Pondering Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Rhetoric:
Most of the time, we can get away with choosing our words poorly. We may be surrounded by friends who understand who we are enough to know what we mean. We may be doing something where the product, the action, matters more than how it’s described. In these cases, we can say one thing and do another, or even say nothing at all.
Words make a difference when we need to communicate something more complicated, more technical, than a gesture, and more abstract, more structural than an action. Perhaps we need to communicate an investment strategy, or a route to a restaurant, or ideas about God. We may face opposition in deciding whether to commit money in the next annual budget to energy conservation, or we may struggle to communicate to a loved one what shameful thing happened and how we can be redeemed from it.
The point that words make a difference is good reason to care about a substantive meaning for rhetoric. I’m not interested in how to deceive or enrapture my audience, or how to obscure my subject of speech; I’m interested in how hard it is to communicate well, especially with a rigorous sense of ethics and commitment to the welfare of others. Because all we have to do to see how ineffective most arguments are is to read the news and see how hard it is to rise above 60% support for any position in the United States. In a country of 300+ million, that leaves tens of millions of people who haven’t agreed, haven’t listened, haven’t even been convinced they should care. Most arguments never get off the ground because no one bothers to care.
So the irony is that all the substantive arguments we present do not make a difference because we forgot the words that must come before. The words that summon attention, or even create attention where there was none before. It’s not unlikely that the sad state of public discourse in the U.S. derives from how few people are willing to pay attention to other people on principle for the sake of their argument, even if it’s not clear why the argument matters at first. Any substantive rhetoric has to begin with listening, with an art of communication that uses silence and attention skillfully for the sake of understanding.
To be continued…