Speech is a powerful tool. It lets us bend the truth so that things go in our favor. It allows us to represent ideas in a manner that doesn’t reflect things as they should be. Most of the greatest people in history have often had a deep understanding of rhetoric, because it was less important to know a lot than to know how to control people. I know I spoke at some length a while ago about the validity of lying in society. But today I’d like to speak about the importance of rhetoric and knowing how to speak well.
Certainly, I am not the best rhetorician in the world. I wouldn’t say I am bad by any stretch—I know the importance of parallelisms and what not, but I am still developing. Rhetoric, however, is something that nowadays is not really taught to students. Maybe it is because there are other areas of focus, like math, science, engineering, and so on. Even in English, the area I would most expect rhetoric to be taught, it is mostly avoided. Which is interesting, since grammar is another thing that is rarely taught in schools anymore (which I am completely ok with). Why are these old staples of English falling to the wayside? I think it is because rhetoric is something that is relied on by the higher ups in society to keep people in line.
Think of Obama. Great speaker. Concise. Literate. Friendly. He’s all the good things about rhetoric. Even if you don’t agree with his policy, it’s hard to think of a more honey tongued president. While I don’t think Obama is working to keep people extremely “in line” or overly “politically correct” (I mean, the guy fist bumped Larry Wilmore after he said “my nigga” to him at the White House Correspondents dinner), he very easily could be bending some rules in his favor. I certainly hope he does when dealing with Putin. To an extent, everyone needs to be kept in line for society to function. It’s the basis for democracy. If everyone just did whatever they wanted, we would break down into anarchy. Think about it. Imagine if Trump supporters could just go out with whatever weapons they wanted. Or if there was no laws against child and spousal abuse. Or if we simply executed people any time we got a mob together to accuse someone of a crime. These are all things that rhetoric plays a role in controlling. And that’s good. Hitler was terrible, abuse is unacceptable, and lynching was an extreme injustice.
Rhetoric is a tool that we often overlook because it also motivates changes. As noted, some changes can be bad—both Trump and Hitler are recognized as good rhetoricians in their own right—whether its because they spoke simply or passionately. But if only the higher ups that get “small loans of a million dollars” are learning to use rhetoric in various ways, then who’s to say where it could go next. MLK is another example of a rhetorician, and illustrates the good that it can do for the world. His words have inspired museum architects to be innovative. And he came from an underachieving community, in a time where being African-American was akin to being less of a person than being white. Think of what good the ability to be well spoken can do. We need to harness that power in order to overcome the ideas of others, before something terrible happens.