The Rhetorical Ideal

Scholars have discussed the validity, the use, and the definition of Rhetoric for centuries. Plato believed Rhetoric to be an art of mere flattery within the the realm of politics. Aristotle took the idea of Rhetoric and built a foundation based upon three primary principles: ethos, logos, and pathos. Edwin Black further evaluated the ethics involved in Rhetoric. As the discussion continued towards the modern day, the theories of Kenneth Burke were introduced and additionally explored by Richard Vatz and Lloyd Bitzer. Both Bitzer and Vatz have widely different views on what is called the rhetorical situation. Their point of stasis occurs in deciding if the concept of reality, and its existence, is objective or subjective to that of the human mind. Across the conversation of Rhetoric, it has become clear that no one definition will suffice; however, the basic concept of Rhetoric can be defined. One such definition of Rhetoric is the persuasion of action and thought through the use of language and emotion based upon subjective, situational realities of the audience while being ethical and not coercive. In application of this definition it is important to distinguish the point between where rhetoric is present and when coercion begins. This can be seen when applying the definition of rhetoric to the differences between a sober and intoxicated person as well as from the current propaganda ISIS has created.

Beginning with the validity of Rhetoric as an art, one must evaluate the ideals of Plato and Aristotle. According to Plato, “You must know the truth concerning everything you are speaking or writing about – you must understand the soul – you must determine which kind of speech is appropriate to each kind of soul – you will be able to use speech artfully – in order to teach or in order to persuade” (Phaedrus 83). Plato believes that one who practices Rhetoric in order to persuade someone else, ethically, they must know absolutely everything about absolutely everything they are talking about. He learned from Socrates and developed a theory known as the Platonic Framework with a main concentration in what is considered the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Each of these three concepts focuses on ultimate ideals of absolutes, for example the True suggests an absolute Truth above all others minor truths. In his books, Plato wrote through the voice of Socrates and shares many events where Socrates competes with those who practice Rhetoric. Plato displays Rhetoric as flattery that those in the political arena use and discredits its validity as an art. Aristotle, Plato’s student, believed that the Platonic Framework had a flaw in the idea that absolutes, such as the True, could not ever be reached or realized. In turn, Aristotle saw relevance in Rhetoric as a means of persuasion without the need to find absolute but rather “good enough” answers that satisfied everyone in the audience. He then developed a theory called the Artistic Proofs built upon three different concepts: ethos, logos, and pathos. These proofs were used to create meaningful and ethical arguments, in speech, using Rhetoric without knowing all the information surrounding a specific topic.

Ed Black further evaluated the ethical balance of Rhetoric. He taught that “moral judgments, however balanced, however elaborately qualified, are nonetheless categorical. Once rendered, they shape decisively one’s relationship to the object judged. They compel, as forcefully as the mind can be compelled, a manner of apprehending an object. Moral judgments coerce one’s perception of things” (Black 109). Black, by saying that moral judgments are categorical, is supporting the ideal that Rhetoric needs to be both ethical and can be subjective to a specific individual interpretation. This is where Kenneth Burke’s position of a subjective reality comes in. Burke shows that Rhetoric can be subjective to situations personally given value to by an individual. Although situations for discourse may be present, Burke’s interpretation reveals that they don’t exist in reality unless acted upon and once that time has past the situation is not relevant since no action occurred. He breaks down what leads to situations for discourse in a five-part solution known as Dramatism. The Dramatisitc approach to action needs these five elements present: an act, an agent, a scene, agency from the agent, and a purpose for the act. The act and its purpose is what the Rhetor is trying to pursade their audience to do. An agent is someone within that audience who can perform the act the Rhetor is seeing from them. The scene is the place where discourse occurs which may be subjective or objective to the mind of the agent.

Richard Vatz and Lloyd Bitzer have argued upon whether or not situations for discourse can be generalized into a single ideal of a “Rhetorical Situation”. Vatz wrote about breaking down discourse situations into two parts arguing that reality is indeed subjective to individual interpretation and situation. He says that “First, there is a choice of events to communicate. The world is not a plot of discrete events. The world is a scene of inexhaustible events which all compete to impinge on what Kenneth Burke calls our ‘sliver of reality’” (Vatz 156). “The second step in communicating ‘situations’ is the translation of the chosen information into meaning. This is an act of creativity. It is an interpretative act. It is a rhetorical act of transcendence. As Perelman states, ‘interpretation can be not merely a simple choice but also a creation, an invention of significance’” (Vatz 157). Vatz’s quote from Perelman brings upon the thought that reality is subjective to what a person within a situation of discourse deems significant. Bitzer argues that the situation, whether deemed significant or not, exists and therefore is a “Rhetorical Situation”. He believes “the presence of rhetorical discourse obviously indicates the presence of a rhetorical situation. While the existence of a rhetorical address is a reliable sign of the existence of situation, it does not follow that a situation exists only when the discourse exists. Each reader probably can recall a specific time and place when there was opportunity to speak on some urgent matter, and after the opportunity was gone he created in private thought the speech he should have uttered earlier in the situation” (Bitzer 8). For example, Bitzer believes, “if someone remarks that he found himself in an ethical situation, we understand that he probably either contemplated or made some choice of action from a sense of duty or obligation or with a view to the Good” (Bitzer 6). Bitzer compares the Rhetorical Situation to someone in an ethical disparity. This thought can be broken down by the fact that an event may only seem ethical if a person feels there is any dispute at all. Something may seem unethical to one person but ethical to another; therefore, the entire basis of a Rhetorical Situation is indeed situational and subjective to an individual’s reality. Discourse may exist but a situation may only be considered rhetorical based on those involved. Bitzer’s argument holds no water and Vatz’s interpretation of Burke is more complete and accurate. Aristotle, Black, Burke, and Vatz bring validity to Rhetoric and disprove Plato’s statements that Rhetoric is simply flattery. In addition, they discredit the objective reality in Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation showing that Rhetoric within discourse is situational only to what is deemed relevant.

When applying the use of Rhetoric, as defined by this developing framework, it is important to distinguish the presence of persuasion and the absence of coercion. Abraham Maslow published what he considered human being’s hierarchy of needs “This five stage model can be divided into basic (or deficiency) needs (e.g. physiological, safety, love, and esteem) and growth needs (self-actualization). The deficiency, or basic needs are said to motivate people when they are unmet. Also, the need to fulfil such needs will become stronger the longer the duration they are denied. For example, the longer a person goes without food the more hungry they will become” (Simple Psychology). If these needs are manipulated to force someone to do something, then coercion has begun. Coercion can be seen in the actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; however, a bit of rhetoric is present in their propaganda.

Before finding rhetoric in ISIS propaganda, it is important to distinguish how a subjective reality affects persuasion. Human brains are composed of variety of chemicals that affect the perception of an individual’s reality. For an example of how this affects a person’s reality, one could look at the difference between a sober person, an intoxicated person, and someone under the influence of a sativa strain of marijuana. In this scenario, each subject is driving a vehicle and is approaching a stop sign. As the sober person nears the sign, they stop once and proceed driving. On the other hand, the intoxicated person doesn’t stop at all and the high person stops twice, once before the sign then at the sign. To much degree this sounds as if it could be a joke, but looking deeper into the situation it is revealed that manipulating the chemical wiring of a human’s brain completely changes the reality of the stop sign existing or where and when it does. Although this is not a catch all example, it does lay the foundation that a situation, in general, is subjective. When applying this ideal to Bitzer’s rhetorical situation, one can see where Vatz’s argument of a subjective reality has a stronger case. Bitzer needs to remember that the purpose of rhetoric is not to find the absolute answer but an answer that is good enough. Living in a subjective reality makes it impossible to find one overarching correct answer which is why the definition of rhetoric is so highly debated.

Moving forward, the persuasion present in Rhetoric occurs when a Rhetor is using language and emotion, whether spoken or written, to manipulate the subjective reality of another person.  On a scientific level, as the Rhetor connects to their audience and provides pathos, logos, and ethos they are actually shifting the balance of the chemicals produced and released by the human brain. Due to the extreme impact from chemical interaction in relation to a person’s reality, one can see how crucial a role emotion plays in the use and application of Rhetoric. Burke’s framework of Dramatism lays the foundation for manipulation of reality to occur by setting forth and identifying specific elements within a Rhetorical structure; however, without a subjective reality Dramatism would not be effective as a Rhetorical mechanism for persuasion. This is because an objective-set reality would make actions by an actor within an act non-contingent and not relevant to the rest of reality and its actions. Any Rhetor must have a purpose behind why they are trying to persuade specific action from a specific actor or group of actors. They then develop an ethical set of discourse based upon their ideal audience so they can manipulate appropriate action to achieve their purpose. The ability to adapt rhetorical discourse to different audiences and subject each listening member’s reality doesn’t exist through an objective reality. Instead, an objective reality would eliminate any possible use of rhetoric. Establishing a reality is a main part in creating rhetoric, but forcing individuals into specific realities takes away the ethical balance of rhetoric discussed by Black which can be seen by the actions and language used by ISIS.  

ISIS began their movement by teaching hate towards Western countries including America. Using social media and the internet, ISIS generated a platform to begin persuasion. Since Rhetoric can occur through spoken or written language, ISIS affectively used the internet to spread their ideals. All ISIS did to be successful was alter the realities of those they wanted to persuade. Connecting religion with ethnic pride, helped ISIS establish and foster a flight or fight situation within the minds of those suppressed in previous years. Although initially ISIS began by practicing moderately ethical Rhetoric, they moved into coercion when they started eliminating necessary needs, such as ones that Maslow has deemed imperative to life, and began forcing those they were persuading into doing what they wanted. By taking away basic needs, ISIS turned the situation from simple manipulation of reality, through language, into a forced change in reality with a threat to the well being and livelihood of their audience. Similarly, this same thing occurred when Hitler executed Germans who went against his beliefs or followed the Jewish religion. Both situations remove the proper use of rhetoric because they begin to change reality not based upon what they persuade their audience believe but rather what they force their audience to believe. By using fear of beheadings and death, ISIS created a state of unrest and uncertainty across the Middle East and Europe. They took away access to food, shelter, and safety and in turn told those who they just took from that if they joined their movement they would provide them with everything they took. If ISIS had not begun acts of terror to force people into their group, but instead continued to strictly pursued others to perform acts of terror, then they would still be using rhetoric. It is the point between choice and no choice that rhetoric lies and coercion exists. The Rhetor holds the responsibly to ethically pursue discourse in a way that rhetoric is present and coercion is absent. 

Brining everything together, the rhetorical ideal is one that uses rhetoric to manipulate action from an audience without the use of coercion. This can be done by affecting the chemical reactions in a human mind through using the Artistic Proofs of ethos, logos, and pathos provided by Aristotle. Affecting a person’s beliefs in this way, ultimately changes the subjectivity of the reality that exists within their mind. An objective reality, as suggested by Bitzer, is one where rhetoric is not effective due to the fact that action by the audience is not relevant to the rest of society functioning in an absolute way. Burke suggests that each individual experiences a sliver of objective, ultimate reality, but, through further interpretation from Vatz, it is the events chosen and given significance by that individual that make them relevant. It is within this realm that subjectivity exists and where a Rhetor has the power to manipulate what an individual sees as significant in the sliver of reality they live in. This framework can be applied to what ISIS initially began as ethical persuasion using rhetoric, but can also be used to see where the line between coercion and persuasion is crossed. Using the collective ideals of Aristotle, Burke, Black, and Vatz, Rhetoric is the persuasion of action and thought through the use of language and emotion based upon subjective, situational realities of the audience while being ethical and not coercive.


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