When speaking about what a politician has just said, people often say, “Oh, that’s just rhetoric.” What’s meant, of course, is that the politician is being tricky, is side-stepping an issue, is being less than honest. That commonsensical attitude toward Rhetoric is quite at odds with the online Merriam-Webster dictionary in its academic definition of Rhetoric:
the art of speaking or writing effectively
That academic definition of rhetoric (who else but a professor of Rhetoric, a real expert on it, would Merriam-Webster turn to for their definition?) clearly shows the wide gulf between the formal, academic, dictionary definition — the art of speaking or writing effectively — and the everyday experience and wisdom about Rhetoric — being tricky and deceptive. But it’s not just common folk who see the strong negatives about Rhetoric; quite a few important, highly educated people have pointed out the negative side of Rhetoric, too.
Even Rhetoric experts such as Professor Wayne C. Booth (1921-2005), a professor of Rhetoric at the University of Chicago have openly admitted the negative, tricky side of Rhetoric. In his final book, The Rhetoric of RHETORIC; (2004), Professor Booth points out many, many times that in the United States and surely throughout much of the world we are harmed daily by floods of careless rhetrickery or even by deliberately harmful Media Rhetrickery;.
Media Rhetrickery (which he abbreviates as “MR” throughout his book) is Booth’s unique term for the widespread abuse of Rhetoric in the media, which incessantly employs Rhetoric for tricky, deceitful, and corrupt purposes. So Booth spends an awful lot of time in his book apologizing for various forms of rhetrickery (he clearly means just what the term sounds like), apologizing for the corrupted use of Rhetoric that occurs so frequently in all walks of life. Coming from Booth, this is truly a heavy indictment of Rhetoric. It seems to me that he doesn’t mean it to be an indictment of Rhetoric since he has always been a highly respected proponent of, and authority on, the positive values of Rhetoric—but it clearly is an indictment.
At the very beginning of his book, Booth relates that in 1960 he was at a post-lecture reception at Oxford and was chatting over drinks with an Oxford professor, when he asked him what subject he taught. The Oxford professor responded, Chiefly eighteenth-century literature. What is your field? Booth responded, Basically it’s rhetoric, though I’m officially in ‘English.’ I’m trying to complete a book that will be called, “The Rhetoric of Fiction.” The Oxford professor of literature scowled, unpleasantly spat out Rhetoric!, turned his back, and walked briskly away. This experience is an example that displays the traditional academic disrespect for Rhetoric held by most of academia and the world for centuries, even millennia.
Another authority who agrees with Booth about the rhetrickery quality of Rhetoric was a Roman, Lucian of Samosata (125-180 A.D.). Lucian was formally trained as a rhetorician, and he claimed that a Rhetor is a pushing, driving, money-chasing operator who leaves any sense of decency, propriety, moderation, and shame at home when he goes to work.
An even more important Roman rhetorician who couldn’t deny the rhetrickery element in Rhetoric was Quintilian. As one of the most renowned teachers of Rhetoric of all time, Quintilian (35-100 A.D.) felt that the virtue of verecundia (Latin for a combination of modesty, decency, and restraint) was an absolute vice in an orator. Why? Because, Quintilian said, it would make him hesitate, change his mind, or possibly even stop his talking to think things over! Can’t have that happening to respectable Rhetoricians, now, can we? It might even result in changing them into honest men!
John Locke (1632-1704), the great English thinker and philosopher, voiced probably the strongest condemnation of Rhetoric ever expressed. Locke pointed out that the purpose of Rhetoric was to imply wrong ideas, inflame the passions, and thereby mislead the audience’s judgment. Locke claimed that the techniques of Rhetoric are perfect cheats… wholly to be avoided… rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deceit.
Plainly, Booth isn’t a lone voice conversing about the rhetrickery aspect of Rhetoric. I suppose the real question is, Why have Booth and other proponents of Rhetoric stuck with that deceptive discipline, knowing full well its morally repulsive qualities?
Perhaps Steven Spender (1909-1995) — modern English poet, novelist, essayist — had the right perception of the matter when he expressed the idea that, Rhetoric is the art of deception, isn’t it? And when you become good at using rhetoric on other people, you eventually and all unknowingly use it on yourself.
As the old adage goes, power corrupts, and Rhetoric — or should we call it by its proper name, Rhetrickery — is, indeed, powerful.