In “The Revival of Rhetoric,” Professor Wayne C. Booth suggests that “a case could be made for the claim that we live in the most rhetorical age of all time . . . ” (36). The truth of this statement depends upon one’s interpretation of what rhetoric is or is not. In simple terms, rhetoric is the art of persuasion. By this vague definition all political speeches, commercials, advertisements, etc., could justifiably be considered rhetoric, because they do in fact persuade us and inform our choices and decisions in all aspects of life. While persuasion is an essential part of rhetoric, mere persuasion alone is an insufficient definition because it lacks the pursuit and discovery of truth through argument. True rhetoric requires an argument. In our society we are continually bombarded with speech, imagery and ideas geared toward persuading us to buy, support or believe in something or someone. Booth defines this as “bad rhetoric,” and speaks of the current usage of rhetoric in our society as “bombast, mere propaganda, perhaps necessary for the affairs of men but necessarily tainted” (36). Much of what we are persuaded by is based on sensationalism and often the situation is fixed, intentionally dramaticized to provoke our emotions rather than appeal to our sense of truth or to provoke thought. In “An Introduction to Rhetoric,” Craig R. Smith provides an excellent example of this manipulation in the political arena. Smith comments on the rhetorical strategies used by former President Bush to gain support and votes. During the speech in question, Bush stated that drug agents were able to buy crack cocaine in Lafayette Park across from the White House (Rhetoric and Human Consciousness, 13). This comment was used to demonstrate that drugs could be found anywhere–even in an area that one would think of as “safe.” While this “inartistic proof” succeeded in generating interest and support, Smith later informed us that the incident was a set up, that the drug dealer was lead there for the sole purpose of making the drug problem seem more threatening and closer to home (endnotes, 16). It is both frightening and appalling that our leaders would contrive this way, yet in light of our societies bastardization of true rhetorical pursuit, it is not surprising. Certainly, all of the blame for the current corruption and abuse of rhetoric cannot be laid solely upon the shoulders of the politicians, media and other people of influence, because we as a society are all too willing to be duped or mislead. We would rather accept a juicy, sensationalized story rather than a dull but accurate one. We ourselves contribute to this “bad rhetoric” by accepting it as truth. Even worse, we often ignore those attempting to make sound, true rhetorical arguments because their opponent’s “bad rhetoric” is more interesting or spectacular. This corruption of rhetoric extends even further into our lives than the obvious and immediate concerns of the political arena and media agenda. Our personal beliefs, self image, and educational promise are all informed by the use or rather misuse of rhetoric. Booth points out that although our notions of self worth which were once (and should be) based on matters of moral virtue, family history and financial assets, are now settled rhetorically (37). Booth goes on to quote the Celebrity Register’s Daniel Boorstin about the current rhetoric of self worth, “It’s impossible to accurately list the success or value of men; but you can judge a man as a celebrity–all you have to do is weigh his press clippings” (37). Indeed, we often gauge our beliefs and self image upon what society has presented as the ideal. We assess our personal worth not upon our own merits, but upon how we compare to an unrealistic ideal set forth by some entity ultimately trying to sell us something.
Perhaps the worst area of degeneration of art of rhetoric is in the realm of education, concerning both public perceptions and pedagogical methods. Undeniably, more weight is placed on where an individual received his or her education, rather than what the individual studied, what grades were earned or the additional challenges which students faced while earning their degree. For example, if two candidates were competing for the same job, one having a degree from North Western, and the other from Governor’s State, the position would more than likely go to the candidate from North Western. Despite the fact that both applicants would be comparably qualified, and despite the fact that the G. S. U. student may have also worked, raised a family and had any number of additional responsibilities while earning their degree–thus proving their motivation and organizational skills, the prestige and pomp attached to the name North Western carries more weight. The educational system itself contributes to rhetorical deterioration by not providing instruction in rhetorical theory beyond its stylistic implications in literature or oratory. Many people in our culture are rhetorically illiterate, often lacking both the knowledge about their topic, and the ability to relate ideas in a manner which can convince, prove or sway others. Even if one were interested in learning the art of rhetoric, one would be hard pressed to find adequate instruction in the discipline. Booth notes that “at most universities a student still cannot undertake serious rhetorical study even if he wants to, for lack of teachers, courses, or library facilities” (41). For most high school students and many college students, speech class is their only experience in the art of rhetoric, and even then, instruction is geared toward persuasion or explanation–not debate or truth seeking discourse. Perhaps our society does live in the most rhetorical age of all time, but only if we reduce the definition of rhetoric to persuasion by contrivance or sensationalism. In our society questions of truth are seldom tested by debate, political power is not often truly in the hands of the people and assuming that all men are “subject to good rhetoric” is imprudent. It is not that our society is not capable of being the most rhetorical age, after all, we do have one of the best educational systems in the world, as well as access to more information and a more extensive forum for the expression of ideas than any previous society, but the gullibility, apathy and self-serving agendas of our populace prevent us from becoming such. Rhetoric requires the pursuit of truth through discussion and argument. Any rhetoric lacking this essential element cannot be true rhetoric– merely crafty persuasion.
Booth, Wayne, C. “The Revival of Rhetoric.” PMLA. v. 80, no. 2. 1965. Pp. 35- 46. Smith, Craig, R. “An Introduction to Rhetoric.” Rhetoric and the Human Consciousness. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1998. Pp. 2-16.