Rhetoric, sweet rhetoric!

By

GIVE me a dollar every time a politician shouts, ``That's just a lot of rhetoric!'' and I'll have a million dollars stacked up around my house. I'll bet that million dollars I won in the first paragraph that any speaker who says, ``That's just a lot of rhetoric,'' doesn't know what he's talking about. Politicians refer to rhetoric as if it were an exotic language like Swahili or pig Latin.

A little over 2,000 years ago some politicians were roaming around Greece shouting, ``That's a lot of rhetoric,'' or some such nonsense, when Aristotle finally got around to recording what has remained the most useful definition of rhetoric available even today.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as the search for all of the available means of persuasion. Between Aristotle and the 1980s, however, someone decided persuasion was a negative word; and therefore, because of the company it keeps, rhetoric shares the same unsavory reputation.

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So when the politician shouts, ``That's just a lot of rhetoric,'' I'm wont to shout back, ``What's wrong with attempting to persuade?''

Certainly nothing is wrong with persuasion. Presidents and ministers use it, saleswomen and admen use it, lovers and editorialists use it. And, I'm sure readers use it, too. The problem remains one of use.

It's a sly innuendo - ``rhetoric.'' It's a poke in the ribs - ``Ah, a little indiscretion.'' The word is spoken as if it's naughty, which gives rhetoric a pejorative connotation. That's a fate not deserved by an honorable word.

Dictionary writers record the common usage of words. The editors of the American Heritage Dictionary record that American speakers use rhetoric to mean ``unsupported or inflated discourse or affectation or exaggeration.'' It is this common, low use of rhetoric that too many politicians claim.

Professors clutch to their tenure track volumes with titles like ``The Art of Rhetoric,'' ``The Elements of Rhetoric,'' or, simply, ``Rhetoric.'' The authors of these books wrote about invention, style, organization, the classical proofs, rhythm and rhyme, grammar and language. Rhetoric has come to mean anything the writer wants it to mean.

In ``Through the Looking Glass,'' Humpty Dumpty says, ``When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.''

``The question is,'' said Alice, ``whether you can make words mean so many different things.''

``The question is,'' said Humpty Dumpty, ``which is to be master - that's all.''

That's all well and good if you're living in Wonderland. But living in the real world requires mutually agreed upon definitions in order to communicate effectively. Life is simply the ongoing need to avoid loneliness, to evoke in the minds of others the thoughts in your own mind, to communicate effectively.

The words ``That's a lot of rhetoric'' are never whispered or muttered. The speaker shouts these words out of frustration at the inability to refute arguments, to state a point of view, to communicate an idea.

Certainly our search for all the available arguments merely means we consider our options - and we all want more than one option.

Aristotle's definition of rhetoric is over 2,000 years old and still serves us better than the common usage - unsupported arguments, affectations, or exaggeration.

Searching for all of the available means of persuasion to persuade speakers to limit their use of rhetoric to Aristotle's useful definition may be a fruitless undertaking.

With my well-worn copy of Aristotle's ``Rhetoric'' tucked under my arm, I fight against the common usage. I hope someday we'll be comfortable acknowledging affectations and exaggerations. I hope we'll lambaste unsupported arguments.

And I hope that when a speaker lists dozens of arguments for an issue, we'll say, ``That's a lot of rhetoric.''

David Ritchey is a writer in Little Rock, Ark.

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