The Case for Rhetorical Education

As students and teachers of rhetoric, we can all agree on the importance of educating students in the basic concepts of rhetoric. We’ve spent a lot of time in class talking about how to respond when people question our work in our composition classes, and while there are plenty of historical precedents and pedagogical reasons to justify our work, the upcoming midterm elections point to another important reason for basic rhetorical knowledge: political ads.

I came across this Tea Party ad supporting Colorado’s “Personhood” Amendment 62 (which would make abortion illegal and outlaw many kinds of birth control) on, a feminist blog. Political beliefs aside, this video illustrates exactly it’s necessary to have a certain amount of rhetorical literacy:

This ad feels more like a movie trailer than substantive political discourse. RH Reality Check argues that it’s filled with inaccuracies, but it’s also more than a little sensationalist. It first begins by invoking the words of Thomas Jefferson, in an attempt to draw on his ethos as an American hero and legitimize the Tea Party’s political motives. This isn’t necessarily an unusual political tactic, but what follows, I argue, goes beyond ethical discourse.

The ad’s author obviously knows his audience, and aligns Obama with the “decline of America” and the “men in black robes [who] plotted” against “traditional American values” (the ones apparently defended by Jefferson). Obama, in some sophisticated visual rhetoric, is portrayed as both the “Angel of Death” and the Joker, who is standing in the way of this “life-affirming law.” As the music turns from ominous to hopeful, the will of the American people is invoked, and the ad ends with a triumphant infant, fist raised, celebrating the victory of the pro-life movement.

Of course, this is an extreme, almost laughable example of political rhetoric. Yet, politicans, activist groups, and PACs keep producing ads like this, presumably, because they work. In 2008, Obama’s record-setting advertising spending caught notice, and while it’s risky to confuse correlation with causation, his massive advertising effort more than likely played into his eventual election. Is this what American political discourse has become?

Civic literacy is an important skill, and I believe rhetorical education is an essential element of this. Rhetoric has had ties to democracy from the inception of both in ancient Greece. No one doubts the necessity of civic education; why is rhetorical education under siege?

As rhetorical educators, it’s important to recognize the relationship between public, political discourses and rhetoric. It’s even more important to share this connection with our students, teaching them to recognize cheap, shallow examples of political rhetoric like the one above. No doubt many people understand that this ad is shameless, but can they articulate why? Can they articulate a reasoned, ethical response? Maybe Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell can shed some light on the importance of civic and rhetorical literacy:

Or maybe not.

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3 Responses to The Case for Rhetorical Education

  1. lanceelyot says:

    Unfortunately, Hugh Blair isn’t even the worst of it. The American Civil Religious movement reformulated many of Blair’s ideas into religious terms with a good dose of American exceptionalism. In my opinion, for any change to happen we have to engage these religious roots, rather then ignoring or “battling” them.

  2. Jim Porter says:

    I don’t know … the ads don’t trouble me all that much because, well, they are 15- and 30-second television ads. Logos doesn’t work there. Not the place for serious public discourse. My worry is that there doesn’t seem to be any public place for serious exchange of ideas … frankly, the televised debates are probably the best thing we have, despite their problems. The news media have let us down badly in this regard, creating faux dialectic panels like Meet the Press and whatever that ugly show that Sean Hannity has is called. Ugh. I would like to see fewer negative ads trashing the opponent and more positive ads trying to present a clear ethos for the candidate … Does negative attack have more persuasive impact than positive marketing? Seems to be the assumption out there. Is it based on any research? Probably … and that is further cause for depression.

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