Rhetoric vs. Reality: Are They the same?

We live in a world where all too often politics divides us more than unite us. If this division sparks a useful debate, it is helpful. But when it furthers the divide, which breeds hate, we have a problem. Perhaps it is by understanding the relationship between rhetoric and reality that we find the wisdom of solutions rather than greater division and discord.

In a previous blog I mentioned the difference between rhetoric and reality and opposed one against the other.  To base one’s understanding of the world and others on rhetoric, I implied, is to betray reality because the two are not the same.  One of my readers agreed and worried that the distinction may be lost to people today.

But what of this distinction?  Is rhetoric and reality different?  As I thought about this question, I began to realize that it may beg too many questions to be helpful especially regarding reality.  Philosophers have been trying to figure this one out forever.  Indeed, the progenitor of Western philosophy, Thales, was noted for his attempt to distinguish “reality” from the mythology of the Ancient Greeks concluding only that “truth loves to hide.”  Whatever one believes reality to be is based upon how one views the world and the philosophical and religious assumptions a person holds dear to their emotional center.  For this reason, the word “reality” seems to be subjective.  Reality seems to correspond to what we think.  Or, if we wish to expand this a bit, reality corresponds to what one’s primary group(s) think/believe.  Again, such notions seem to evade the type of objectivity that one wishes to associate with the word “reality.”

It is important to keep in mind that an argument is NOT a fight. Fights are grounded in anger and too often lack reason. Indeed, studies have shown that when we fight and our heart beats faster than 120 beats a minute, we quit listening and focus only on winning.

As I thought about this, I began to understand that my statement may have been rash.  Because it begged so many questions, it sounded good, but I’m not sure it really added anything to the discussion.  I was, in other words, making a statement that may have been rhetorical: a statement that sounds right and because it sounds right, is persuasive.  Its sound persuades others of its truth value even though the meaning is imprecise and less than clear.  To get at this, I decided I should ask the question: Is rhetoric opposed to reality or is there a necessary connection between the two so that if we wish to understand the world we live in, we will do so only as we are able to discern this connection?  Such discernment may in turn ground the statements we make in wisdom more reflective of the state of affairs we wish to examine.

As I began to research this, the article titles that contained the word “rhetoric” seem to support my initial thought.  Here are a few:

  • Deep Disagreement, the Dark Enlightenment, and the Rhetoric of the Red Pill
  • Hashtag Hate: The Need for Regulating Malignant Rhetoric Online
  • A Rhetoric of Revolution
  • Empty Metaphors and Apocalyptic Rhetoric
  • Toward a rhetoric of Postmodern Theology
  • The Rhetoric of Economics
  • Rhetoric in the Human Sciences

These are just a few but as I began to examine these titles and some of the articles and books, I began to realize that the term “rhetoric” was not pejorative as much as it was descriptive.  Rhetoric seemed to denote the specifics of how one speaks of a certain topic or group.  So, “rhetoric of economics” does not necessarily mean that economics is somehow bad because of its rhetoric.  What it seems to suggest is that if we are to truly understand economics it is helpful to understand how people talk about it.  But this does not quite exhaust the notion of rhetoric.  Rhetoric includes an element of persuasion.  So, if I wish to examine the rhetoric of economics, I am looking for the way economists speak persuasively about the economy.  What about the economic system makes them believe it is an economic system that all should embrace?  Answering this question reveals their rhetoric.  The same could be said about all the other titles listed above.  What is it about “X” that makes it persuasive?  Or, as in some of the articles listed, knowing and understanding a group’s rhetoric may prevent us from being persuaded by their “truth,” which may not be a truth at all.  The truth of their truth (their rhetoric) is that it is not true.  It is this latter insight that I meant to suggest in my blog.

If I enjoy playing solitaire, my experience may persuade others to play; if not, then my experience may prevent others from playing.  However, whether positive or negative, my rhetoric is grounded in experience.

Rhetoric is only problematic when it seeks to convince us of something that may not be true or lacks the necessary reasons for believing it is true.  Philosophers understood long ago that such gnostic provocations do little to reveal wisdom but disguise questionable claims in the guise of persuasiveness.  This is a sleight of hand used by large segments of our society today ranging from politics to religion, from advertising to social media.  In this case, rhetorical tricks work not by appealing to our reason, but by engaging our emotions and beliefs.  Here, the tail wags the dog rather than the dog wagging the tail.  Let me explain.

Take something simple like Microsoft’s Solitaire, a suite of four different card games that keeps my mind stimulated early in the morning.  These games are not emotional although playing them may give rise to emotion.  They are reasonable.  It is only as reason reveals the right moves that the game is won.  Higher skill levels require higher powers of reasoning.  When the games are won, it produces a positive emotion; when they cannot be won, a more negative emotion is produced.  For those who win, the emotional reinforcement keeps them playing; for those who cannot win, frustration turns their attention elsewhere.  Rhetoric defines the emotional reaction to the mastery of the game, or conversely the inability to master it.  As one who wins often, I will speak of the game in a positive way that may be persuasive to those who have not played it. My passion about the game may persuade them to try it.   If, however, frustration dominates my play, negativity will play a larger role in my rhetoric of Solitaire and may prevent those who have not played from playing the game.  It all depends on how I frame it based upon my experience of the game.

Now let’s look at what is going on here.  Microsoft Solitaire is the same game for me as it is for anyone else.  However, whether I play the game is dependent upon how much I enjoy playing it.  If I enjoy it, my experience may persuade others to play; if not, then my experience may prevent others from playing.  However, whether positive or negative, my rhetoric is grounded in experience.  It is rooted in something other than my emotions, and this gives us a better foundation for understanding rhetoric.  Rhetoric forwards emotions as a part of persuasion, but its persuasiveness should be grounded in reasons growing out of experience.  It is reasons, in other words, that should be persuasive, not simply my emotional tone.  If a person knows that my frustration is due to my inability to play the game, my frustration does not have the last word.  The reasons I give and their ability to think rationally about me and the game are the ground from which they decide whether they wish to play. 

Aristotle realized this and formulated this in what philosophers call a “rhetorical triangle.”  The triangle is an equilateral triangle, which means that each side is the same length.  At each point is a concept: ethos, pathos and logos.  Each of these are important to any type of argument and the equilateral nature of the triangle indicates that none of them are more important than the others.  Ethos, which is located on the top of the triangle refers to a person’s integrity.  That is, has the person making the argument (Solitaire is fun so you should play it) does so in a trustworthy fashion (i.e., they are not telling you its fun even though they hate it).  Does the person have integrity, which means they are truthful about their experience of Solitaire?  Second, pathos is on the bottom right point of the triangle.  This represents the arguments emotional appeal.  We are not Spock from Star Trek fame, so emotions are a part of our being and hence, are a part of the way we process our experience of the world.  However, as I noted above, when rhetoric is legitimate, the emotions are not the basis of its persuasiveness, but are an important part of its appeal.  Others may play not just because of the reasons I give, but the enjoyment I express when giving my reasons.  I am passionate about playing Solitaire, and my passion makes the game more appealing to others.  Finally, the left corner is marked by logos.  This refers to the rationality of the argument itself.  From the word “logos,” we derived our word “logic.”  Is the argument logical/rational?  If so, its appeal along with my integrity means that the argument is a good one.  A good, rhetorical argument, then, is one given by a person who is trustworthy and honest, is passionate about what they are trying to communicate and rely upon reason to formulate the point they are trying to make.  Each one of these, ethos, pathos and logos balance the other and when in balance, no one of them outweighs the other.  They are the three essentials of a good argument.

The ability to analyze an argument in this way is a form of critical analysis.  We stand back and examine all aspects of the argument: the integrity of the person making it, identifying the rationality of the argument to assess whether or not it is sound (or even if it is an argument), and assessing whether or not the arguer is passionate about it.  Through this type of assessment, we can decide if the argument is persuasive and if persuasive, departs wisdom about the topic at hand.  If persuasive, we might be inclined to agree that the argument helpfully adds to our understanding of reality.  But it is also important to note that we can use critical analysis to spot emotive statements that either disguise an unsound argument or emotive statements that rely only upon passion alone for their persuasive appeal.  For these reasons, it seems to me, critical thinking based upon Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle is essential to the orderly function of an egalitarian society for it facilitates communication by giving us a balanced way of interacting with one another that embraces a diversity of ideas/reasons.  When we lose this balance, reasoning if it exists at all, is based upon an error, which can have problematic and dangerous consequences.  In such instances, we lay the foundation for hatred becoming love; wrong becoming right, and a lie becoming the truth.  And it is this that seems to characterize the post-truth reality in which we live.

Rhetoric vs. reality.  Is this a valid distinction?  As I have attempted to show, it may be a false dichotomy.  Whatever reality may be, our understanding of it is based on the rhetorical position we hold with respect to the ideas, people and groups that are important to us.  Because of their influence, we need to discern a way of distinguishing between persuasive appeals to our thinking in an effort to assure that what we think, what we believe and what we champion as truth is a balanced argument grounded in passion for sure, but passion watched over by integrity and reason.  The opposition between rhetoric and reality, then, is a false one for whatever we think reality to be, it is grounded in the rhetoric we hold persuasive.  In a society as diverse and divided as ours, we need to think critically if we are to hope that our reality will be a civil one.

Published by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.

I am a retired United Methodist Minister and recently closed my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, retiring with my wife to Rancho Murieta, CA. Now I have a blog and several hobbies that take up my time. We enjoy traveling and occasionally spending time at our cabin in the mountains of Colorado.

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