In the wake of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, reporters, commentators, and talking heads of every sort have argued that the perpetrator was spurred on by President Trump’s demeaning and divisive rhetoric against immigrants, the media, Democrats, and pretty much anyone who refuses to bow down and kiss his ring. The President, of course, denies any culpability and has struggled to deflect such accusations on to the media for its insistence on reporting1 the hateful things he says in public.
All of this makes me wonder if the President knows what rhetoric is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), rhetoric is defines as:
1) The art of using language so as to persuade or influence others
2) Speech or writing expressed in terms calculated to persuade; hence language characterized by artificial or ostentatious expression
3) Skill in or faculty of using eloquent and persuasive language
On one hand, I’d say is aware of it. Even though it’d be a stretch to call the man eloquent, there is no doubt that he knows how to speak to the folks that make up his base and keep them on his side. Yet, if that’s true — if he’s deliberately using language to influence the behavior of his supporters — then presents something of a problem, for he should then understand how the rhetorical devices that pepper his “speeches” (e.g., the references to immigrants as “invaders” and all the rest of his demeaning language) might spur some of those supporters to shoot up a synagogue.
Etymology: Say What?
Rhetoric2, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, is a Middle English word that comes from Old French rethorique, via Latin and Greek rhetorike (tekhne “art” + rhetor “rhetor”). In ancient Greece, a rhetor, says the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, was a “public speaker” or an “orator.” Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English offers a more detailed account:
Greek rhematikos, adjective of rhema, a word … rhema is akin to Greek rhetor, a “teacher of oratory,” whence via Late Latin, “the learned,” English “rhetor“. Both rhema and rhetor, for wherma and whretor, derive from eiro (werio), “I say.”
Persuasiveness over Truthfulness
So in the end, rhetoric boils down to the words that you or I “say,” but what if, when all is said and done, you haven’t said much of anything? This, sadly, is what rhetoric has come to mean today, and not just because of our current president.
As noted in the Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, rhetorical skills were revered in antiquity. Nowadays, not so much.
[Rhetoric] has been the subject of scholarly study since at least the 4th century BC. It was a central component of Classical learning alongside logic and grammar in both Athens and Rome,3 where it was divided into three categories: judicial, deliberative, and epideictic. While Classical scholars considered rhetorical skill essential to the good conduct of both politics and philosophy, and as a consequence eminent scholars of the time like Aristotle wrote treatises on the subject, over time, but especially in the Romantic period, rhetoric has come under suspicion for emphasizing persuasiveness over truthfulness. Rhetoric in some contexts, particularly in the political arena, has become a code word for empty or insubstantial discourse.
The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy offers a similar, albeit more succinct, take on the subject. Its entry for rhetoric reads, “Speech or writing that lacks substance but is aimed at persuading an audience is often called ‘mere rhetoric.'”
Even the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology piles on. It defines rhetoric as “The art of persuasive, influential, or entertaining speech or oratory” and “Bombastic or mannered speech or writing, or language that seems impressive but lacks true meaning.”
Lacks substance? Bombastic? Emphasizing persuasiveness over truthfulness? This is beginning to sound familiar. It’s almost as if these books were written with a particular person in mind.
1) I thought it might be useful to point out that the Oxford Dictionary of Journalism defines reporter as “A journalist who finds things out rather than one who merely processes, polishes, and presents the work of others…. Their role is, essentially, to discover and/or verify fresh information about topical and newsworthy events, to turn such information into stories appropriate to their news organization’s outlets, and — just as important — to discard information that does not stand up to scrutiny.”
2) According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the spelling of rhetoric (with rh-) is first recorded about 1475, in imitation of the Latin spelling. The extended sense of “mastery of literary eloquence, elegance in writing or speech,” appeared in Middle English in 1395, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The depreciatory meaning of “language characterized by artificial, ostentatious, or exaggerated expression,” is first recorded in the 1500s.
3) For an amazingly in-depth account of how the ancient Greeks (and to a lesser extent, the Romans) thought about rhetoric, along with some insight as to how it evolved over time in Greek society, check out the entry for rhetoric in The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art (Seyffert). Here’s a taste:
Among the Greeks, rhetorike comprised the practical as well as the theoretical art of speaking, and rhetor denoted an orator no less than a teacher of oratory. Among the Romans, it denoted only the latter, the actual speaker being called orator. The first men, who reduced oratory to a system capable of being taught, appeared among the Sicilian Greeks, who, according to testimony of the ancients, were distinguished for the keenness of their understanding and their love of disputation.