Good rhetoric…

True or false: Any rhetoric that works is good rhetoric. _____

That’s a question I have my students ponder over the course of a semester. They very quickly see the trouble it poses: How should we define “work” and “good” in the context of a rhetorical act?

Does rhetoric work when it moves hearts and minds (a utilitarian definition) or does it work when it results in well-crafted, well-argued, well-presented discourse (an aesthetic definition)? Must it do both?

Is rhetoric good when it works (by either definition presented above) yet leads to nefarious ends, or must the purpose of the persuasive act correspond to our concepts of virtue and truth? In other words, must good rhetoric be moral, or can it be amoral or immoral and still be good?

The State of the Union address has given my students an excellent rhetorical performance with which to ponder these questions. Today, I reminded them that I rated the address highly based on its structure, the skill of its arguments (use of tropes, schemes, and fallacies, etc), and the “measured” Bush ethos that I contend made his presentation more powerful than his normal folksy smirking. I did not get into the virtue of the address in my analysis, so my assessment is almost purely aesthetic.

Now come the poll numbers, from pollingreport.com, showing at best a flat response. Hmmmm…and I called this performance persuasive–Bush’s best speech so far. How can I justify this in light of these numbers?

While I acknowledge that winning is necessary to politics (i.e. you cannot lead if you do not win), I am not necessarily happy about this reality. Instead, like the ancient Greeks that heavily influence my work, I am a believer in virtue as important political/social capital. Politics ought to be more about virtue and less about winning (my students will recognize this statement as the kind of idealism–and absolutisim–I criticized in class this morning, and I expect them to call me on it on Wednesday).

One may begin discourse with a strong ethical appeal inherent in one’s position–in this case a President of the United States. But such an ethos may be squandered if the rhetorical performance proves inadequate to the situation. It appears that the State of the Union address may have been inadequate. I asked my students what they thought might be the case.

Mia Patterson, a nursing student, suggested that the “measured” presentation that I found compelling turned off other viewers who expected to see the usual, more comfortable, George W. Bush. Excellent point. Ben Gardner, an English major, suggested that citizens may have expected more logical/factual “proof” in the argument for war with Iraq. Bush’s speech is well crafted to avoid such proof. He persuades far more by ethos and pathos. Gardner suggested that this may be a situation in which logos should have prevailed (and citizens expected it to prevail).

I give students that true-false question precisely because I do not think it can be answered in any absolute way. Instead, it forces them to think about the utility, aesthetics, and morality of discourse–their own and others’.

Despite the flat poll numbers, I still give this speech a high rating. I do so because I recall that many “great” discourses failed at first to bring about the desired changes. Examples abound. I’ll mention two: the Federalist Papers and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And some pedestrian discourses have worked well (utilitarian) and immediately. For example, Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech. I am not suggesting that this SOTU will rank with the Federalist Papers. Instead, I’m suggesting that we put such important discourse to all the tests of rhetoric and ask if it’s “good” and if it “works” and why in the broadest sense of these terms.

When we put our public discourse to such tests we are engaging in the kind of interpretive act necessary for a democratic citizenry to fully engage the politics of the day. That’s another way of saying that such speeches are about far more than our narrow, ideological points-of-view about specific policy.