Engaging the Misconception on Rhetoric

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Often times I come across people who find out I am in graduate school, I am inevitably ask what I study. When I say I study rhetoric, often times the reaction I get is one of confusion. “What is rhetoric?” The person asks me. My own mother, for example, when telling complete strangers I am in graduate school, she will often times make the innocent mistake of telling them I am going to graduate school for English or Linguistics. When I took my mother to the clinic recently for a checkup, she bragged to the doctor about how proud she was of her son. “You study linguistics?” The doctor asked me when I arrived in the lobby. “No, I study rhetoric.” I said to him, and his reaction was of complete confusion.

This is more common than I originally thought the more I’ve studied rhetoric in graduate school. Rhetoric is an ancient discipline that goes back to thousands of years, but is practically unknown within contemporary society, and when it is known, “rhetoric” itself in a non-academic setting has negative connotations of “trickery” or “empty speech.” Rhetoric is defined by most rhetoric departments in universities as “[t]he study and use of written, spoken, and verbal language,” but you would not know that if your only source of information about the discipline comes from folks outside the field. In my first semester of graduate school, I’ve been encouraged by my professors to think like a rhetorician. This got me excited, only to be told by someone outside the field that I should be discouraged from doing so. “Rhetoric is the art of lying,” this person said to me. Or “Rhetoric is about debate, not dialogue. Dialogue is productive; debate is not. There is no place for rhetoric in debate.” This is, of course, foolhardy and nonsensical, but I can’t entirely blame him for having this misconception. The word “rhetoric” itself has been used as a buzzword for various social contexts, often used in a negative fashion, to construct social constructs which many of us have come to accept, both knowingly and unknowingly.

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Rhetoric as a field of discipline is interdisciplinary, working in fields such as literature, communication, philosophy, science, social work, psychology, and many others. In the department I am in, I have colleagues who originally came from fields outside of rhetoric with the intention of obtaining rhetorical training to supplement their respective career goals in either education, technical writing, social work, or non-profit organizations. Often this misunderstanding of rhetoric comes from this idea that rhetoric is a tool that is mostly used for bad (highly debatable and beyond the scope of this post to analyze this claim), and thus as a result rhetoric itself has been stigmatized by society as something that it is not. The paradox, of course, is that to stigmatize rhetoric is itself a rhetorical act. This is a problem because it promotes a misunderstanding as to what the field of rhetoric studies, what it primarily focuses on, and how it actually benefits us as members of society. Back in ancient Greece, a comprehensive rhetorical training was expected for civic life, yet we in the 21st century have unintentionally abandoned this practice. Rhetoric is often treated as secondary, even though there are universities emphasize a robust rhetorical pedagogy across disciplines. As a result, this misunderstanding of rhetoric has become prevalent.

This misunderstanding of rhetoric, when we think about it, can also stem from an expectation of what rhetoric is not. Because rhetoric as a discipline does not dive into truth claims in the same way a philosopher does, it is written off by laymen as “the art of trickery” or “fatuous speech.” This is a mistake, as it causes us to ignore sophisticated and nuanced understandings of what rhetoric is. While it is true that rhetoric itself can be used for trickery, to define rhetoric in this framework is to misunderstand what rhetoric actually is. It reminds me of Aristotle’s Rhetoric where he discusses how rhetoric is a counterpart to dialectic. To engage in a dialectic, you must have an ethical character seeking truth. To engage in truth means to understand the means of persuasion that help on that journey to what is most likely to be true. As the field of rhetorical study has evolved, the goal of the rhetorician has been to understand how language influences the art of discourse itself.

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Because rhetoric is misunderstood has “the art of trickery” or the “art of lying,” it is important to emphasize how the study of rhetoric is meant to benefit us in understanding how dishonest and harmful rhetoric can be recognized in order to make positive changes in our community. In a future post, I hope to discuss how the rhetorician, as a scholar of the field as way as well as someone who engages in rhetorical criticism, can actually be a moral critic. However, in order to make this argument, it is first prudent to make the case that rhetoric as a discipline is not what contemporary society has understood it to be. In a video made by MA students at the Clemson University, they make the persuasive case that rhetoric is unfairly misunderstood and that we need to incorporate rhetoric studies into our liberal arts education in order become productive members of society.

It is unfortunate that society has developed a misunderstanding of rhetoric that continues to permiate our tabloids, our news stands, and our every day conversation. In the 21st century, a robust rhetorical education is more important than ever before, so it is necessary to bring back rhetoric into the public consciousness. Rhetoric is a tool that will help be well rounded members of society, as citizens who engage in dialectical practices that benefit our communities, and improve our understanding of each other through the art of discourse. It is unfortunate that rhetoric is understood in this way. It should be a priority for a liberal arts education to emphasize how important rhetoric is as part of becoming a productive and civic member of society.

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