The Task of Rhetoric

Aristotle said that rhetoric was the art of observing in any given case all the available means of persuasion. Francis Bacon said rhetoric was the art of applying “reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.” George Campbell called it eloquence and defined it as “the art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end.” I. A. Richards, perhaps trying to give rhetoric a really useful mission, said that rhetoric ought to be “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies.” And Kenneth Burke argued that rhetoric should focus, not on persuasion, but on identification. And there are hundreds of other suggested foci proposed over the 2300 years since Aristotle.

I’d like to propose yet another focus and task for rhetoric and that is that rhetoric should be the study of deception in public discourse, its causes and effects. A case in point: President Bush claimed recently that “This government does not torture people.” Well, here’s a perfect opportunity to illustrate just how much in error that statement is. Rhetoricians would be serving a unique and extremely useful purpose in devoting at least some of their energies to the study of deception in public, why people lie in public, and what effects these deceptive messages have on an audience and a nation.

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