending on context, to be true.

Alternatively, the question would be whether pushing a message that is compelling to a collective mass of "most people" is a more favourable prospect. Until perhaps we realise that "most people" apparently consist of a tiny minority.

Regardless, the methods used to convey a message convincingly should be as varied, theoretically speaking, as the different human qualities. In the way that it might be easier to enumerate the different systems of restrictions we keep on ourselves, rather than the possibilities (like I have so far).

next: Ends and means
Crash- course in rhetoric, part4

part 4: Ends and means.

The question we're left with, then, is whether abusing rhetoric happens only when the reality does not in some way conform with the rhetoric as it was stated. Whether, in fact, the rhetorical transformation is valid if it can be used to fulfill the stated vision, and that any lie can be justified if the intentions are reflected in results that came from the actions it justified. For example, Stalin suggested there's always some eggs to be broken to create an omelette. That the momentum of the revolution was necessary and even independent of what was actually done. Because in the end, a new world would be made where all would be good.

A russian roommate I had for a while, for example, had an interesting theory about the historical imperative. She had just been back in russia on vacation, and had talked to someone she hadn't spoken to in a long while. And she figured out, after some time, that she truly and utterly believed in the rise of russia. And that nothing could stand in the way of progress. Ironical, she had mentioned to her friend, that he would say that - first communism, and now the same ideological blindness for capitalism. And things became slightly uncomfortable - after all, her friend said, why not believe in the project and Russia, rather than despair and expect everything to go to hell (which is the most typical Russian sentiment about everything). Why not bet on hope, rather than despair, and so on.

Apparently they didn't solve all the world's problems then and there, and when she came back, and we had this conversation, she confessed that she might not be so Russian as she thought she was. It's one thing, she said, to expect things to go bad - but why? Because (she said solemnly), people trust their leaders to provide them with everything and nothing at the same time. It's not going to work. No matter how much you hope. You have to work for it as well.

Pertinent to this topic, then, is whether or not it's possible to argue that rhetoric, for example promoting democracy and reform in Russia, is forgiveable in abusive quantities if it either is morally sound to argue for it - and if it causes good things - or if it results in actual democratic reform.

Is it, for instance, justifiable if it becomes a rallying cry among the opposition, and gives them hope and spirit enough to achieve results (whatever that may be). Is it justifiable if it's used to assist efforts to promote the aforementioned opposition from abroad?

To me, the question is backwards - and I believe we can only justify using rhetoric as far as it can reflect the actual truth as far as is possible about the situation.

But it's a moral question involved, in other words, in both approaches. Neither of which is unquestionably either correct or wrong.

And I will conclude this, then, by referring back to the specific and necessary points of discussion along each point so far, that led to this fairly clear split in the approaches to the use of rhetoric. All of which are necessary to go through in order to evaluate which of the approaches have the most merit, dependent on scope and context.

(All right, then.. Coffee.)