Rhetoric

While the word ‘rhetoric’ is today used in a pejorative sense to criticise hyperbole and empty bombastic verbalisms, used properly it refers more to the art of argument, or the way in which people engage in discourse. Over the years of running this blog, I’ve often found myself acting almost as a kindergarten teacher, trying to cool off arguments and miscommunications. Even the most recent threads display this tendency.

From my experience I believe that different groups in Bermuda use two subtly different styles of rhetoric and language. Because the differences are largely subtle I find this actually encourages mutual confusion than anything else. We’re all speaking English, but we’re not all speaking the same langauge. In a way these confusions are to be expected, as the blog format takes away the possibility for non-verbal communication (with the exception of emoticons and upper-case text), and this facilitates miscomprehension.

I believe it goes much further than the lack of adequate non-verbal aids. It seems that our racial, class and gender divisions of society really do influence our rhetoric and perception of language. And this leads to some truly staggering misunderstandings and at times an unnecessary spiral into personal attacks from the most inane and unintentional statements. What is more it would not be surprising that these misunderstandings actually serve as an obstacle for new people to enter into discourse.

I remember back in my undergrad days at Trent University, I was the co-chair of one of the Trent Socialist meetings, and we had some new members attending for their first time. The female new members pretty much left half-way through. I excused myself from the meeting to speak with them as they were leaving and asked them if there was a problem. Basically they comlained about the ‘male-dominant’ style of discourse which they found intimidating and non-conducive to discourse. And they were right. We took a look at how we were discussing and, yeah, we could see how it would be non-conducive, even though to us it was perfectly natural and we hadn’t seen it as a problem before hand.

I’m not sure if that anectode is useful to anyone else. What I’m trying to say is that sometimes we need to not reach for the keyboard and respond to everything that has been said, at least not without trying to see it from the other’s perspective. Failing to do that is a sure-fire way to reduce a dialogue between different perspectives into a monologue chorus of different voices – as the ‘other’ is elbowed out of the discourse either by sheer volume or perceived hostility and frustration.

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2 thoughts on “Rhetoric

  1. In fairness, the proper definition of rhetoric is a persuasive method of speaking. It was actually once taught as one of the liberal arts and sciences, a precursor to debate now.

    The problem, much like what passes for debate these days, is that it is empty. While it is still persuasive, it’s persuasive for the wrong reasons, mostly inaccurate emotional canards, as you have alluded to.

    Rhetoric is no longer used to persuade people to see your side, it is a bully-pulpit. As such, it deserves to be viewed in the pejorative. There’s really no-one issuing the rhetoric today that has any desire, nor even ability, to reason and actually let the quality of their ideas speak for themselves. It still works because most people don’t expect or know any better, and that’s the real shame.

    Once people can reason, the pejorative connotation won’t be needed.

  2. “Kindergarten” ? Johnny, you know well better than that. Screw you means the same in Somerset as it does in St. Davids.

    As an outsider right now, I appreciate the medium you give to the local posters.

    When you get back I hope you keep up the site and participate even more. Good help is hard to find even in a recession.

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