Like many rhetoricians, I am occasionally troubled by the frequency of negative ideas associated with rhetoric . A lot of people out there are criticizing bad rhetoric, and in doing so, they necessarily name rhetoric more in a negative light. It starts to carry the feeling of negativity even without a negative like “empty” in front of it. As a result, when I say “I study and teach rhetoric” it starts to sound like I just said “I study and teach verbal poop.”
Yet this may be a good thing, as a Cancer scientist studies Cancer not to promote it but to cure it.
I am glad people are criticizing and holding to account some UNethical or ugly uses of rhetoric. Most of these very people are on our side — “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Underneath the fact that people love to hate bad rhetoric, most people want others to speak and write with more ethical sensitivity and truthfulness.
I love to study and teach rhetoric. In my opinion, it is a much more uplifting profession to promote health and prevent harm than to cure disease or bury the dead, even if the latter are also necessary. Thus it is my pleasure to try to model and teach good rhetorical action and snip the buds off of lousy rhetoric before it goes to seed.
In May of this year (2008) out of scholarly curiosity, I decided to do some Google searches on combinations of the word “rhetoric” with other words, and I compared the resulting number of hits. The term “good rhetoric” was the most frequent among the positive adjective combinations I checked, but was still about 10x less frequent than “empty rhetoric.” Alas, my beloved word associated with my field of study, so frequently associated with emptiness, like peanut butter with jam.
With emptiness at the top of the list, I was puzzled to discover that the term “bad rhetoric” was less popular than “good rhetoric.” Why is it less common to name “bad rhetoric” than “good rhetoric?” My only guess is that when people get angry they reach for more colorful terms. Some more “tasty” negative adjectives won out over the rather bland term “bad.” Besides, “bad rhetoric” sounds like something you’d say to a dog named Rhetoric if he soils on your carpet.
I have been keeping my antennae on and seeing/hearing some sensitive, neutral uses of the word in the media, especially CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Journalists often use the term to inquire into the rhetoric being used by a particular leader or organization, without making a judgment about whether it is “propaganda” or “empty.” I think there are a lot of students coming out of U.S. schools who have taken a class on rhetoric and have respect for the broader meanings of the word. It’s nice to know that people on the internet are praising and discussing good rhetoric, not just slamming (as they should) bad rhetoric.
Rhetorical strategies for redeeming the word, the practice, the study
To turn the tide and associate rhetoric with civic virtue and community, inevitably I think the public needs more emphasis on examples what “good rhetoric” is. It is part of leaders’ job to engage in praise in rhetorical analysis of good speech/writing/media — we seem to have fewer praises of good than critiques of bad rhetoric, and our culture is sadly lacking in “epideictic rhetoric” on the positive side of the equation.
Here’s a strategy for taking advantage of phrases like “empty rhetoric” and turning it into an opportunity to educate people that the term can be used in a positive light — when a person uses the negative term, we should express the notion that we would all like so-and-so’s rhetoric to be fuller of meaning, a rhetoric that is ethical, a rhetoric that is… (put positive adjective here).
But alas, words have their own lives
But is it really worth my time to take offense at every way that rhetoric is belittled and beaten? to mourn or celebrate the use of the word? Rhetoric is a force that can be used for good or ill, and rhetoric is vocabulary word that belongs to humanity in general. The use and reputation of Rhetoric (its study or its use) is not controlled by scholars and teachers like myself, although we may nudge it here and there.