The Dirty Rhetorician; The Glib and Oily Art

”If for I want that glib and oily art,

To speak and purpose not…”

This is a quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear. It refers of course to rhetoric – that dangerous dark art of manipulating words to speak and purpose not! Rhetoric is still today seen as a dirty word that is often used to accuse adversaries of possessing a questionable disposition. For example, the media only really uses the word ‘rhetoric’ when they are talking about Donald Trump or North Korea (when they are talking of Obama they tend to use the word oratory).

Accusing someone of using rhetoric is a bit like accusing someone of using witchcraft – some sort of dangerous dark sorcery that the good decent hard-working folk of the town piously shun. Admittedly we no longer use the ducking chair, however, we do have online shaming and other forms of public humiliation that we inflict upon the accused. As a Speechwriter, I am basically the evil witch in this story. I sit here now, in front of my laptop concocting deceitful oily words in my nasty cauldron of sin!

Ironically, accusing someone of using rhetoric is often a form of character assassination. Character assassination is within itself a rhetorical technique which is often referred to as ad hominem. Ad hominem is when you choose to target someone’s character rather than their argument (when you target their argument it is called ad rem).

As well as this, presenting an argument that doesn’t outright accuse someone, but instead implies an accusation is an enthymeme. An enthymeme is a logical syllogism with an implied premise or conclusion. Basically, this all stinks of rhetoric. But why? Because everything stinks of rhetoric because rhetoric is everywhere. Rhetoric is as common as grammar, and as with grammar it is used by everyone (however, more effectively deployed by some than others).

Rhetoric can lie with the choice of word, the structure of a sentence, and sometimes even the tone of the speaker. It is complicated yet commonplace, more so than most people realise. Having said this, rhetoric is on the rise with more and more people taking an active interest in the subject. Books and articles are being published and some universities and schools have again started teaching it. I recently gave a university lecture on rhetoric. I called it Defence Against the Dark Arts. As you can imagine, the students weren’t too impressed when I opened with the line: ‘there will be no foolish wand waving or silly incantations in this class’…

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