Justice in the court of rhetoric

The court of rhetoric has two jurisdictions. The first is that of public discourse, and anyone is invited to the jury. The other is that of those trained to rhetorical analysis. That sounds as if the trained critic of rhetoric ought to be considered the ‘Supreme Court” of the whole domain, or at least, one might say, ‘the final court of appeal’. But in fact the matter is the other way around; the public decides what rhetoric is persuasive by their active responses to it – by being persuaded by it. The critic has largely an advisory role. The critic clarifies the claims, discovers the fallacies, weighs the epistemic ground of the rhetoric – the unstated assumptions, the evidence provided for the claims, the implications of tropes and innuendos and their possible consequences.

A number of problems recur in the court of rhetoric, which explains why many people, from fascistic censors to philosophers, mistrust or even hate it. The principle of these, as I have discussed before, is that rhetoric, to be properly judged as successful, is not to be judged on whether its claims are right or wrong; in order to understand rhetoric as rhetoric, the principle determination of successful rhetoric is whether it works or not – whether it persuades its intended audience. So rhetoric arguing for ethically repugnant positions may be considered successful, if in fact it wins over its audience. Nobody’s really happy with that (except the successful rhetorician), but it is true nonetheless – how could it be otherwise? Rhetoric is a tool, not a strict form of communication; its whole reason for existence is getting others to do what one wants – whether voting a certain way, buying a certain product, or simply experiencing certain feelings leading to certain acts or behavioral responses. There is no logic to the statement “I love you,” but its rhetorical value is clear; and lovers have been relying on it for many centuries. What does the statement communicate? Maybe that the utterer loves the audience; but maybe not. That judgment awaits on consequences.

That is another problem for the court of rhetoric: Rhetorical analysis and criticism, like any analysis, is directed towards the past – towards what has been said and what has unfolded as consequence to the success or failure of this. But rhetoric in practice is always directed towards the future – to hoped for events, behaviors, and consequences. That makes it difficult to adjudge a rhetorical usage successful or not until it has actually proved successful (or not). What a critic of rhetoric can achieve, concerning a current rhetoric practice, is determine the strength of its claims, the assumptions it depends on, the nature of its tropes and implications, the possible consequences of accepting these.

Yet this leads to another problem. The court of rhetoric does not have the same standard of judgment as that of logic. Logic judges much like a criminal court – the judgment is supposedly decided as absolute – “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The court of rhetoric, like civil procedure courts, decides on the standard of, “the weight of the evidence.” This is actually a just premise, because claimants before the court of rhetoric have opposing beliefs, not simply opposing interests. It would be unjust to one who actually believes in a position morally repugnant to others to assert that ‘no reasonable person would believe that, therefore they are lying.’ Of course they believe it – humans believe in a lot of objectionable, even repugnant things. They aren’t lying; they believe in what they are saying; the question then is whether their claims are weaker or stronger than counter-claims by those who believe otherwise.

To an absolutist mode of thought, trained in logic, that is really hard to comprehend. Yet the court of rhetoric can not function otherwise without itself committing injustice – otherwise it becomes mere tool to a censor’s agenda.

Yet a strong and well-informed critic of rhetoric ought to be able to demonstrate when ethically questionable rhetorical claims are also weak rhetorical claims, because what is ethically questionable often relies on prior claims that are inadequately supported. Donald Trump’s claim that most Mexican immigrants are involved in criminal behavior, or that American Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks, can be easily undercut through reference to statistics in the first instance, or reliable reports by those on scene in the second. So these are weak claims before the court of rhetoric. Yet Trump’s rhetoric resonates with a small percentage of the population riddled with fears of differing ethnic groups and differing religions. This must not only be acknowledged, but addressed. Simply saying that what Trump says is ‘untrue’ or ‘unjust’ misses the complexity of what is going on (and frankly does injustice to his presumed audience). Also, it sets up opponents of Trump with a blind side: First, we lose sight of the appeal he has for his audience, and thus will find it more difficult to understand that audience and find some way to appeal them with a countering rhetoric.  Then, if we think the issue is Trump’s being ‘wrong,’ or simply lying, this may lull us into believing that all we need do is dismiss what he says. But in the public arena, this amounts to ignoring what he says. That means that his potential audience have only what he says to rely on, to feel some comfort in their already held fears and beliefs. That means that Trump’s essentially weak claims will appear stronger to his audience than they actually are. The danger is if Trump’s rhetoric begins persuading a potential audience without adequate response. Then, as has happened all too often in the past, weak rhetorical claims could prove successful.

Which should remind us that the judgments made in the court of rhetoric actually have profound practical consequences. The chief of these is that its determinations contribute to a stronger rhetoric in response to ethically questionable claims. It’s not enough to say that Trump is ‘wrong;’ one has to win over his audience, or at least his potential audience. And that requires a stronger rhetoric than Trump himself deploys, supplementary to any logical or other reasonable arguments we make against what he has to say. (Clinton’s suggestion, that Trump’s remarks on Muslims would be used for recruitment to ISIS, while not strictly true when made, was actually a clever rhetorical move – which since has been somewhat validated.)

As with courts of civil law, and unlike criminal courts or that of logic (which chop between the black-and-white of true-or-false), the court of rhetoric must adjudicate cases on a grey scale. That is because opposing interests are rarely easy to decide between, especially if grounded in beliefs truly held by the opponents; and because rhetoric triggers a host of responses – emotional, social, cultural – that are not reducible to ‘reasonably held’ positions.*

The art of persuasion – its theory, its practice, its criticism – is not about what is wrong or right or true or false, and never about some ‘view from nowhere’ or what some god might want us to be – and certainly not about what world we might prefer to live in. It is about the world as it is, and about people as they are. That understandably frustrates us; but the world is by nature a disappointment.

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*Part of the reason for having a careful study of rhetoric is that it clears some of the ground for further study of human psychology and of social and cultural relationships.

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