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Persuasion Thought Rhetoric


Submitted By Brilanna
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In the late 1990s, tobacco companies spent millions trying to defeat
Proposition 10, an antismoking ballot initiative in California. Calling themselves “The Committee Against Unfair Taxes,” they mailed out expensive glossy brochures warning voters of the perils of the initiative.
They were especially anxious to inform everyone that
The sponsors of ill-conceived Proposition 10 are perennial political activist millionaire Rob Reiner and four other Hollywood/Los
Angeles millionaire social engineers who believe they know more about raising your children than you do.
This warning was accompanied by a grainy black-and-white photograph of Reiner (whom you may remember from reruns of the popular 1960s
TV show All in the Family) that brought to mind a police mug shot.
Now, when others want us to do something or want to influence our attitudes or beliefs, they may use an argument. That is, they may offer a reason why we should or shouldn’t do or believe or not believe whatever it is. They might also use threats, bribery, or even more extreme measures. But the passage quoted above illustrates a technique that is used much more frequently: the persuasive power of words, or what we have called their rhetorical force or emotive meaning—their power to express and elicit images, feelings, and emotional associations. In the next few chapters, we examine some of the most common rhetorical techniques used to affect people’s attitudes, opinions, and behavior.
Rhetoric refers to the study of persuasive writing. As we use the term, it denotes a broad category of linguistic techniques people use when their primary objective is to influence beliefs and attitudes and behavior. Is Rob Reiner
“a perennial political activist millionaire”? Or is he an “untiring advocate of social reform willing to spend his considerable fortune for just causes”? The different impressions these two descriptions create is largely due to their differing rhetorical meaning. Does Juanita “still owe over $1,000 on her credit card”? Or does Juanita “owe only a little over $1,000 on her credit card”?
There’s no factual difference between the two questions—only a difference in their rhetorical force. The thing to remember through these next few chapters is that rhetorical force may be psychologically effective, but by itself it establishes nothing. If we allow our attitudes and beliefs to be affected by sheer rhetoric, we fall short as critical thinkers.
Now before we get in trouble with your English teacher, let’s make it clear that there is nothing wrong with trying to make your case as persuasive as possible by using well-chosen, rhetorically effective words and phrases.
Good writers always do this. But we, as critical thinkers, must be able to distinguish the argument (if any) contained in what someone says or writes from the rhetoric; we must be able to distinguish the logical force of a set of remarks from their psychological force. The statement above from the tobacco companies about Rob Reiner, for example, contains no argument whatsoever; it just uses inflammatory rhetorical techniques aimed at getting us to vote against the antismoking initiative.
One of the things you will become aware of—as you read these pages and do the exercises and apply what you have learned to what you read and write— is that rhetoric is often mixed right in with argument. The message isn’t that you should deduct points from an argument if it is presented in rhetorically charged language, and it isn’t that you should try to get all the rhetoric out of your own writing. The message is simply that you shouldn’t add points for rhetoric. You don’t make an argument stronger by screaming it at the top of your lungs. Likewise, you don’t make it stronger by adding rhetorical devices.
Many of these rhetorical bells and whistles have names because they are so common and so well understood. Because they are used primarily to give a statement a positive or negative slant regarding a subject, they are sometimes called slanters. We’ll describe some of the more widely used specimens.
Language usually offers us a choice of words when we want to say something.
Until recently, the term “used car” referred to an automobile that wasn’t new, but the trend nowadays is to refer to such a car as “pre-owned.” The people who sell such cars, of course, hope that the different terminology will keep potential buyers from thinking about how “used” the car might be—maybe it’s used up! The car dealer’s replacement term, “pre-owned,” is a euphemism— a neutral or positive expression instead of one that carries negative associations.
Euphemisms play an important role in affecting our attitudes.
People may be less likely to disapprove of an assassination attempt on a foreign leader, for example, if it is referred to as “neutralization.” People fighting against the government of a country can be referred to neutrally as “rebels” or
“guerrillas,” but a person who wants to build support for them may refer to them by the euphemism “freedom fighters.” A government is likely to pay a price for initiating a “revenue enhancement,” but voters will be even quicker to respond negatively to a “tax hike.” The U.S. Department of Defense performs the same function it did when it was called the Department of War, but the current name makes for much better public relations.
The opposite of a euphemism is a dysphemism. Dysphemisms are used to produce a negative effect on a listener’s or reader’s attitude toward something or to tone down the positive associations it may have. Whereas “freedom fighter” is a euphemism for “guerrilla” or “rebel,” “terrorist” is a dysphemism.
Euphemisms and dysphemisms are often used in deceptive ways or ways that at least hint at deception. All of the examples in the preceding paragraphs are examples of such uses. But euphemisms can at times be helpful and constructive.
By allowing us to approach a sensitive subject indirectly—or by skirting it entirely—euphemisms can sometimes prevent hostility from bringing rational discussion to a halt. They can also be a matter of good manners:
“Passed on” may be much more appropriate than “dead” if the person to whom you’re speaking is recently widowed. Hence, our purpose for using euphemisms and dysphemisms determines whether or not those uses are legitimate.
It bears mentioning that some facts just are repellent, and for that reason even neutral reports of them sound horrible. “Lizzy killed her father with an ax” reports a horrible fact about Lizzy, but it does so using neutral language.
Neutral reports of unpleasant, evil, or repellent facts do not automatically count as dysphemistic rhetoric.

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