Contemporary Use of Rhetoric

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 30 September 2016

Contemporary Use of Rhetoric

Aristotle believed that rhetoric is an art that could, and should, be studied and that good rhetoric is not only persuasive but also ethical. I agree with Aristotle’s claim that good rhetoric is not only persuasive but it is ethical. Rhetoric is value neutral in that the principles of rhetoric are not necessarily moral or immoral; it is dependent on how they are utilized.

I believe it is unethical when good rhetorical principles are used to persuade the ignorant or the unwary of things which are against their best interest and is used to force the beliefs of the hegemonic group of our society upon other less powerful cultural groups. While many believe public engagement in rhetoric has been geared towards establishing absolute truth applicable to the universal appeals of human nature, I believe the principles of rhetoric are used in this modern era unethically to perpetuate certain dominant ideologies in order to maintain social hierarchies.

By analyzing modern media and applying the theories and discoveries of the scholars we have discussed throughout the quarter such as, Nietzsche, Habermas, and Fraser it is apparent how language is currently used unethically in attempt to rhetorically persuade the public. As we learned in class, “rhetoric is one of the oldest and most studied human arts in Western civilization. ” The rhetorical tradition can be traced back to the Sophists who first taught rhetoric in the ancient Mediterranean world and were viewed as controversial figures because of it.

The Sophists, and specifically Aristotle, laid the groundwork for modern public communication. The Sophists were the first to systematize rhetoric into a true art or discipline and believed that anyone could become a skilled rhetorician with proper teaching and practice. Aristotle was essentially the ‘father’ of rhetorical study and was the first person to systematize the study of rhetoric into a rational system of argument and presentation.

He was the scholar that created the three genres (deliberative, epideictic, forensic) and appeals (ethos, logos, pathos) of rhetoric and many of his ideas still remain extremely relevant today, nearly 2,500 years since his lifetime. Aristotle’s ideas are still considered and applied to many forms of contemporary rhetoric. However, although the Greek rhetorical tradition and Aristotle’s beliefs helped shape and define rhetoric and are grounded in its foundations, it has evolved greatly over the centuries and is now used in unethical manners.

As we learned in class, although rhetorical tradition viewed rhetoric as an instrument, persuasion, rational, and public art that was a tool of cultural heroes, the contemporary era of rhetoric started focusing less on how to persuade and more on how public audiences are produced by rhetoric and language. Although I believe that the classical rhetoric as defined by the Greeks was accurate, informative, and ethical, I find that the contemporary beliefs of rhetoric are much more fitting in describing the current relation of rhetoric, public, and ethics.

I agree that rhetoric is in fact constitutive rather than instrumental in that it constitutes our social world and creates identities within it. In the contemporary era rhetorical theory became less about how to produce good rhetoric and how to use rhetoric as an effective instrument as the Greeks were concerned with, and instead focuses more on how we are affected by rhetoric and how it constructs and reiterates certain cultural ideologies. This is extremely important to consider when examining how rhetoric is used currently in the media to produce persuasive messages to the public.

A major theme of rhetoric in the 20th and 21st centuries is that “language doesn’t just describe reality. It helps create it and the way we talk about things has real material effects. ” This is clear through rhetorical devices such as using language to describe “communism as cancer. ” Not everyone defines communism as a negative concept- yet in our society we use language to compare it to cancer. By doing this our culture learns to associate communism with a terrible and tragic disease that there is no cure for.

The rhetorical language used gives the term power and teaches the audience to associate the concept with illness and death- giving communism negative connotations. However, those in other countries that utilize communism are probably exposed by their media and government to language that teaches the audience to associate communism as a constructive and positive concept that is beneficial. This demonstrates the concept that Nietzsche introduced that language is power.

As discussed in class Nietzschean influence introduced he theme that language cannot be separated from its poetic or metaphorical function and that rhetoric is inextricably linked to power. I agree with this concept and think it is important to analyze rhetoric in such a way when considering how rhetorical devices are employed currently in attempts to persuade the public and normalize certain ideologies through our media and pop culture. I believe it is imperative we consider the first persona or who the rhetors are, the historical context that shape rhetorical texts, and the messages they attempt to produce.

Who has the authority to speak is extremely important to consider as one is exposed to messages of pop culture. In our society the dominant group is white, heterosexual men. When considering the statistics of who controls our media and pop culture it is overwhelmingly controlled by men included in this hegemonic group. By critically considering the messages constantly reinforced and presented by the media we can see how history has shaped the way media is written and the rhetoric that enables the perpetuation of binaries that divide our society in everyday life.

Pop culture and media is driven, run and written by men, for men, and it is in their best interest to promote messages that maintain their place at the top of the hegemonic social hierarchy- demonstrating how the language they choose to use is power for them. The means of promoting messages through rhetorical devices that keep the dominant groups in power are what I consider to be unethical. The public sphere in theory is a positive concept that promotes democracy and equality by providing everyone with the opportunity to be heard and express their opinion.

However, one major threat to the public sphere is the commercialization of the media. Media in our culture has become overwhelmingly commercialized which is a major reason I find current rhetorical practices unethical. Media is owned by different corporations that are overwhelmingly controlled by men so they can use their power to influence the messages presented in reporting’s and edge out alternative views and voices. The hegemonic group that controls the media can promote the messages they want to see that are in their best interest.

This is apparent when we watch stations such as NBC that are ran by General Electrics. While watching, you can see the constant promotion of GE products everywhere in their broadcasting. Commercialization allows an unethical bias in rhetorical practices and does not allow for equal expressions of opinion or promotion. Instead it is the companies that have power that can promote their products and stay in power, which is an unethical use of rhetoric in that it is not equally accessible by everyone as it should be.

The same bias that is apparent in rhetorical product promotion due to commercialization is also used to promote the values of the dominant group in control of the media. In accordance with Fraser’s critique of the public sphere, the public sphere excludes many groups because democracy is more complicated than Habermas accounted for. Access is essential and not everyone has equal access to the public sphere, which is overwhelmingly apparent when considering how minority groups are overtly portrayed in the media .

The hegemonic group in control of media messages uses rhetorical devices to present persuasive messages about the other less dominant groups. For example through rhetoric, election coverage tends to portray political issues in a manner that reinforces sexuality, gender, and racial hierarchies in order to protect the privileged positions of those on the dominant side of our culture’s binaries. For example, specifically media rhetorically portrays women as emotional, uninformed, and thoroughly objectifies them.

Media focuses on the way a female politician looks and acts rather than her merits or political stances and there is little to no similar coverage of men (the dominant group that has control over the public sphere) in this same way. Rhetorical tactics used to effectively do this include saying a woman “complained” while saying a man “stated. ” This effectively makes women seem emotional, while men seem stronger. Another common tactic is labeling a female politician “Mrs. ” instead of addressing her by her title such as “senator. By refusing to label a woman by her position the newspapers are unethically and effectively diminishing her importance and are presenting a rhetorical message about females in our culture. By focusing on a woman’s appearance, media unethically uses rhetoric to put the emphasis on female’s looks rather than policies which make them seem less powerful than men and this is reflected in our daily lives- demonstrating how rhetoric can be used to create identities and normalizes beliefs while making them appear to be common sense.

This concept is also apparent in the unethical representation of racial minorities in our media through rhetoric. For instance, when quoting a person of color the media will sometimes use tactics such as writing with poor grammar. To better explain, they may use the spelling “cuz” instead of correcting the spelling to “‘cause” or “because” to paint a picture that the minority group is ineloquent and uneducated in order to promote unethical messages that reconfirm the power of the dominant group that currently controls our media. Often this unethical use of rhetorical normalization is overlooked and goes unnoticed.

This ostracizes anyone who does not fit clearly into the accepted categories by delegitimizing values and beliefs that are not in accordance with our cultures hegemonic ideologies. These concepts relate to Nietzsche’s concept that by abstracting, language tends to do away with differences and abolishes specificity by assuming sameness where there is none. Our society is composed of many unique individuals but the rhetorical language that is constantly presented to us does not account for differences and is responsible for creating binaries in our culture.

Not everything is as simple as black and white and there are many shades of grey that need to be considered and accounted for, yet we assume these black and white binaries are common sense and that individuals can easily be grouped into common categories. This is why society views controversial issues such as racism and sexism the way it does- because those stereotypes or ideological norms have been so frequently mentioned throughout history and our culture that we accept them as common sense and feel no need for action to challenge and change these beliefs.

As Nietzsche described there is no truth, truth is only to lie with the herd. To me, this theory can be applied to hegemonic ideologies. Our media promotes sameness in our culture where there is none making it seem like “common sense” and not accounting for the fact that our society is comprised of unique individuals. Social ideologies are constructed by society and are in no way innate. We are constantly exposed to these constructions from the moment we are born without even being aware.

For instance, simple acts such as dressing girls in pink and boys in blue assume sameness about gender preferences where there is none. There is nothing predetermined that says boys cannot like pink yet our culture creates this assumption. Our pop culture, such as Disney reiterates these messages of “sameness” and “norms” as well by rhetorically promoting patriarchal ideologies that teach girls their goal in life should be to get married and depend on a man, since that is what the heroin characters of their stories all ultimately do.

We are so often constantly exposed to these messages overtly that we start to view them as common sense and normalize them but the majority’s way is not the ONLY way there is to view the important issues of our society; we just tend to see things in accordance with the norms of the “herd” that are constantly reinforced. That is why I comply with postmodernist views that there is no truth- because everyone has a different idea of “truth” and we should not accept the version that is unethically reiterated in society and normalized through the media.

In conclusion, it is extremely difficult to define rhetoric. Having been in existence for over three thousand years, one cannot hold rhetoric in the same light, as it is constantly shifting and evolving over time. We use rhetoric to help us explain things and mobilize action. Recognizing that rhetoric is a necessarily public deployment of discourse shows the crucial distinction between rhetoric and all other forms of language, which is the fact that rhetoric is utilized specifically to motivate action on the part of an audience.

Rhetoric is a very useful and powerful tool that artfully can be used to persuade audiences. However, in my opinion it is currently used unethically in our society to push the beliefs of the hegemonic group in order to keep social hierarchies in place and make them appear as a normal “truth. ” There are many opinions that are often not represented in our society through the language portrayed in our media. Rhetorical devices are used unethically to push what is presented to us as “common sense” or “truth” but true equality and equal representation can only exist when it’s reflected in the language of our media.

This is why invitational rhetoric is an important concept to consider rather than rhetoric as merely a form of persuasion. In order to act as ethical rhetors in a world without universal truths we must acknowledge all cultural groups and beliefs in our use of rhetoric presented to the public and not just the dominant values of society. Rhetoric should be a tool used to promote democracy and equal representation of opinions instead of used unethically to hinder such attempts by reiterating and normalizing the hegemonic values of our culture.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 30 September 2016

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