The Theory and Practice of Rhetoric: An Interview

Erec Smith

In an interview for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), I discuss the theory and practice of rhetoric. Although I am a professor of rhetoric by trade, many consider my participation in the current “culture war” as my primary motivation. This interview shows that my involvement in promoting viewpoint diversity and my embrace of rhetoric is symbiotic in nature.

This 12‐​minute video can be broken down into five segments.

The Definition of Rhetoric. Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is “the ability, in any given cast, to discern the available means of persuasion.” This definition implies the need to consider one’s audience and how one’s message aligns with that audience. It also implies the reality of viewpoint diversity, a concept that necessitates rhetorical skill if one wants a viewpoint to succeed in the Marketplace of [Diverse] Ideas.

Harmful DEI Initiatives. The common narratives of contemporary Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives are antithetical to rhetoric because of their relative intolerance of viewpoint diversity and, therefore, rhetoric. A corollary of this intolerance is race essentialism: the idea that members of the same race experience and interpret the world in the same ways. To many proponents of contemporary DEI initiatives, communicating dialect other than the one assigned to your group—e.g., black people not speaking black English—is a form of inauthenticity. In reality, rhetoric is about putting one’s authentic self through a dialectical filter to better convey a message. For those who speak not to inform or persuade, but to center a particular identity, none of this matters; audience consideration is considered a distraction.

Rhetoric and Classical Liberalism. The values of the First Amendment, considered with the concept of the Marketplace of Ideas, suggests that rhetorical skill is ideal in American society. Thus, I believe our education system should emphasize the rhetorical practices best suited for success (life, liberty, happiness) in such a society. I also think dialogue is imperative to a well‐​functioning civil society, but if words are violence (I commonly refrain in many DEI circles), how can we have authentic conversations? The less likely we are to talk, the more likely we are to fight.

Adaptability. Adaptability—one’s ability to adjust to contexts—can be considered the most valuable skill for rhetoric. The one who cannot adapt rhetorically to a new situation will be less persuasive than one who can. In a diverse society like the United States, adaptability is your best friend. I think the fact that adaptability is a key competency in the theory and practice of emotional intelligence is also important. It enhances one’s social awareness in a way that, ideally, helps expand one’s comfort zone. It teaches that, quite often, our fixed interpretations of events, not the events themselves, cause more problems than we realize.

Francis Bacon. This is not so much about Francis Bacon as it is about his definition of rhetoric. He wrote, “the duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to the imagination for the better moving of the will.” This is Bacon’s way of saying that rhetoric is about the control and translation of emotion into language palatable and convincing to a given audience. Bacon insisted that reason “is disturbed” by the emotions. Our emotions should not be suppressed, but they should not be in control, either. Bacon saw emotional self‐​control as a primary utilization of rhetoric. In a real sense, it is how we initially talk to ourselves before we talk to others. Emotions, couched in the relevant discourse, can sound quite reasonable to a particular audience.

Hopefully, this short video can explain why I think knowledge of rhetorical theory and practice can alleviate the current divisions and polarizations negatively influencing society. Viewpoint diversity is both better understood and better handled when one has a healthy appreciation for, and strong skill in, rhetoric.

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