Understanding Rhetoric (YouTube Script)
Welcome back to writing with Andrew. If you want to write more effectively, you’re going to have to understand rhetoric. And if you want to understand rhetoric, well, you’ve come to the right place.
So, like I said at the beginning, if you want to be a better writer, learning about rhetoric is a great place to start. And that’s because, for thousands of years, rhetoricians (that’s what you call a person who studies rhetoric) have been talking and writing about how to use language effectively.
Rhetoric has meant so many different things to so many different people that it can be a difficult word to define. In fact, I think I’ve heard a different definition of rhetoric from every person I’ve asked. But, just because rhetoric is hard to define, that doesn’t mean it’s hard to understand.
So because of that, the goal of today’s video is not to give you a dictionary definition of rhetoric. Instead, I want to introduce you to the concept of rhetoric and to help you to recognize it when you see it. It’s much more important to be able to understand rhetoric than to define it, so that’s what we’re aiming for today.
And to start off, I think one of the easiest ways to being to understand rhetoric is by realizing that rhetoric is that thing that we do when we're trying to get people on the same page. Maybe you’re running for office and you want to get voters on the same page so that they will choose to vote for you. Maybe you’re a lawyer and you want to get the jury on the same page so they will declare your client not guilty. Maybe you’re speaking at a friend’s wedding, and you want to get everyone on the same page so they will think the newlyweds are awesome and wonderful and whatever else people say at weddings. Or, maybe you’re sitting in the car with your friends before dinner and you want to get everyone on the same page so that you end up at a pizza place.
In any of those scenarios, whatever you do in the process of getting people on the same page could be labeled “rhetoric.” And any of these cases, situations where rhetoric happens have a couple key things in common:
1) The potential for people to be on different pages
That is, rhetoric doesn’t happen when everyone is on the same page by default. Nobody will pick a fight with you if you say the sky is blue, and you’re probably not going to have to make a very convincing case for why two plus two is equal to four. Everyone is on the same page on those topics all the time. Rhetoric is useful and necessary in situations where there are multiple valid options or opinions
2) The need to adapt your strategies for getting people on the same page to a given situation
You’re not really doing rhetoric if you take a one-size fits all approach to getting people on the same page. If you aren’t paying careful attention to who you’re talking to and how their beliefs and personality—and the other things that are going on around you—will affect the process of getting them on the same page, you’re missing a big part of what rhetoric is all about.
So, now that we understand that rhetoric is basically about getting other people on the same page, let’s take a look at an example of rhetoric in action.
Imagine for a moment, that you are a superhero, and you and your sidekick have heard a blood-curdling call for help.
When you arrive on the scene, you see a massive truck rolling towards the city, and it’s carrying a dangerous bomb powerful enough to rip holes in spacetime.
Of course, there’s only one villain dastardly enough to pull off a crime like this. Your arch-nemesis. He appears on the scene and beams you up to his private air fortress so that he can show you the terrible consequences of his evil plan.
Suspended in the air above the city, you can only listen as your archnemesis reveals his vile plot: That bomb is headed for the city, and you have a terrible choice to make. You can do nothing and watch your city be vaporized in an instant. Or, you can persuade your innocent sidekick to push a button and send a very massive morally ambiguous antihero hurtling down towards the deadly bomb. Because the antihero is so massive, he will impact the bomb with enough force to open a wormhole that will consume the explosion and carry it away safely into an alternate dimension.
If you do nothing, the city will be destroyed. But, the only way to save the city is by violating your heroic vow and convincing your sidekick to send the antihero to his death. What would you decide?
It isn’t hard to to make a case for either option. There are pros and cons to both options, and those pros and cons might weigh more heavily for some people than others. And that’s kind of the point here: there are lots of situations in life where there isn’t one correct or obvious answer. In such situations, we have to come up with a workable solution: there isn’t an ideal or the ideal isn’t realistically obtainable, so we have to come up with a solution we can all live with.
Part of the rhetorical process, then, involves coming up with practical solutions to complex problems. If you’re our superhero, you can’t run a series of controlled scientific experiments to determine which option is better. You can’t just assign a numerical value to your heroic integrity and weigh it against the value of the city. We like to think that science or numbers will just tell us what to do, but the truth is that they just can’t: they can help us to make more informed decisions, but they can’t tell us which decision to make.
So, if you’re invested in the rhetorical process, you’ll be able to see both sides of the dilemma. Maybe you’ll talk with your sidekick in the little time you have left and game out the best course of action.
You know, when I was taking physics, I always thought it was crazy that the questions on my homework would always just “assume” that there was no friction or gravity. But friction and gravity are an unavoidable part of the reality we live in, I always thought. With a rhetorical viewpoint, you can never just assume that there is no friction. You always have to be aware of it, aware of the gap between what is real and what would be ideal. And you have to find some way to bridge that gap, to solve a difficult problem while you take friction and gravity into account.
So maybe you’ve talked it out with your sidekick, and you’ve come to a decision in this awful dilemma. You have both decided on a course of action, and you have good reasons to support your decision. You’re on the same page, and you know what to do.
But! What if instead of being trapped with your sidekick, you were trapped with the antihero’s girlfriend? Could you use all the same reasons to get her on the same page? What would it take to convince her save the city?
Or what about the mayor of the city? It wouldn’t probably take much for him to drop the antihero. But what if you had decided that it was best to stick to your principles and not kill the antihero? How would you get him on the same page then?
Or what about your grandma? What would you say to her to justify your decision?
Or maybe you’re trapped with an alternate-reality version of yourself. If you decide to save your city by dropping the anti-hero, the wormhole will carry the explosion to an alternate reality version of the city. Then, the decision is really about which version of the city you choose to destroy. How would you work that out and make sure you were both on the same page?
Hopefully, the fact that you would have to say something different to each of the people in these scenarios is pretty intuitive to you. It highlights the fact rhetoric is always context-specific. If you want to write effectively, you have to be aware of who your readers are. How you adapt your writing to a particular audience could the subject of its own video, so we won’t go into too much depth right now. But I do want you take away from this is the idea that when you’re doing rhetoric, you’re paying attention to a specific context and changing what you say and how you say it to fit that context.
Okay, so we’ve covered a lot today. And there are so many things we could still talk about: how to understand your audience, how to use rhetoric ethically, how to make arguments that people will actually care about and listen to, the rhetorical process for discovering truth, the list goes on.
Before we quit, let’s review some key takeaways that can help you understand what rhetoric is:
1. Rhetoric is the stuff we do to get people on the same page, whether that means persuading people to do specific things, hold specific attitudes, or adopt specific beliefs.
2. Rhetoric doesn’t happen when people are on the same page by default, but it is very useful and necessary wherever disagreement or multiple interpretations of facts are possible
3. Rhetoric involves paying close attention to context and adjusting the way you write to fit whatever context you’re in.
Keep those three things in mind and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a stellar rhetorician.