Pipe Dreams and Racist Rhetoric
I know the distinctive sound of my gurgling pipes, and I dread it. My plumbing stopped working several times until I finally spent thousands to remedy the problem. I realized I had been taking first world, water-related tasks for granted, such as showering and brushing my teeth anytime I felt like it.
It was therefore a relief to get back to my former rhetorically provoking self this summer without having to worry so much about things like whether my toilet would flush. In August I wrote a letter to the editor, published in the local newspaper, that labeled as racists those who fly the Confederate flag and venerate Confederate war “hero” monuments. The Charlotteseville debacle disgusted me, and I felt compelled to speak out. One of the expected responses was a defensive letter about “heritage.”
“I have to ask Ms. Brown, has the Confederate flag ever done anything to you? Were you a slave? Did you pick cotton? Of course not,” the writer argued.
To put it diplomatically, we disagreed. But despite our differences, I considered this exchange a rhetorically significant exercise. It was democracy in action.
I relay this particular story because it provides a decent segue to the question: What is rhetoric, anyway, and why study it?
The definition of rhetoric has actually been debated since Plato’s days. Plato was concerned with getting as close to the absolute truth as possible. He hated that persuasive techniques were being used sans ethical considerations, that people were getting their way even when it was of no benefit to humankind. He therefore considered as hacks people like Gorgias, regarded as the original itinerate teacher of rhetoric. Gorgias developed the craft in Sicily via landowning disputes and took it on the proverbial road to Greece, where the powers that be rapidly found value in it.
In contemporary American society, most of us are inclined to think of rhetoric negatively, as a communicative tool that manipulates or misleads. It is often characterized as divisive and hateful. Rhetoric can be violent, and can even be silent – saying and doing nothing, of course, can actually convey quite a lot, as anyone who has been ghosted knows.
My definition is more liberal, and more akin to something called feminist standpoint theory: I contend that rhetoric is simply communication, intentional or unintentional, that uses symbols to convey meaning. Many of my classmates and instructors, think the craft must embody at least a speck of persuasion. I think it often includes persuasive elements, but not always.
We therefore study and practice rhetoric because it’s essential to understanding ourselves and navigating the world. No matter if we’re frustrated parents cussing like sailors or CEO’s examining ways to maximize ROIs, it helps us make informed decisions, which can ultimately have profound personal and communal effects. Rhetoric is at the core of our conscious lives.
Knowing the rhetorical canons such as audience influence and how to best arrange the information we want to convey, along with recognizing today’s concerns such as digital media delivery methods, translates to power. Critical thought encourages richer perspective and agency. If someone shares a political meme, do you consider its source, the motive for its creation and the context of time? If your child says he has a sore throat, is he getting sick or does he just not want to go to school that day? Did your sister’s eulogy at your mother’s funeral move you to tears?
At any given moment we must contemplate, act upon and produce a number of rhetorically charged messages that influence our lives.
I decided to tackle racists. What’s a recent example of particularly powerful rhetoric that has resonated with you?