The Uses and Misuses of Rhetoric

September 6, 2016

The Uses and Misuses of Rhetoric

by Max Stephenson Jr.

Max Stephenson, Jr. presently serves as Professor of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and Director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. He has published widely on policy, civil society and governance concerns. He is the author most recently, with Laura Zanotti, of Peacebuilding through Community-Based NGOs: Paradoxes and Possibilities, Kumarian Press (2012) and editor with Laura Zanotti of Building Walls and Dissolving Borders: The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space. Ashgate Publishers, 2013.

Image result for socrates plato aristotle

The Greek philosopher Socrates is famous for suggesting, among other aphorisms, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” When one follows that great figure through his student Plato’s famous Dialogues, one quickly learns that the sage was not arguing for “know-nothingism,” but for its reverse, a dedicated, passionate, life-long and humble pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.

Socrates more than once patiently undid pompously certain or manipulative individuals in exchanges with them, including the rhetorician Gorgias, his student Polus and finally, and most importantly, the Athenian gentleman, Callicles in Plato’s The Gorgias. As he debated each of these individuals concerning the relative roles and merits of rhetoric in that Dialogue, Socrates established that the art of communication may degrade rather than ennoble those who practice it, particularly when the rhetorician’s aim is to employ that art to garner power or riches for themselves. As he talked with his three interlocutors in The Gorgias, Socrates moved their conversation into a deeper reflection on the nature of the good and evil inhering in humankind. In conversing with Callicles particularly, the philosopher completely discredited the pursuit of power and riches for their own sakes and persuaded the Athenian to admit, to his great consternation, that rhetoric harnessed for such purposes is both personally and socially corrosive and worse.

As Socrates made these points in The Gorgias, he suggested how pernicious empty pursuit of power can be while also pointing to abidingly important questions about human behavior and expectations of political life. The philosopher’s sometimes pointed probing of Gorgias as well as that rhetorician’s pupil and sponsor offer several lessons for those active in American politics today.

I sketch three very briefly here: the imperative need for intellectual and moral humility to secure the possibility for knowledge and free human interaction, the profound individual and social degradation and loss of freedom that can result from the misuse of the power that inheres in rhetoric and the often painful political consequences of embracing certainties where none exist, especially when these result in dogma or fundamentalisms of various stripes.

Socrates sought early in The Gorgias to remind his conversation partners of their grotesque, almost comedic, vanity. Not one of the trio with whom the thinker interacted could imagine that their positions were not the height of intelligence and perspicacity. The philosopher’s burden was to expose what their conceit meant for their positions and how they viewed their fellow human beings. Socrates carefully demonstrated to each individual that rhetoric unlinked to truth seeking and knowledge was empty and often cruel, and that their certainties led not to thoughtfulness, but to boasting and brokenness. More, their false sureness led to arrogance and an abiding belief in their own wisdom and standing, and especially in their capacity to persuade their fellow citizens to their views to advance their own pride, power and place.

All of these attributes Socrates deliberately, and sometimes scathingly, showed to be utterly hollow and destructive for those employing them, for those abused (and used) by these arts and for the broader society. Narcissism results not only in personal arrogance and shame, but also social corrosion. For Socrates, while knowledge can certainly be precise, one must ever be open to the possibility that it may be overturned by newfound insights and be humbled by that fact in one’s quest for wisdom and in how one treats others.

One key lesson of The Gorgias is that he or she who would be wise must also be humble and that seeking knowledge demands tolerance. Another message of this Dialogue is that vanity degrades its purveyor even when, perhaps especially when, the individual can ply their skills successfully (i.e., persuades the listener or viewer of their perspective even when that point-of-view may not redound to that person’s interests). Manipulation of another human being, successful or not, damages profoundly the dignity of both the individual undertaking it as well as the target.

It is hardly a stretch to note that today’s equivalent of the rhetoricians depicted in The Gorgias are political consultants who are hired for the sole purpose of persuading enough of the relevant voting electorate to choose their employer to allow that individual to gain power via an election. The metric for most of those in this industry is whether their candidates succeed or “win.” In fact, future contracts depend largely on these consultants being perceived as “winners” in just this sense. With so low a bar for practice it is no surprise that each election season brings fresh revelations of how one or another campaign consultant pressed completely untruthful or inflammatory claims to “support” their candidate.

Such rhetoric is empty in just the way that Socrates warned it could be dangerous so many years ago; it can become untethered to anything but a relentless quest for power and individual gain. Given this concern, it is noteworthy that our polity’s politics no longer is yoked to political consultants only during campaigns, but for daily governance choices as well. Each political party offers daily talking points for its partisans aimed solely at persuasion for perceived partisan advantage, as do countless advocacy groups, and these often bear too little relationship to the facts of the policy challenges at hand, but are instead crafted to mobilize specific voters or to seek to persuade others to support an alternate perspective by whatever claims may appear to “work.” In addition to not always being linked to real, as opposed to salient, concerns, these statements frequently also trend to the fantastical, as when several GOP Senators recently sought to blame President Obama for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to occupy the Crimea militarily.

This example is fresh, but new ones occur daily and they illustrate the dangers of disconnecting rhetoric from any substantive ethical claims in efforts to mobilize for advantage to garner power. Pursuit of power for its own sake is always dangerous and that is true in democratic societies, too, particularly when it leads officials to adopt strategies that “other” groups or entire populations, or otherwise manipulate hearers or viewers to take stands against preserving the freedom and rights of all.

A third lesson one may take from The Gorgias for today’s U.S. politics is the danger in using rhetoric to offer the public false certainties. Our politics is rife with officials—both elected and those who would be—willing to offer up all manner of supposed certitudes to voters feeling insecure as a result of rapid globalization, a deep recession and slow economic growth that is leaving many groups behind. In so fear-filled a context, would-be democratic leaders confront an electorate yearning for explanations and “fixes” for their perceived woes and leaders may be tempted to provide voters all sorts of deceptive targets for concern as a way to gain their votes. We have seen just such strategies employed in recent years by candidates and officials willing to blame government for a range of social and political problems, including, in fact, sluggish economic growth. Other leaders have argued similarly that the poor constitute a cancerous tumor on the body politic and their laziness and moral degradation is the cause of much wider woes.

Still others have asserted that immigrants constitute a threat to employment for Americans and that religious freedom is under assault (there is no real evidence for either contention).  In all of these cases, those campaigning for office have offered voters rhetoric characterized by unbridled claims and simple-seeming “certainties” that allege someone or something is responsible for what are, in fact, complicated multi-causal realities.

Each such initiative launched by political leaders and their consultants comes replete with the dangers implicit in unleashing “othering” of either the government or specific groups. There is now ample evidence that these sorts of claims can mobilize a share of voters, but as Socrates wisely realized, such rhetoric often results in and feeds fundamentalist claims and imagined certainties that permit their purveyors to dismiss other groups in society or to blame those groups for all manner of woes, resulting ultimately in the degradation or loss of freedom among both those targeted and those abusing them.

False certainties tied to emotive claims concerning the moral inadequacies of those blamed constitute an especially surefire fast track to tyranny. At their worse these sorts of social contentions have resulted in the horrors of the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the Rwandan genocide, among too many other examples to recount. It is hardly too soon to sound the alarm that a share of our national rhetoric today has taken on a vicious and malignant tone that appears untethered to any claim, but the pursuit of power.  History teaches that such rhetoric is dangerous for freedom.

by James Fallows

What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics?
By Mark Thompson
342 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99.

In the “Afterthoughts” to his book about the decline of public language in politics, Mark Thompson mentions something that for me clarified the 12 chapters that went before. Thompson, who grew up in England and was director-general of the BBC before taking his current job as chief executive of The New York Times Company, was invited in 2012 to give a series of lectures on the “art of public persuasion” at Oxford, his alma mater. From those lectures and subsequent discussions, he writes, “Enough Said” arose.

Knowing the book’s genesis is useful in understanding the kind of value it has, and what it does not do. To oversimplify, the most influential nonfiction books usually exist either to tell a story, as with “Seabiscuit” and “All the President’s Men,” or to advance an argument, as with “Silent Spring” and “The Feminine Mystique.” Ideally they combine the two, as for example Michael Lewis did with his tale of the origins of the 2008 financial crisis, “The Big Short.”

Lecture series, and books derived from them, are different in that their assumed interest comes from watching a thinker engage with a set topic and seeing what insights emerge, rather than expecting a clear narrative or argument to ring through. That’s the case with “Enough Said.” Given Thompson’s standing as a past leader of one of the world’s dominant news organizations and the current head of another, what he thinks about the interactions among politicians, citizens and the press is by definition important. I don’t think this book will change the continuing debates about “bias” and “objectivity,” the separation of the public into distinct fact universes, the disappearing boundary between entertainment and civic life, the imperiled concept of “truth” or the other important topics it addresses. But it offers many instructive allusions, useful judgments and important refinements on these themes — and provides reassurance by its mere existence that someone in the author’s position is grappling so earnestly with such questions.

For me the book is strongest by far when it is most like a story — Thompson’s own story, of his 30-plus years with the BBC. They began in his early 20s, when he was a research assistant trainee, continued with his rise to producer, editor and top executive, and coincided with dramatic changes in both politics and the language of public affairs in Britain. Thompson describes these vividly and well. He emphasizes the shift in political rhetoric from Margaret Thatcher’s forcefulness — “hard-edged, insistent, utterly sure of itself” — to the smoothly sophisticated message discipline and media management of Tony Blair in his early years. He also describes the ways, successful and otherwise, that he and others in the British press tried to keep up. Crucially, he knows the nuances of these people and predicaments so well that he need not stop with saying that certain choices were difficult or complex. He can go on to argue why, despite the complexity, decisions he made were right (for instance, to introduce a new kind of news coverage in the Thatcher era) or why distortions by some politicians (notably Blair’s, in urging Britain into war in Iraq) were worse than others.

Although Thompson worked in the United States for a time as a BBC producer in the 1980s and returned once he joined The Times four years ago, his feel for American politics is naturally not a match for what he knows about Britain. When providing American examples for his analysis, he often stops at the “difficult and complex” stage. One example: In a survey of books about the dysfunction of the United States federal government, he mentions “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” a prescient 2012 book by Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann about problems within the Republican Party. But he dismisses it by saying that “their thrust is resolutely one-sided” and that “blaming an adverse trend in political culture entirely on one party . . . is scarcely a recipe for reducing political division.” This sounds balanced, but it doesn’t acknowledge the influential and carefully argued point of Ornstein and Mann’s book, which was precisely that the extremist forces in modern politics had been much more damaging on the Republican than on the Democratic side.

Another example: Thompson contrasts the “two rhetorics” of public life, what Mario Cuomo called the poetry of campaigning and the prose of governance, and says that Barack Obama is “perhaps the most obvious example . . . ‘the change we need’ giving way almost overnight to tight-lipped and sometimes testy managerialism.” In Thompson’s view, “the word-worlds of Obama the campaigner and Obama the president turned out to be so different that it was almost as if they were twin brothers with contrasting personalities.” In fact, compared with that of other presidents, Obama’s rhetoric is remarkable for how little it has changed over the years. As a matter of achievement, the President Obama who has not closed Guantánamo or cleaned up Wall Street is a disappointment to some of his supporters. But the rhetorician Obama who spoke to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this summer could have taken whole paragraphs from the speech with which the young Illinois State Senator Barack Obama made his national debut at the Democratic Convention in Boston 12 years ago. Both spoke of America’s constantly becoming a better version of itself. Both emphasized what united rather than divided their fellow citizens.
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Beyond British and American politics, Thompson covers a wide range of additional subjects. He discusses the classic Greek elements of rhetoric, including logos (argument), ethos (the character of the speaker) and pathos (emotion), along with other Greek rhetorical concepts. He talks about the punchy, Trump-like language of Vladimir Putin and the theatrics of Silvio Berlusconi. A whole chapter is built around George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” He punctuates his discussions with sweeping summaries like this one, in reference to social media: “The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius — a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill — is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art but as algorithm.”

Thompson examines the rhetorical extremes through which the British public considered its Brexit vote and the American public considers the prospect of a President Trump, and the ways residents of both countries evaluate rhetoric about climate change. He gives few details about the strategy he is applying in his current job, at The Times, to keep the newspaper economically viable and credible to its readers, but he closes a passage on the digital transformation of news with a lament that “traditional” journalists may have become “a tribe whose discourse no longer has the breadth or the adaptability to reflect reality, but whose befuddlement is such that, even if they are aware of the dilemma, they are more likely to blame reality than themselves. . . . The important question about much old-fashioned journalism is not whether it can survive as a profession but whether it deserves to — and whether anyone would miss it if it disappeared.”

Thompson’s employees, and those at other traditional news outlets, will be relieved to hear that his answer is yes: Journalism matters and journalists deserve to survive. He closes the book with some unexceptional but important advice for all affected parties: Politicians should not say one thing and do another; journalists shouldn’t lie and should be fair; members of the public should be more willing to pay attention and absorb real facts. The destination is not surprising, but there is enlightenment along the way.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of many books, including “Breaking the News.”

A version of this review appears in print on September 11, 2016, on page BR13 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Watch Your Rhetoric. Today’s Paper|Subscribe

13 thoughts on “The Uses and Misuses of Rhetoric

  1. Over to CLF and Conrad to lead the discussion.

    Spinning can be a dangerous thing because it resorts to a play of words without reference to facts and reality. Tony Blair is a master at this game. Obama’s boys in the White House are also pretty adept at rhetorical games. In Malaysia, someone like the Pemandu chief Idris Jala in our PMO made an attempt at this but he failed miserably on all fronts but got ear of Najib Razak by playing the Economic Transformation tune.

    I suppose we can learn a thing or two from Thomas Paine and George Orwell, and Josef Goebbels.–Din Merican


    Not intending to steer conversation in any particular fashion but just finding some write-ups on the evolution of Obama’s doctrine.

    Back to the word ‘grok’ .. Can we ‘grok’ Obama? Did ‘Obama’ grok Asians, in particular ‘Chinese’? My guess is many people of my generation could not ‘grok’ ourselves. Sayang-sayang Melayu.

    At one point of time, I tried to put words from DSAI and 1PM side-by-side. Not sure I could find a distinct thematic differences. Perhaps, it is mere rhethoric.
    Perhaps, both are chameleon. Am I one also? This term ‘grok’ kills me.

  3. “Rhetoric is a Western culture,..”

    Yikes.., i presume you NO understand a shred of what was written above, wrongways?

    Yup, the authors were talking about their own Western politicos and yes, they were telling the world in their arcane philosophical way, that these politicians are really effing self aggrandizing liars, who are more interested in the Power game, than solving problems of a Globalized world..

    You see, modern propaganda is only useful and works best in phonetically literate polity – which the Chinapek with their mellifluous tonal inflections and particular grammatical order written in complex pictographs, would find hard to comprehend.

    With the added burden of Confucian hierarchical logic, it’s a wonder whether Chinapek like you, steeped in an ‘Eastern Brain Syndrome’ can truly analyze anything. Rote learning and algorithms are mutually exclusive – and that’s why those ‘Economists’ and Statisticians in PRC are so good at shifting numbers, goalposts etc while being fixated at Growth and Wealth to save their own sorry asses. That is the sum of their Real Propaganda, which can’t tell the Truth..

    Okay, let’s go to the subject at hand.. Political Rhetoric requires Certitude – even if it’s just Lies. Pathos, logos and ethos become cynical devices by which lies are replaced by ‘magical thinking’ of unfounded, irrefutable and undemonstrable manufactured ‘truths’.

    In other words, Universal Persuasion, which is the cornerstone of Propaganda is more easily fabricated by Lying Through the Teeth – and by playing up emotions, casting nefarious aspersions on the unfamiliar (Other) and keeping the masses in abject Ignorance of the real situation.. Success is measured by pollsters who are just glorified hucksters, who by themselves are capable of altering the public opinion.

    Why has it come to this? Because the Politicos themselves don’t understand what they are actually spouting, because the Complex Reality actually swamps and overpowers their feeble understanding. They are the quintessential Blind leading the Blind, but they won’t admit it – and that they don’t have the answers that bedevil their constituents and therefore, by extension, all of mankind.

    So for simplicity’s sake – that’s why many Desperate Ignorant Rote Learning folk prefer a Despot to tell them who, what, when, where and how they are. Like Xi and CCP. Yet they long for freedom, fundamental rights and empowerment. That is why we are all screwed..

    Do i really understand what i had just written? Maybe..

  4. Wrongways, Rhetoric is a Western Culture. Care to elaborate how you arrive at that. Give me an education, especially in Western Culture.

  5. Ignoring rightways, for more than a minute…what I find interesting about political rhetoric is the audience it is aimed at.

    In the American context for example, so called “extreme” rhetoric is a function of dog whistle politics, by that I mean the rhetoric that appeals to hard core partisan voters, who do not ensure electoral victory but whose preoccupations dominate the (political) discourse.

    Politicians rarely come up with their own rhetoric. Indeed the rhetoric is crafted around a specific image , influenced by focus groups.

    Choreography has replaced rhetoric and language has been reduced to sound bites.

    Narratives or controlling the narrative has replaced any kind of “questioning” and language becomes an end instead of a means to an end.

    “Issues” are red herrings, solutions are “legerdemains” and the main point of rhetoric is not to persuade but to confirm .

  6. ” The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing ” – ( Socrates ) .

    Whether this kind of rhetoric by this learned Philosopher was in jest , and was said with alacrity , which is to create liveliness , to be cheerful , or to urge upon his comrades to seek and to seek this ‘true’ wisdom : there could have been the underlying or hidden secret in the word he chose to be rhetoric about ‘ nothing ‘ because he was speaking of ‘true wisdom’ ? –

    In the (Islamic ) Book of Miracles , the subtlety lies in such seeking , is to be Precocious ( and forward looking ) in man’s mental development, so that , he could by his untiring effort , to try and understand what lies behind the rhetoric of ‘nothing-ness’ . Example/ s :

    1. ” God saith , ” I was a hidden treasure, I would fain be known . So I created Man ” ( @ page 69 Sir Al-Suhrawardy’s Wisdom series, as contained in the Prophet’s sunnah/hadith, from the Revelation ) –

    2. (@ page 80 : ” He who knoweth his own self , knoweth God ”

    3 . ( @ page 59 , this is the important part of ;
    ‘prohibition’ which is forbidden in human discourse , as the caveat :


  7. With permission of blog-host, Dato’ Din , may I say one or two things to elaborate the above, on prohibition or apparent prohibition.

    To the Muslims themselves all across the globe , a vast majority of them have gone into some kind of ‘errors’ in misusing knowledge about ‘ God ‘ , to the extent , they become OBSESSED , and ABANDON all worldly needs ( through the Sciences / Economics ) forgetting that Man has to abide by the law which governs our human life of ‘ solid matter & flesh…..’ ( like taken unto hasshish…..or drugs) . Non-Muslims may have have their own negative perception in stark ‘revelations’ like these…..

    By way of curiosity, I would feel greatly obliged to hear from brothers-in-Islam, the HIKMAH group, comprising personalities like FIRDAUS WONG, SYAFIK LEOW , and TAUFIK TAN , as to the Constraints they feel , which may be in the realm of the do’s and the dont’s in their experiences of the Faith they have embraced….?

    Thanking you in appreciation.

  8. Wrongways, you are getting curiouser and curiouser. I know you exist in LuluLand, as it happens to be below my KuKu (you may pronounce it in any Chinese dialect). One thing for sure, i can’t seem to understand what you are saying..

    Anyway, this ought to assuage your Moon Rabbit yearnings. Just a word caution though, Grace Slick sung it during the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which killed more Chinese than all the atrocities committed by the barbaric Nipponese during WW 2. Do you understand ‘Rhetoric’, now?

  9. “……culture is evolved long time in particular society, not education,”

    Crazy talk.

    Anyway your dig at CLF pretty much outs you as that particular type of Sino centric cheerleader.

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