When most people hear the word rhetoric, they think it’s all just empty baloney. It isn’t. Most of the rhetoric we experience of which we are aware comes from our politics, and sure, it isn’t always the best, but there’s some good stuff out there. I could literally offer millions of examples, but I want to focus on two that I think are especially good (in terms of being good rhetoric).

The first is the “Is Obama a U.S. citizen?” question out there. The number of Republicans who don’t think he is fluctuates between 30-55%. That’s amazing for such a stupid question, but there’s good reason for it. Pay attention to what the Republicans keep saying. Even when they agree that President Obama is from Hawaii, they sneak in a little bit of doubt. “Yeah, I take the President at his word.” Sure, you do. And even when they don’t fiddle with weasel words and phrases, it’s still great rhetoric. By simply bringing the issue up again and again they convey that there is doubt out there; by denying the point they actually bolster it.

Another great example is with Dubya. I know, I know. He wasn’t exactly known for eloquent speech, but that’s part of his rhetoric, purposeful or not. He would routinely repeat phrases about safety and strength and courage, even when he wasn’t making any grammatical sense. All that mattered was that people heard a few key words; I did something similar when I kept repeating “boy-rape” in a recent post (though my sentence structure stands up). Or when Dubya spoke to Evangelicals, he would begin most of his sentences with “and”, reflecting Biblical writings (“And the Lord said it was good”). He knew his audience. His rhetoric there was no accident.

But there’s bad rhetoric out there, too. And lo, not just the political variety. (Okay, maybe appealing to a religious audience isn’t going to be useful on this blog.) This classic is one we’ve all heard:

Junior: But Billy and everyone else is doing it!

Mom: If Billy and everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you? You aren’t going.

Now, the proper logical response would be to point out that this is a reductio ad absurdum. Just because Junior wants to do some of the same things as his friends does not mean he would also want to jump off a bridge. Mom has committed a logical fallacy. Junior might appeal to emotion and point out how left out he’s going to be when he goes to school Monday morning and everyone is talking about what they did Saturday afternoon. He probably won’t win, but it’s his best shot using rhetoric. He could also try pointing out the logical fallacy, but that might be a bit over his head, methinks. Besides, superior logic from children isn’t usually received well. Junior needs to know his audience: Mom.

I think the fairest way to frame my relationship with rhetoric is that it’s love-hate. I love to see its effective use, even if it sometimes ends up in people believing dumb things. But at the same time, what makes rhetoric effective isn’t whether or not it’s true; what matters is if it convinces one’s audience. That means something like this blog or The God Delusion will probably fail to change the hearts and minds of any hardcore theist, but the people out there on the fence who value logos might find one or both persuasive, or the atheists who feel religion deserves a gentle hand may become uncomfortable with continuing with any undue respect. It is those people who are the primary audience and so it is by them that the rhetoric here or in The God Delusion must be measured.

What I find especially unfortunate about rhetoric (this is the big hate part of the relationship) is that people just aren’t very good at using it. Take a look at the comment Nate deleted from his blog.

Hey nate,

By reading your blog I have learned that Kirk Cameron is not the dumbest Christian on earth.
Congratulations. Sorry there’s no prize money.

This is simply bad. This person is making a comment on a blog that will be viewed by an audience that will likely agree with Nate more than disagree. There is no appeal in issuing an insult, especially when it is devoid of any substance around it. Okay, great, some guy on the Internet thinks someone else is dumb. Does that knowledge get us anywhere? It’s this sort of garbage that makes people think negative things when they even hear the word “rhetoric”; it rises to the level of “Yo Mama” jokes. Anyone offended by those jokes is an idiot. Anyone impressed with that rhetoric is a mook.

Rhetoric is an art form. It is there to persuade a particular audience to think one way (or at least not think the other way). When it’s empty, it’s ugly. When it’s abused, it’s offensive. When it’s noticed, it’s appreciated.