Rhetoric is the last stage of the basics of classical education in the trivium, and is present in a great deal of the communication that we encounter in life. When a lawyer argues a case, they are engaging in rhetoric. When someone on social media attempts to make an argument, however poorly, they are engaging in rhetorical practices. Giving messages, from political speeches to religious sermons, is similarly an engagement in rhetoric, as is writing articles and books and editorials and research papers. Rhetoric is defined by Oxford as: “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques,” and more simply we may consider rhetoric to be purposeful communication. If you are trying to encourage or convince someone to do something or think a particular way you are engaged in rhetoric. How successful or not one is at this task is a different matter.
When we discuss rhetoric we have to examine both what the speaker or writer intends and whether that appeal is successful. Most commonly, we tend to judge whether or not an appeal is successful by whether or not it appeals to us. This is, of course, not a useless endeavor, since we tend to be most interested in whether or not a particular piece of rhetoric appeals to us. What must be considered, though, is that not every message is meant to appeal to us. Sometimes a speaker or writer is not interested in us as an audience at all–we are assumed to be an enemy or an outsider and so no effort is made to appeal to us or win us over. Whether or not this is a wise decision depends on the situation and the context and on the result. If people are offended by a message that is meant to appeal to them, that is a bad thing for a speaker, but if someone is offended who is supposed to be, that may indeed be part of the point.
After the bitterly contested election of 1800, incoming president Thomas Jefferson made what is widely considered to be among the best speeches made by a president, in which he stated that “we are all federalists, we are all democrats,” indicating a desire to build a wide and less partisan coalition to govern effectively that would seek to benefit a wide degree of interests and reduce the tension in the early American republic, by demonstrating that a peaceful change of power could take place without the temporary winners of an election using that power to attack their enemies with government agencies. Those who currently and temporarily have power seem to have forgotten this wisdom in restraint, and their rhetoric is far more hostile to half or more of the population of the country, not fully recognizing the price of engaging in such talk.
It is common for people to look down on rhetoric as being empty and deceptive, but honest rhetoric whose purposes are transparent and whose aims and authorities are common and shared need not suffer because one recognizes it for the rhetoric it is. And when we think of rhetoric as a means of seeking to appeal to people and convince them or persuade them to think or feel or behave a certain way, however we feel about rhetoric, most of us would prefer that people seek to persuade us than seek to coerce us through the naked use of power. At least with rhetoric, people are appealing to our intellect or to our feelings and seeking to convince us. When people seek to coerce us, they no longer care what we think or want our approval, they only wish to hold us up like a highwayman and say, “Stand and deliver, your money or your life.” And whether we are talking about highway robbers or coercive political leaders, our response to them as common pests to society should be the same. Better those who seek to appeal to us, however ineffectively, to those who merely seek to dominate or destroy us.