From Modern Rhetorical Criticism, Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1990.

We have discussed what rhetoric is and what it is not, where it can be found, and what shapes it takes. It now remains for us to examine what rhetoric does, how it functions in human society. Of course, we will be studying the uses of rhetoric throughout this book, but here, briefly, we can examine some of its less frequently noticed uses.

1. Rhetoric unburdens. People who make rhetoric do so because they must get something off their chests, because the cause they champion overwhelms their natural reticence. Such people refuse to let history take its slow, evolutionary course and instead try to become part of history themselves. The history they make may be quite local in character (for example, picketing a neighborhood abortion clinic), but rhetorical people typically do not hang back. They sense that the world around them is not yet set, and so they approach it aggressively, often convinced that they can make a difference, always convinced that they must try.

On occasion, however, the need to speak produces ambivalence. For example, Charles Manson, who in 1969 engineered a series of horrible crimes in California (known as the Tate-LaBianca murders) and who is currently serving a life sentence in prison, seems especially conflicted about such matters. Manson recently consented to an interview with journalist Keven Kennedy, and his remarks tell us much about his rhetorical mindset:

Kennedy: Do you want to be released from prison?

Manson: Released? I just want to be left alone. You see, I dismissed the world a long time ago. Really I did. I dismissed it. It’s gone from my mind. It comes over and says, “You pay me some attention.” I say, “No.” “Will you accept our God as being the God?” I say, “All right. I’11 accept anything. Now, can I get on with my business?”


At this stage in his life at least, Manson appears to have quit the business of leadership. He seems unwilling to make the sorts of adjustments communication requires. But less than two minutes later in the interview Manson had this to say:

Manson: I just learn to reflect people back at themselves. Because man is not working–why tell anybody? If you start informing people that are misinformed, you’d spend the rest of your life informing people that are misinformed. I would feel that I had achieved something if we could stop the misinforming of people and inform them properly [Manson, 1985:29, italics mine].

In this latter statement, Manson captures the rhetorical person’s basic instinct: to step out of the shadows of anonymity and make a difference by “informing them properly.” Although his years in prison have no doubt quelled his ardor for social contact, Manson’s desire to lead lurks just beneath the surface of his consciousness. While he seems to have lost a bit of heart over the years (for which we may all be thankful), even the fifty-year-old Charles Manson harbors the persuasive instinct. In a sense, then, communication is a kind of arrogant imposition on other people. When A tries to persuade B, for example, A affirms (1) that something is wrong in B’s world and (2) that A can fix it. Thus, if it is true that the poet is an escapist, it is also true that the rhetor is an infiltrator. Naturally, the arrogance of the rhetorical act is normally well disguised by the practicing persuader, who is, after all, only there to “help” (“You owe it to yourself to sign this contract,” “The handicapped do indeed appreciate your contribution,” “Do this for the Lord’s sake”). Still, a rhetorical engagement is no less intrusive just because its intrusions have been camouflaged.

2. Rhetoric distracts. A speaker wants to have all, not just some, of our attention. To get that attention, the speaker must so fill up our minds that we forget, temporarily at least, the other ideas, people, and policies usually important to us. Naturally, we do not just give away our attention, so it takes rhetoric at its best to sidetrack us. One way of doing so is for the speaker to control the premises of a discussion. As McCombs and Shaw [1972] have demonstrated, the power of the mass media derives not so much from their ability to tell us what to think but from their ability to get us to think about the topics they favor. When choosing to report on industrial lead poisoning, for example, a local TV station simultaneously chooses not to cover the crowning of the Apple Queen or the win-loss record of the local Double-A farm club. By “setting the agenda” in this fashion, by controlling the premises pertaining to newsworthiness, the media can influence any conclusions drawn from the premises they have set in place.

So the rhetor constantly requests listeners to think about this topic, not that one; to consider this problem, not those they are currently thinking about; to try out this solution, not that endorsed by the opposing speaker. In this sense, rhetoric operates like a good map. Maps, after all, have a distinctive point of view: They “favor” interstate highways (by coloring them a bright red) over rural roads (often a pale blue); they emphasize urban areas (blotched in yellow) over small towns (a small dot); they adapt their appeals to vacationers (by high-lighting Yosemite) rather than to truckers (no diners are listed). Like the rhetor, the road map bristles with integrity, implying by the precision of its drawings that it provides the complete story: all the high way news that’s fit to print. Rhetoric, too, tries to narrow our latitudes of choice without giving us the feeling that we are being thereby hemmed in. Rhetoric tries to control the definition we provide for a given activity (“Your church offering isn’t a monetary loss; it’s a downpayment on heaven”) as well as the criteria we employ to solve a problem (“Abortion is not a religious issue; it’s a legal one”). By also emphasizing one speaker category over another (for example, George Bush as commander-in-chief of the armed forces versus George Bush as the Republican legatee of Richard Nixon), persuaders invite us to focus on this and not that, on here and not there, on now and not then.

3. Rhetoric enlarges. In some senses, modern persuaders are like the heralds of old. They move among us singing the siren song of change, asking us to open our worlds a bit and to study a new way of looking at things, to consider a new solution to an old problem (or an old solution to a problem we did not know we had). Rhetoric operates like a kind of intellectual algebra, asking us to equate things we had never before considered equitable. Thus, for example, Adolph Hitler rose to fame (and infamy) by linking German nationalism with increased militarism and Germany’s economic woes with Jewish clannishness. Corrupt equations, but, for him, useful ones.

Often, the associations encouraged by rhetoric are no less sophisticated, or honorable, than those created by Adolph Hitler. Nevertheless, these linkages are the workhorses of persuasion, devices suitable for asking listeners to expand their horizons. For example, manufacturers of personal computers are now virtually assuring unwary parents that computing skills will translate instantly into educational achievement for their children. It is interesting to note that persuaders rarely ask for major expansion of their listeners’ world views. They imply that only a slight modification is in order. Persuasion moves by increments of inches. Often, persuaders disassociate ideas in order to expand the viewpoints of their listeners. For example, Bankamericard changed its name to Visa in the early 1970s so that the more international flavor of the new name would offset the growing anti-Americanism found in Western Europe at the time. Similarly, during the neophyte’s first meeting at Alcoholics Anonymous, an attempt is made to break the intimate connection between the person’s self-image and the use of stimulants.

Naturally, the alcoholic, like all listeners, initially resists such “enlarging” perspectives. It becomes the persuader’s task to demonstrate that any such alterations are a natural extension of thoughts and feelings the listener already possesses and that any such new notions can be easily accommodated within the listener’s existing repertoire of ideas. Thus, for example, patently unnatural cosmetic products are sold to American women as devices for enhancing their natural beauty. That is why rhetoric is called an art.

4. Rhetoric names: To understand the power of rhetoric we must remember that creatures and noncreatures alike (people, frogs, rocks, bicycles) are born without labels. People are, as best we know, nature’s only namers. And they name things with a vengeance: Orville Reddenbacher’s Popcorn, Sri Lanka, the Children of God, black holes, the Utah Jazz, McCarthyism. People take their naming seriously: Newly enfranchised Americans anglicize their names to ward off discrimination; professional women often retain their maiden names to avoid being seen as the captives of their mates; fights sometimes erupt when black youngsters play a name-calling game known as “the Dozens.”

No doubt, naming is as important as it is because meaning is such a variable thing. A tornado-ravaged town, after all, is but wind and torment until it is publicly labeled by appropriate people (“The clear will of the Lord” or “an obvious candidate for Federal disaster assistance”). Some executions spawn massive religious movements (for example, the death of Jesus Christ) or excite political passions (for example, the Rosenbergs during the 1950s), while other executions are met with mere curiosity (for example, that of Gary Gillmore, the first person to be executed in recent times). The facts in each of these cases were different, of course, but so too was the rhetorical skill of the executed’s namers and the aggressiveness with which they pursued the naming.

The naming function of rhetoric helps listeners become comfortable with new ideas and provides listeners with an acceptable vocabulary for talking about these ideas. Through rhetoric, “white flight schools” are transformed into “independent academies”; “labor-baiting” becomes the “right-to-work”; a “fetus” is seen as an “unborn child”; “suicide” is replaced by “death with dignity”; and a vague assemblage of disconnected thoughts and random social trends is decried as “secular humanism.” A major challenge for the rhetorical critic, then, is to study how namers name things and how audiences respond to the names they hear.

5. Rhetoric empowers. Those who decry the art of rhetoric often do so because its users embrace many truths, not just one. Traditionally, teachers of rhetoric have encouraged speakers to consider alternative modes of saying things and not to just utter the first thought that comes to mind. This attitude, too, brings censure to the rhetorical arts. Those who embrace absolute standards of right and wrong or totalistic systems of thought have always had problems with rhetoric, because, above all, rhetoric permits and encourages flexibility. Flexibility, in turn, provides options: to address one listener or several; to mention an idea or not to mention it at all; to say something this way and not that way; to tell all one knows or only just a bit; to repeat oneself or to vary one’s response. Rhetoric encourages flexibility, because it is based on a kind of symbolic Darwinism: (1) speakers who do not adapt to their surroundings quickly become irrelevant; (2) ideas that become frozen soon die for want of social usefulness.

Such flexibility, in turn, permits continual growth, for the individual as well as for society. Rhetorical theorists contend that there are as many ways of making an idea clear to listeners as there are listeners [Hart and Burks, 19723. Moreover, because it encourages adaptability, rhetoric permits personal evolution for speakers as well. Nineteen fifties racist George Wallace, 1960s arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, and 1970s radical Tom Hayden all continued to be prominent political spokespersons in the 1980s, not because they changed their beliefs fundamentally, but because they found new ways of telling their truths as they matured politically (and rhetorically). And when people’s fundamental beliefs do change over time, rhetoric can also accommodate such reincarnations: of Pat Boone from a rock ‘n roll idol to a religious evangelist, of Gerry Rubin from a social revolutionary to a corporate yuppie, of Dan Quayle from a campus playboy to a stodgy conservative.

Social power, then, often derives from rhetorical strength. Grand ideas, deeply felt beliefs, and unsullied ideologies are sources of power too, but, as Plate has told us, none of these factors can be influential without a delivery system, without rhetoric. Purity of heart, honest intentions, and a spotless record of integrity are assets to a political speaker, but they are hardly enough to sustain a campaign unless they are shared with the voters. As Bryant [1972:23] remarks, if they are to be used with confidence “a bridge or an automobile or a clothes-line must not only be strong but must appear to be.”

6. Rhetoric elongates. What does rhetoric make longer? Time. Time, that most precious of all substances, can be extended–or, more accurately, seem to be extended–when rhetoric is put to use. Consider the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. When he came on the scene in the 1950s, King no doubt knew that civil rights laws would not be enacted just because he mounted the public platform. But King succeeded in making the future seem to be the present, because his appeals reached so deeply into people’s souls and because his futuristic images were painted so vividly: “I have a dream … that one day, right here in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!” [King, 1964:374]. Naturally, King’s speeches did not immediately change the legal and social landscapes. But for his followers, the devastations of the past commanded less of their attention when they listened to him describe a future of genuine possibility. In his presence, listeners lingered in the future and felt better because of it. As Hart [1984a:764] says, rhetoric can become a “way station for the patient.”

Most persuaders sell the future, to move listeners to a better place, a better time, a happier circumstance. Whether it is more robust health through Herbalife, a slimmer figure with Lean Cuisine, or fewer taxes with Bob Dole, rhetoric transports us, momentarily at least, across the boundaries of time. Admittedly, this is a kind of surrogate, or false, reality. But genuinely effective rhetoric makes such criticisms of literal falseness seem small-minded. When tempted with visions of untold wealth via Amway or a glorious afterlife via Jesus, many people relax their guards. It is also true that rhetoric can be used to appropriate the past. When doing so, most skilled persuaders use the opportunity to do some historical housecleaning. Thus, as Warner [1976] tells us, most patriotic celebrations in the United States omit from their oratory stories of racial, ethnic, or religious persecution. The Fourth of July speaker steers clear of these unquestionable historical facts, because ceremonial rhetoric has its own, more up-beat, story to tell. Rhetoric tells a selective history, taking us back in time for a brief, heavily edited, tour of history. But as the good eulogist knows, not everything about the dearly departed need to be told at the funeral. The eulogist reminds us of the deceased’s grandest virtues, his or her most endearing qualities, because only the best of the past can make the present seem less tragic. So, while rhetoric often tells literal lies, most of us would have it no other way.