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The Power of Rhetoric

As I write this blog on October 24, 2018, I am listening to the news services reporting about the “suspicious” packages that had been delivered to prominent Democrats. In one instance, CNN had a mailroom employee notice a package addressed to former CIA Director, John Brennan, often a harsh critic of President Donald Trump. Thankfully, none of the packages reached their intended targets, so we as Americans, can breathe a sigh of relief.

However, as I contemplate the deep divisions seemingly rendering our nation in two different and often extreme directions, I am reminded about the power of rhetoric. In an earlier clip, some news anchors were debating about who to blame for this coordinated, domestic attack. Unfortunately, each reporter’s bias was evident in their responses. One claimed that the Republicans were pushing the kind of violence demonstrated in these attacks and of course the other was laying the blame at the feet of Democrats. But the salient point lost in this blame game is that “talk” as the reporters argued, the constant barrage of hate speak, was merely “talk” and shouldn’t be considered dangerous. They posited that if we are to assign responsibility for these exploits, then it must be the actual perpetrators of the action--some sick individuals or groups.

This is where I completely disagree. “Talk” in the case of most politicians and hate groups, is rhetoric and rhetoric can and does move masses of people to action. Therefore, fault lies not only in the perpetrator(s) of the abhorrent action but also in those who intentionally incite. Consider Aristotle’s warnings that rhetoric or persuasive argument, in the wrong hands, could be corrupting. In other words, “talk” that is not vetted by truth of fact can be used by anyone who wants to influence. “Even hackneyed and commonplace maxims are to be used, if they suit one's purpose: just because they are commonplace, every one seems to agree with them, and therefore they are taken for truth.” (The Rhetoric & The Poetics of Aristotle)

Some of the most hateful acts began with rhetoric through public speaking. The art of persuasion is concrete and “talk” is one of the most powerful tools in history. This tool should be used, especially by those with influence, in a measured and ethical way.

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