Viewport width =
Screen shot 2012-09-10 at 1.21.47 PM
September 10, 2012 | by  | in Features |
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

Talking Dirty

The deceitful art of rhetoric



Language can be a deliciously distracting thing. Isn’t this the desired effect for many of your fellow Salient readers, who pluck their copy from a newsstand in the hope of just that? Language lulls us, but in acquiescing to the silky appeal of words, we can easily overlook its true intent. 

Discounting myself, a mere reporter and humble enthusiast before your gracious selves, there are many who frequently use direct—or divert—attention. So commonplace is language that it can be squeezed into hiding from itself, squirrelling its intentions away with it.

Did you notice the alliterative appeal to this article’s opening sentence, for example? Or pick up the direct address of the second? You’d certainly be forgiven for overlooking their subtly outstretched arms; you are, after all, a busy and engaged university student—nay, citizen of the world—with more important and interesting matters to attend to than my rhetorical trickery. Whoever said flattery never gets you anywhere?

Sometimes all it takes is a leaked memo for us to realise something we already know. Words, it turns out, really are powerful things—especially when describing food dishes. A recent photograph appeared to show a list of adjectives wait staff at Jamie Oliver’s restaurants use when describing the menu to customers. It is left to us, however, to decide quite which proceeding adjective makes a bowl of fries more tempting: “harmonious”, “proper rustic” or “feel good”.

It was also left to commentators to observe that the phenomenon of floral description is less frequently observed the further up or down the culinary spectrum one travels. You may be interested to note how sparsely the dishes are described in Wellington’s very own Logan Brown, with only their dessert option— “Over-the-Moon Galactic Gold with White Fig compote and Oat Wafers”—boasting anything bordering on digression.

In the interplay of language, sometimes it is more about what you neglect to say than what you do. Could it be that abstention is a vital component in a rhetorician’s toolkit? Former US president Bill Clinton can teach us a lot about this very notion. His addressing of the rumours of an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in 1998 dealt in unspoken truths. In stating that he “did not have sexual relations” with Lewinsky he also failed to reveal his definition of the phrase (oral sex apparently didn’t qualify). What most people would call “lying”, Clinton possibly referred to as a “blowjob”.

Politics is the most obvious lair in which to find rhetoric. Being the salespeople of ideas, politicians are keenly adept in the use, and misuse, of language. Current US president Barack Obama, rose to office in 2008 on the wave of a single phrase (“yes we can”). Perhaps ironically, his opposition found cause for complaint in the longer verbiage of the hopeful presidential nominee: his rhetoric.

In the face of Obama’s lengthy and heavily penned addresses, Republican Rick Santorum stated that Obama was “just a person of words,” hoping to frame his ability to communicate verbally as a deficit of genuine action.

Two years later, Obama was under fire again, this time from opponents to his Health Care Reform bill. Again, the power of rhetoric is hammered home in the form of a leaked memo.

Guidance from one of Fox News’s managing editors to its reporters sought to encourage the language of journalism to sway viewer opinion. Riding on a wave of anti-government feeling, the editor suggested replacing the given term ‘public option’ for the incendiary ‘government-run health insurance’. In instances where accuracy was desired, the instruction was to subtly side-step the formality: “when it is necessary to use the term ‘public option’ use the qualifier ‘so-called’ as in ‘the so-called public option’.” A simple but effective ploy.

The “hockey mom” of Republican politics, Sarah Palin, put her faith in a more unconventional strategy during the 2008 election campaign. Hers was a self-styled rhetorical game that turned the language of politics in on itself. Instead of fielding the vocabulary of her fellow campaigners, she opted to woo the populist vote with slang.

Acknowledging—perhaps correctly—the distaste for impenetrable lingo for vast swathes of the American voter, Palin decided to trade exclusively in the language of her constituents. Her own brand of anti-rhetoric sought to disguise her inexperience in the language of government as a friendly olive branch to the man on the street. It certainly made the world’s media sit up and pay attention (though not for the reasons she intended. See: ‘repudiate’).

Anti-rhetoric is a clever game to play. In the task of persuasion, it can be favourable to remove yourself from the apparent verbose high-mindedness and say, as you point to your opponents, “unlike these schmucks, I speak your language.” It is a branch of rhetoric that is harder to detect because it is delivered unsuspectingly and veiled in apparent distaste for such trickery.

It can be an incredibly persuasive thing. This strange logic means that figures like Homer Simpson can occasionally sound—at times against your better judgement—unbecomingly profound. It had the same effect on the fellow occupants of Forrest Gump’s bench. So transfixed was Gump’s unwitting audience that several of them choose not to board the buses they sat waiting for as the apparent simpleton regaled them with his engrossing verbal autobiography.

This levelling of the speaker’s intellect is a tool of ‘ethos’ in classical Greek terminology. It labels one of the most compelling facets to rhetoric: the attempt to establish the authority of the speaker with the audience. Deliberately paring-down her language was Sarah Palin’s means of ingratiating herself with Middle America. This was ethos in the form of the Everyman.

Ethos can also manifest itself as the wearing of one’s credentials openly. There is nothing more convincing (or disarming) as an argument that begins with the disclosure of an undeniable truth. Take the sentiments of the new multi-million dollar campaign from British American Tobacco (BAT):

“We agree tobacco is harmful. We disagree with plain packaging because it prevents companies using the legal branding they’ve created and invested in.”

This is rhetoric at its most pointed. In acknowledging the harm of their product, they paint themselves as the purveyors of truth and reason. By the time you’ve read and considered the second sentence (deliberately styled to avoid touching on the reasons why governments are considering imposing plain cigarette packaging) the hope is that you’re amenable to anything else they say on the matter. When accompanied by the youthful modern graphics of its print and broadcast output, these rhetorical sentiments are given a weight and conviction that few would willingly ascribe an international lobby group for cigarette manufacturers.

BAT’s advertising strategy proves that though rhetoric may be as old as the hills, it is continually relevant. Seen through the conniving or deceptive use of admen, politicians and lobbyists, it is easy to understand why rhetoric is much overlooked. But we ignore it at our peril. In allowing ourselves to be artfully distracted, we permit our thoughts and actions to be influenced by others. In this respect, British American Tobacco’s rhetoric is possibly as harmful as the tobacco products they promote. ▲

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

About the Author ()

Comments (1)

Trackback URL / Comments RSS Feed

  1. jacksmith says:

    “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” – Patrick Henry

    What a brilliant ruling by the United States Supreme Court on the affordable health care act (Obamacare). Stunningly brilliant in my humble opinion. I could not have ask for a better ruling on a potentially catastrophic healthcare act than We The People Of The United States received from our Supreme Court.

    If the court had upheld the constitutionality of the individual mandate under the commerce clause it would have meant the catastrophic loss of the most precious thing we own. Our individual liberty. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Supreme Court.

    There is no mandate to buy private for-profit health insurance. There is only a nominal tax on income eligible individuals who don’t have health insurance. This is a HUGE! difference. And I suspect that tax may be subject to constitutional challenge as it ripens.

    This is a critically important distinction. Because under the commerce clause individuals would have been compelled to support the most costly, dangerous, unethical, morally repugnant, and defective type of health insurance you can have. For-profit health insurance, and the for-profit proxies called private non-profits and co-ops.

    Equally impressive in the courts ruling was the majorities willingness to throw out the whole law if the court could not find a way to sever the individual mandate under the commerce clause from the rest of the act. Bravo! Supreme Court.

    Thanks to the Supreme Court we now have an opportunity to fix our healthcare crisis the right way. Without the obscene delusion that Washington can get away with forcing Americans to buy a costly, dangerous and highly defective private product (for-profit health insurance).

    During the passage of ACA/Obamacare some politicians said that the ACA was better than nothing. But the truth was that until the Supreme Court fixed it the ACA/Obamacare was worse than nothing at all. It would have meant the catastrophic loss of your precious liberty for the false promise and illusion of healthcare security under the deadly and costly for-profit healthcare system that dominates American healthcare.

    As everyone knows now. The fix for our healthcare crisis is a single payer system (Medicare for all) like the rest of the developed world has. Or a robust Public Option choice available to everyone on day one that can quickly lead to a single payer system.

    Talk of privatizing/profiteering from Medicare or social security is highly corrupt and Crazy! talk. And you should cut the political throats of any politicians giving lip service to such an asinine idea. Medicare should be expanded, not privatized or eliminated.

    We still have a healthcare crisis in America. With hundreds of thousands dieing needlessly every year in America. And a for-profit medical industrial complex that threatens the security and health of the entire world. The ACA/Obamacare will not fix that.

    The for-profit medical industrial complex has already attacked the world with H1N1 killing thousands, and injuring millions. And more attacks are planned for profit, and to feed their greed.

    To all of you who have fought so hard to do the kind and right thing for your fellow human beings at a time of our greatest needs I applaud you. Be proud of your-self.

    God Bless You my fellow human beings. I’m proud to be one of you. You did good.

    See you on the battle field.


    jacksmith – WorkingClass :-)

Recent posts

  1. Storytime: Angst, Agony, and Adorable Babies in Teen Mom YouTube
  2. VUWSA Responds to Provost’s Mid-Year Assessment Changes
  3. Te Papa’s Squid is Back and Better Than Ever
  4. Draft Sexual Harassment Policy Consultation Seeing Mixed Responses
  5. Vigil Held For Victims of Sri Lankan Easter Sunday Attacks
  6. Whakahokia te reo mai i te mata o te pene, ki te mata o te arero – Te Wharehuia Milroy Dies Aged 81
  7. Eye on the Exec – 20/05
  8. Critic to Launch Hostile Takeover of BuzzFeed
  9. Issue 10 – Like and Subscribe
  10. An Overdue Lesson in Anatomy

Editor's Pick

Burnt Honey

: First tutorial of the year. When I open the door, I underestimate my strength, thinking it to be all used up in my journey here. It swings open violently and I trip into the room where awkward gazes greet me. Frozen, my legs are lead and I’m stuck on display for too long. My ov