Are rhetorical devices and strategies ethical?

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Answered by: Laura, An Expert in the Rhetoric, Style and Interpretation Category
In 385 BCE, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle defined the term rhetoric as the "ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion." In Ancient Greece, citizens relied on rhetorical devices and strategies to solve political and social problems. Without written communication, Greek speakers needed ways to help ensure that their messages were clear, honest, and understood by their audiences.

Aristotle and other scholars taught their students how to use language and debate as tools that would ultimately help both speaker and audience arrive at the truth. But fast forward 2400 years to the present day, and the term rhetoric almost always makes people turn up their noses. When we hear or read the word rhetoric, it often denotes strategies that use language to distract, or worse, to deceive. This should not be the case. Rhetorical devices and strategies, when used in the way Aristotle intended, should help clarify our messages. Used appropriately, they are ethical tools of communication that help effectively convey our messages.

At this point you may be wondering what in the world a rhetorical device is! Simply put, a rhetorical device is a figure of speech - a clever way to use language that is a departure from the way we use those words in everyday conversation. Rhetorical strategy is the thought we put to our compositions to make sure that we communicate in the most effective way possible. Revered rhetoritician Lloyd Bitzer describes what he calls the "rhetorical situation" as the 5 crucial elements writers and speakers must consider when they sit down to compose. Those elements are:

Text - What format will most effectively deliver my message to my intended audience?

Back in Greece, speakers had only one format - the speech. But today, writers and speakers must decide whether to deliver a speech, write a letter, write a log, write a newspaper article, write a newsletter, buy an advertisement, write a book, or create a website. If you are in a position of power, it is your responsibility to choose the text that will reach the widest possible audience - especially when human rights are concerned. Consider a situation where a water source in a developing nation has been contaminated. If the majority of the population is illiterate, what good would it do to write a newsletter? The leaders must choose a text that will send this message effectively.

Audience - Who is the intended recipient of this message? What are their values? What are their biases? How do I speak or write to them in a way that will invite them to listen and not alienate or offend them?

Author - Who am I as the writer or speaker? What are my values and biases? Why is it important for me to relay this message? What is my purpose?

Constraints - What are the physical OR intellectual obstacles that might prevent my message from being received or understood?

Exigence - What is the real-life situation that requires attention? What is the problem that needs to be solved or the issue that needs to be addressed?

When taking these elements into consideration, contemporary writers and speakers all too often use the results of their analyses of the rhetorical situation to manipulate or mislead their audiences. Manipulation is not rhetoric. Unfortunately, today, dishonest politicians, businessmen, and community and world leaders have caused us to believe otherwise. The most common usage of the term rhetoric today is found in the phrase campaign rhetoric. Campaign rhetoric is the use of rhetorical strategies and devices by politicians to win (or maintain) the support of their desired constituency.

In the study of modern communication, it is becoming harder and harder to argue that the use of rhetorical strategies and devices is ethical at all. But as you set to work in your own writing, and are wondering what literary moves might cause you to inadvertently cross ethical boundaries, remember a few things.

1. It's okay to emphasize, but not to exaggerate.

2. It's okay to compare apples to apples, but not to oranges.

3. It's important not only to verify your fact, but to support them with solid evidence as well.

4. Use Aristotle's emotional appeals (ethos, logos, and pathos) appropiately. Impart your credentials - but don't inflate them. Supply statistics, don't create them. Appeal to your audience's emotion, but don't berate them. (Or embarass, or scare the bejezus out of them!)

When all is said and done, with a little truth, using rhetorical devices and strategies really can help you communicate without being unethical. As Aristotle said, "Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." If you know yourself to be true, your audience will find you to be wise.

Write on.

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