rhetoric

Always Ask the Right Questions

AverageEverygirl084

Oh, the Interrogative Mood! What fun it brings to communication!

Here’s a quick run-down:

Direct Questions

Direct questions come in question/answer pairs, where the answer only fully makes sense in the context of the question asked.

Q. Who was the first president of the United States?
A. George Washington.

Q. Where are my shoes?
A. They’re under the table.

Q. How did you get here so fast?
A. I was already in the neighborhood.

None of these answers make conversational sense on their own. The person who randomly states, “George Washington” or “I was already in the neighborhood” is going to catch a lot of side-eye for it.

Also, the person asking these questions places their trust in the listener to give a truthful answer. The direct question always seeks truth (and thereby provides a nice avenue for the listener to mess with a gullible questioner, haha).

Indirect Questions

Indirect questions aren’t looking for verbal answers, necessarily—or, if they are, it’s not the literal answer to the question asked. Indirect questions skirt around an issue. They pull politeness into the equation and communicate a need beyond their literal meaning.

Q. Have you seen Jane?
Translation: Tell me where Jane is, if you know.

Q. May I help you?
Translation: You look out of your element, and I am offering assistance.

Q. Can I please get by?
Translation: Move your ill-positioned carcass out of the way, roadblock.

This class of questions allows for conversational flouting, particularly if the audience decides to read them as direct questions instead:

Q. Have you seen Jane?
A. Yes. She’s a tall blonde with a snaggle-toothed grin.

Q. May I help you?
A. Looks kind of doubtful from where I’m standing.

Q. Can I please get by?
A. I don’t know. Can you?

Non-verbal responses can have the same dynamic of cooperation or flouting. For example, someone who asks “Can I please get by?” expects the other individual to move aside, with or without verbal acknowledgement; the second person might just as easily stand their ground in defiance or ignore the question entirely.

Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical Questions aren’t looking for any answer at all. Rhetoric, as the art of persuasion, aims to shape the listener’s mind. The speaker isn’t seeking information, but imparting it. Thus, the question is designed to make its audience think, but not necessarily respond.

Q. Do you have any idea what time it is?
Rhetorical intent: Shame on you for losing track of time and/or causing me to worry.

Q. Does this look like a game to you?
Rhetorical intent: This is srs bsns. Wipe that grin off your face.

Q. Ain’t I a woman? (h/t Sojourner Truth)
Rhetorical intent: My life is just as valuable as any other woman—as any other human—on this planet.

The rhetorical question provides a means for drawing the listener into the same mindset as the speaker, but, like the indirect question, can also open the door for sass, particularly if the listener is at odds with the speaker. It also loses its oomph if the listener takes it literally and tries to answer.

Tag Questions

The tag question can seek either information or validation. It’s not freestanding, but appends to a declarative statement:

  • You like strawberries, right?
  • Paul can sing, can’t he?
  • Mary wasn’t at the party, was she?

The answer to a tag question can be a simple yes or no, but it can also be an explanation of conditions. E.g., “I like strawberries fresh, but not freeze-dried.” “Paul hasn’t sung since high school.” “Mary came at the beginning, but she left after ten minutes.”

Tag questions in English are particularly fun. We can, like other languages, append a simple, “isn’t that so?” or “right?” or “correct?” to our statements, but the primary English tag-question structure involves a mirror opposite of the original statement.

We form this structure by using a negative of the declarative auxiliary and a subject-matching pronoun (and, as with any Declarative-to-Interrogative transition, if there’s no auxiliary in the main sentence, “do” jumps in to take the role):

  • You could come early → couldn’t you?
  • Jim got home late → didn’t he?
  • He’s not supposed to be here → is he?

The combo-breaker for this pattern is the first-person singular, when the auxiliary is “be” and the declarative is positive. Compare the two following examples:

  • I’m not singing → am I?
  • I’m singing → aren’t I?

“Oh, nope! I aren’t!”

Some people like to use “am I not?” as the tag question. And by “some people” I mean “stuffy people and sticklers.” The grammatically correct contraction would be amn’t, a’n’t—or, more colloquially, ain’t. But since we ran that term out of proper speech a century or two ago, we get aren’t as a fill-in.

Serves us right.

The negative stands on one side of the structure but not on the other, which cues the listener to give a confirmation or denial of the declarative statement. It also helps the speaker save face: rather than stating something which might be refuted and make them look uninformed, they invite the refutation from the outset, appearing open-minded instead.

And an interesting social note: women are far more likely than men to use tag questions. Two possible explanations for this phenomenon are that we inherently desire more validation, or that we’re used to having our spoken statements challenged.

I won’t go into which I find more likely. It’s an interesting dynamic either way, don’t you think?

(*wink*)

Committing the Sin of Omission

AverageEverygirl083

Subtlety is a dying art. In this era of instant gratification, audiences often gravitate toward whatever content makes them do the least amount of thinking.

“Critical analysis? Pshh. That’s for suckers.”

More and more, people want to be spoon-fed their own opinions and inclinations. They slurp their media through a straw and swallow whole or toss aside anything that should be chewed. Worse, the longer they have only pap to ruminate upon, the less able they are to ruminate at all. And when something comes along that absolutely requires full and rigorous chewing, they filter it out and complain about it afterward.

Usually in the reviews section on Amazon. But I digress.

This passive mindset creates a cross-section of individuals who cannot identify when communication is bona fide and when it’s not. They key their trust to superficial elements—or, typically, to one superficial element in particular: “Does this make me feel good?”

The modern audience wants to be acted upon, you see. The less effort we have to expend, the better.

Our disinclination for critical thinking becomes a veritable playground for content producers well-versed in the nuances of language. The pattern plays out in politics and the entertainment industry alike: an essential part of communication is choosing what information to present and what to withhold.

An audience that doesn’t even question whether it’s looking at the whole picture, then, is ripe for manipulation.

If one knows how to go about it.

Personally, I find the spoon-feeding mentality insulting. Not only does it beleaguer one’s mental capital with an excess of information to wade through, but it implies that an audience lacks the intelligence to understand the full meaning without such careful guidance.

Communication occurs in layers: you can have your superficial “this makes me feel good” layer that contains just enough details for the incurious to accept it as whole, but there are always a multitude of underlying, subtle layers that leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the more canny audience to follow. Where that trail leads depends on the competence of the communicator.

And if I had to choose, I’d take the subtle layers any day of the week. Whether the audience fills in the blank with their own assumptions or follows the subtext to deeper meaning, there is always great power in the details left unsaid.

 

Pervasive and Persuasive: It’s Propaganda!

AverageEverygirl082

When many people hear the word “propaganda” they immediately think of war and politics and Nazi Germany, which took this form of communication to such an extreme level as to shove it over into the perceived negative side of the rhetorical spectrum.

The Nazis popularized the Big Lie technique to dastardly effect. Nowadays, when you call something propaganda, it invokes that bygone era and casts a shade of corruption and deceit upon the item in question—or upon you for calling it out.

But, truthfully, we’re surrounded by propaganda almost 24-7.

Language in Harmony

In Rhetoric, the philosopher Aristotle introduces three rhetorical proofs that work in harmony to create good rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.

  • Ethos refers to moral character; the term is directly related to “ethics.” A speaker with good ethos fixes themselves and their arguments on solid moral ground, demonstrating an honest nature and instilling their audience with trust.
  • Pathos refers to emotion; the term is cousin to “pathetic,” which originally meant “full of feeling” rather than “something contemptible or deserving pity.” A good rhetorician conveys their emotion to engage their audience more fully.
  • Logos, as you can probably guess, refers to logic; good rhetoric must be rational and well-reasoned. It provides sufficient and consistent evidence for its thesis.

These three elements, working together, create solid, persuasive communication.

Language Out of Balance

Propaganda is rhetoric at an extreme, where the Ethos-Pathos-Logos triangle gets skewed into a false caricature of its former self.

Ethos gets thrown out the window from the start: the propagandist seeks to manipulate first and foremost—whether it’s convincing you to support a cause or to buy a product or to vote for one candidate over another. Propaganda has no interest in unbiased information because it doesn’t trust you to make up your own mind. (It’s already made up your mind for you, thank you very much.)

With ethos out of the way, Pathos reigns supreme. Propaganda runs amok through the emotional spectrum. It incites fear, it projects happiness, it foments anger and invokes pride. And it does all of these in exaggerated form. “Look at all the joy this awesome new product will bring to your life!” “Don’t vote for her! She’ll throw grandma off a cliff!” “Support this issue now and your grandchildren will praise and adore you!”

Logos abandons reason and morphs into the part of the shifty sidekick. Evidence may or may not enter the argument. It may or may not be relevant. It is inaccurate, over-simplified, and/or inconsistent. The argument sets a double standard, with the speaker pointing fingers at others while holding no accountability for him- or herself.

And when this type of communication succeeds, it’s because we as humans by default assume that the speaker’s Ethos-Pathos-Logos triangle is intact.

Questioning the Narrative

Some questions to pose when confronted with a piece of suspected propaganda:

  • What is the speaker’s motive?
  • What emotions does this argument invoke? Are they balanced against its ethics and logic, or does emotion take center stage?
  • Is there evidence provided? Is it relevant, accurate, and sufficient?
  • Is the argument consistent? Do its claims match real-world results?
  • Does the speaker maintain the same standards they advocate?

It’s so much easier to accept communication as bona fide than to have to question every piece of information we receive. Even so, a little skepticism will go a long way in today’s world. Propaganda clots the airwaves and clutters the Internet. It bombards us in visual and verbal form. It manipulates our minds and befuddles our senses.

But don’t take my word for it. That would defeat the purpose of this post.

The Sweet Taste of Empty Rhetoric

AverageEverygirl081

When I was in, oh, third grade or thereabouts, one of my cousins, a sixth-grader, ran for student body president of our elementary school. The candidates gave their speeches over the intercom system as all the classes listened, and boy was his a dilly.

My class listened in wonder, oohing and ahhing, murmuring with excitement as he painted the picture of a glorious technicolor world under his auspicious leadership. (Aside: as a reminder, I live in Arizona, where everything is brown under a blue sky. We do lease some greens and oranges on fleeting occasions. /aside)

The only specific line I recall is that he promised us the drinking fountains would flow with root beer instead of water.

Root beer free and on tap is just about the fondest dream of every all-American third-grader. This cousin of mine had the whole school in the palm of his hands.

And I was right there with them, even as a nagging thought in the back of my head asked, “But how would that even work? Where would the root beer come from, and wouldn’t it have to be re-supplied all the time? And what about the mess? Sticky fountains, sticky floors—to say nothing of how often the pipes would have to be cleared and cleaned.”

I suppressed my doubts and, along with my eager classmates, threw my support behind the magnificent promise. (What third-grader really knows how a drinking fountain works? Maybe the water comes from a tank, easily supplied with root beer in its stead.)

My cousin won the election.

We continued to drink water from our drinking fountains thereafter.

And I, a little wiser from the experience, learned never to trust the promises of a politician on the campaign trail.

Alas, I seem to be in the minority with that lesson. Sometimes, when I look at the political landscape, I feel like an adult in a room full of third-graders:

“People really believe this? Has anyone thought about the logistics involved in delivering that promise?”

No one thinks about logistics if they can possibly help it. We linger in dreams and leave the heavy thinking to the professionals. But honestly, it doesn’t take professional knowledge to realize that root beer in a drinking fountain doesn’t work, so to speak. All you really need is a dose of skepticism and a pinch of common sense.

Which begs the question, again: “People really believe this?”

And I would put to you that, no, many people don’t. Many people, caught up in the rhetoric of what sounds good, know deep down that it’s only rhetoric. They enjoy the rainbow in front of them, dreaming of the pot of gold even while cognizant that in the end, the colors will fade into the ether with nothing of substance left behind.

For the true believers, the ones with their hearts set on that pot, the ones building their futures around root-beer drinking fountains, a day of reckoning is always around the corner. And when it comes, each inquiring mind will face two possible conclusions:

  1. “Oh. He was lying all along because it sounded good,” or
  2. “Those spoil-sport adults must have ruined his amazing plans.”

Rhetoric without substance to back it is empty, the junk food of communication. Some people like junk food. Some people convince themselves it’s nutritious.

And really, it’s futile for the otherwise-informed to fight this trend. We all hear what we want. We choose what to believe based on personal ideals. And sometimes, unfortunately, we support a narrative because it makes us feel good, and not because it holds any logical substance at all.