The Uses and Misuses of the term Rhetoric

I don’t usually watch cable news. I tend more toward radio these days. But I happened to catch Rachel Maddow’s show on January 10th. I thought she was very good, examining a number of issues relevant to the current tragedy in Arizona sanely and coherently. However, I was struck by a moment when she entered into an analysis of language issues as they relate to speech, description, and meta-analysis.

Sarah Palin’s speech today illustrates the problem of language in context. While Palin’s intention with this video was probably meant to deflect “attention,” she, instead, garnered more with her use of the term blood libel. It’s perfectly fine for Palin to defend herself in the public sphere. But before this is done, some reasonable framing of the problem should be made, and a reasonable amount of research, also, as words themselves require study. Rhetorical frames help to put an intention into context.

But back to the question of rhetoric. Rhetoric can be defined in may ways.

Rhetoric is:

1. An art of expression or persuasion
2. The study of a variety of communication forms and their nature; the study of discourse
3. The methods and techniques of numerous forms of communication, including the use of the variety of Figures of Speech and much more in this context
4. A work by Aristotle

But rhetoric isn’t speech or writing that is intended to be misleading or bits and pieces of talk meant as such. Nor is rhetoric a specific technical device: this, for example, is rhetoric, and that is a hen laying an egg. I often hear the word rhetoric in relation to political speech or advertising. Political rhetoric or “campaign rhetoric.” The term will be used in a pejorative sense: “Oh, that’s just rhetoric.” Or, “We should stop the rhetoric.” Or, “If we could just get away from the rhetoric.” I suggest that this is a misuse of the term and clouds a more significant problem in expression: the need for precision. Which is why I found Dr. Maddow’s (I believe she has a Ph.D from Oxford) use of the term rhetoric odd, as her program was very much concerned with precision. But what was the context?

In a reference to Sharron Angles’s expression “Second Amendment” remedies, Maddow urged the audience not to describe this term as rhetoric or as rhetorical. She was meaning to differentiate rhetoric from figurative and literal expression or from outright misleading analysis. I quote from the transcript lengthily:

Also, while we are clearing stuff up in the increasingly nasty discussion about whether or not over-hyped or violent political rhetoric is relevant at all to this crime, Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s frequent references to Second Amendment remedies that has repeatedly been [sic] described as rhetoric. To be clear, that should not be described as rhetoric. Campaign rhetoric is stuff like Arizona’s Ben Quayle, Dan Quayle’s son promising in that campaign ad to kick the hell out of Washington. He’s not going to literally kick the hell out of anything. That’s metaphor. That’s rhetoric, right? Sharron Angle spoke of Second Amendment remedies literally. Here is her comment in context, as reported by “The Reno Gazette Journal” in May, quote, “What is a little disconcerting and concerning is the inability for sporting goods stores to keep ammunition in stock. That tells me the nation is arming.” “What are they arming for if it isn’t that they are distrustful for their government? They are afraid they will have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways.” Take it from the context in which she spoke. The Second Amendment remedies thing was not a metaphor. It was not rhetorical. It was Sharron Angle’s analysis suggesting that people are going to shoot their way out of their current political situation. She was literally talking about actual guns and ammunition being purchased from sporting goods stores. She meant it literally, that people will turn to guns. That is a lot of things. It may not be relevant to this. But if you’re arguing about whether or not it is relevant to this, you should not describe it as rhetoric.

The question at hand seems to be: should this or that speech be taken metaphorically or literally. Strictly speaking, this really has nothing to do with whether something is “rhetoric” or “rhetorical.” More to the point, “second amendment remedy” is metonymy, the replacement of a related term or idea for something else, like saying to the police with the thief dead in the kitchen: “Well, he slid through the widow. I took out my pistol. And boy did I give that fucker his second amendment remedy.” If the police know the Second Amendment, they might grasp the figure. If they’re aware of Second Amendment debates, they might respond: “Which militia did the dead guy belong to?”

I understand Maddow’s point and grant her the authority she’s due. But the question of the tragedy in Arizona is about health care, the easy availability of weaponry, and irresponsibility and irrational priorities in this country. I really don’t think Palin or Angle grasp the complexity of these issues and the language and importance of rhetorical frames, however, and this should have been the point.

As to the use of the term “blood libel.” All Palin had to do was look it up and do a little rhetorical analysis. Alas.