I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post is part of chapter two. To have a look at other parts of chapter two–or the whole of chapter one (Concepts 1.1 – 1.10), click here.
Concept 2.2. Getting to yes is the goal of rhetoric. If the audience has the capacity to reply, the role of speaker-audience may switch-up in such a way that what is at work is not proclamation or monologue (one-way discourse), but dialectic (two-way discourse). Dialectic is dialogue around a matter of importance and controversy in which the stakes are the following: will the parties in conversation come to agreement, stay in agreement, or break agreement? In other words, will they come to yes with one another? In rhetoric, the methods of message deployment can be, not just verbal or written, but visual, as with emojis or images in advertisements. Such methods are known as visual rhetorics.
An example of getting to yes: Mother Pollard and Martin Luther King. In introducing ethos, logos, and pathos (Concept 2.1), our first attempt at a definition of rhetoric was the following:
Rhetoric is the art of reaching or maintaining agreement through argumentation, with arguments being directed to the reason (Greek: logos), the emotions (pathos), or some combination of the two.
We are now in a position to offer a fuller definition:
Rhetoric is the art of reaching or maintaining agreement by appeals to character (“trust me, like me, follow me”), reason, and emotion, whether via one-way discourse (a political poster, writing an essay, giving a speech) or via dialectic (an exchange of snapchat photos or emails; a conversation). It’s about getting to yes.
Martin Luther King recounts how he reached a state of life-energizing agreement–getting to yes--with a parishioner one evening through a process of dialogue in which he started at no:
On a particular Monday evening, following a tension-packed week that included being arrested and receiving numerous threatening telephone calls, I spoke at a mass meeting. I attempted to convey an overt impression of strength and courage, although I was inwardly depressed and fear-stricken. At the end of the meeting, Mother Pollard came to the front of the church and said, ‘Come here, son.’ I immediately went to her and hugged her affectionately. ‘Something is wrong with you,’ she said. ‘You didn’t talk strong tonight.’ Seeking further to disguise my fears, I retorted, ‘Oh, no Mother Pollard, nothing is wrong. I am feeling as fine as ever.’ But her insight was discerning. ‘Now you can’t fool me,’ she said, ‘I don told you we is with you all the way.’ Then her face became radiant and she said in words of quiet certainty, ‘But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.’ As she spoke these consoling words, everything in me quivered and quickened with the pulsing tremor of raw energy. (Strength to Love 125)
This exchange took place in 1956, and when King wrote the following words in 1963, he observed:
Since that dreary night in 1956, Mother Pollard has passed on to glory and I have known very few quiet days. I have been tortured without and tormented within by the raging fires of tribulation. I have been forced to muster what strength and courage I have to withstand howling winds of pain and jostling storms of adversity. But as the years have unfolded the eloquently simple words of Mother Pollard have come back again and again to give light and peace and guidance to my troubled soul. ‘God’s gonna take care of you.’ (Ibid.)
Through Mother Pollard’s argument, directed at once to the emotions (pathos) and the reason (logos), King’s no became a yes.
But what was Mother Pollard’s argument, exactly, and what is an argument? An argument is a claim supporting another claim, in which case Mother Pollard’s initial claim was that King should not feel alone or afraid. Her supporting claim for this was, “I don told you we is with you all the way,” and this was followed by a second supporting claim: “But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.” These claims can be turned into an argumentative syllogism (two premises followed by a conclusion):
One need not feel alone or afraid when you have strong backing (first premise); Dr. King has strong backing from friends and God (second premise); therefore, he should feel neither alone nor afraid.
If an audience submits to your claims, nodding in agreement, you’ve won rhetorically, you’ve reached yes, as was the case between Mother Pollard and Martin Luther King. But if King hadn’t been convinced—if, for example, he disagreed with her that God existed, then Mother Pollard would have had to continue the argument, perhaps offering claims that would lead him to belief in God—or, taking a different tack, saying something like this: “Even if the community isn’t with you, and God isn’t with you, I’m with you. Carry me in your heart. Carry on for me.” Each of these sentences advances the argument, looking for the point where sufficient clarity and a stable yes between speaker and audience are finally reached. The trick in any argument is knowing when you’ve truly gotten to that point of understanding and yes with an audience; of knowing when further sentences are not needed because the audience has accepted your premises and is with you; of knowing when to stop.
Rhetoric seeks an audience’s final judgment. As the art of reaching yes, rhetoric means getting all the parties to a discourse on the same page—or keeping them there—believing, feeling, or acting as one. This process has a curious parallel to thinking itself, as can be seen in this ancient dialogue between Socrates (470-399 BCE) and Theaetetus (417-369 BCE) in Plato’s (428-348 BCE) Theaetetus (190a):
Socrates: And how do you accept my description of the process of thinking?
Theaetetus: How do you describe it?
Socrates: As a discourse that the mind carries on with itself about any subject it is considering. You must take this explanation as coming from an ignoramus [a simpleton]; but I have the notion that, when the mind is thinking, it is simply talking to itself, asking questions and answering them, and saying Yes or No. When it reaches a decision—which may come slowly or in a sudden rush—when doubt is over and the two voices affirm the same thing, then we call that its ‘judgment.’ So I should describe thinking as discourse, and judgment as a statement pronounced, not aloud to someone else, but silently to oneself.
In other words, thoughts arrive to the mind as arguments arrive to an audience. If you accept them as your thoughts, and not intrusive thoughts; if you say yes to them implicitly or explicitly, then they are your judgment because they belong to you. If you say no, you reject the thoughts as belonging to you. But if you say maybe to them, entertaining the incorporation of some new thoughts, then you are either wrestling with self-clarification (“What do these thoughts that I’m having mean, exactly?”) or engaging in inward debate (“On the one hand this, on the other hand that”). The culmination of inward talking, listening, and questioning comes to this: which thoughts will you reject and which ones you will say yes to? Reaching a judgment means arriving at your undivided self—the one who is, as it were, gathered up in agreement. A writer, for instance, might wrestle for hours with her exact wording, finally saying to herself, “Yes, these are indeed the best words in the best order for my purposes. That’s my judgment.”
Writing 2.2.1. In a journal, recount a time when a no became a yes for you, or a time when you were able to bring another person or an audience from no to yes. Think about this in the light of the rhetorical triangle (ethos, logos, and pathos). What mixture of emotional and rational appeals were at work? What role did ethos (the personality and character of the messenger) play in the switch? If you do not know either of these experiences (either of being persuaded yourself of something or of successfully persuading another), to what do you attribute this?
Writing 2.2.2. Wrestle with a question around which you have doubt or are in a dilemma concerning, expressing the problem to yourself in writing and venturing some possible solutions. See what judgment you finally arrive at after writing about the issue.