Thursday, August 21, 2008

Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Mommy

Part 1

I know what you’re thinking: what can classical rhetoric have to do with me, a modern mommy? Do I, as a mommy, need to know what topoi, ethos, dispositio, litotes, and sentence euphony mean? Isn’t it all Greek? Or is it Latin?

My friends, you may not know all the Greek and Latin terms used in classical rhetoric, but you encounter classical rhetoric every single day in what you say and what is said to you. Bear with me for a moment while I explain.

Generally speaking, classical rhetoric is poorly understood these days because it is no longer taught as a separate subject but integrated invisibly (and watered down) in standard English courses. This is one of the great tragedies of modern education. Most people define rhetoric, when they think of it at all, as language that is empty, misleading, overly embellished, or false. It is equated with doublespeak, jargon, political lies, and advertising.

In reality, rhetoric is all this and much, much more.

Consider the following useful definition:

Rhetoric is the deliberate manipulation of language to bring about a desired effect, action, or emotion in an audience.

Pretty neutral, isn’t it? Rhetoric can be used for good or evil, but it is neither. A person can manipulate language to persuade someone to get a colonoscopy (for good) or to choose an adjustable-rate mortgage they can’t afford (for evil). Rhetoric can be used to rivet your attention or bore you to death; to make you laugh so hard you pee your pants or cry like a little boy who just dropped his ice cream cone; to make you mindlessly spend gobs of money on useless crap or give gobs of money to find a cure for cancer.

Classical rhetoric, or the rhetoric taught in ancient Greece and Rome, is the systematic study of how language can do all this. There are lots of terms which have come to us in a mix of Latin or Greek that may seem complicated at first, but really, it all makes perfect sense.

Let’s consider the following statement: “My son is not the quiet type.” This is an example of litotes, or understatement, which often uses a negative to state a positive, as in “Beowulf did not lack courage when he ripped Grendel’s arms off.” He did, however, tick off Grendel’s mother with his “no lack of courage,” but that has nothing to do with rhetoric and I digress.

My point is, “my son is not the quiet type” sounds nicer than “my son can’t keep his mouth shut,” which is an example of hyperbole, or exaggeration. You might use litotes with your child’s teacher—you don’t want to prejudice him/her against your child but can’t lie, either, because he/she will figure out the truth eventually. Hyperbole, on the other hand, works well as a statement of complaint to your best friend, who does not hold your child’s future college prospects in her hands and will no doubt lend a sympathetic ear to your suffering.

See what I mean? You’re already using classical rhetoric without knowing it, but just imagine the power you could have if you knew enough to manipulate language deliberately to bring about a desired effect. And if you can consciously manipulate language, you will readily spot its use by others who wish to manipulate you.

Our little darlings can be amazingly skillful rhetoricians at a very young age. My own 8-year-old Odysseus* is a lovely example of a child who, left to his own devices, would have become master of the universe long ago if not for my ability to counter his devious rhetorical skills with very non-rhetorical discipline. Now that he is too big for me to pick up and carry to his room, however, my rhetorical skills are more important than ever.

Consider this real-life example of heuresis, or the discovery of multiple arguments, also referred to by the Latin term inventio. My little ones are not allowed to drink soda except under very special circumstances that involve unpleasant bodily fluids. Even then, they are limited to non-caffeinated options. One day recently, my son saw me drinking a can of coke that was labeled “decaffeinated.”

He can read now, which really complicates life, doesn’t it?

I saw his brain process this snippet of information and knew what was coming. In the chirpy tone of a physicist who just solved a sticky problem with string theory, he delivered the opening salvo of this rhetorical skirmish:

“Mom, that coke is decaffeinated. That means I can drink it!”

In this statement, we see logos at work. Logos, or an appeal to logic, is one of three types of appeals used in argument. In this particular case, however, my darling son’s logos fell to pieces in the face of my syllogism:

“Soda is bad for you. Decaffeinated coke is a soda. Therefore, decaffeinated coke is bad for you.”

Honestly, this syllogism is seriously flawed. “Bad” is a weak word, too vague to stand in court. What does it mean that soda is bad? Who determines soda is bad for you? But as sophisticated as he is, little Odysseus did not yet recognize this vulnerability in my argument, so he displayed his talent for heuresis and simply flexed to a different appeal. He came up with this beauty:

“Mommy, every time I see you drinking a coke, I feel really left out, and it hurts my feelings.”

Ahhh. Pathos. The appeal to emotion. Let’s hear it again because it really shows a genius at work. Savor each word out loud in as pitiful a voice as you can muster:

“Mommy, every time I see you drinking a coke, I feel really left out, and it hurts my feelings.”

Note the shift from “mom” to the more child-like “mommy.” Nice touch.

Some of you may have fallen for this verbal knife to the heart, but not me. The armor of rhetoric shields me from such attacks. I deflected his thrust with a hard-hitting combination of the “deliberative topic of the disadvantageous” (“soda rots your teeth and makes you fat”) and a somewhat unconventional reverse-psychology ethical appeal (“I hope you are smarter than your mother when you grow up and don’t drink soda”).

This rendered little Odysseus speechless. After all, mommy just implied that she isn’t smart, didn’t she? Hmm. He was stumped. For now. Eventually, these “shock and awe” tactics will no longer work, and he will find a way to use them against me, especially when he is a teenager and fully prepared to believe that mommy is more than just “not smart;” she is a complete and utter idiot.

Until then, I’ll brush up on my classical rhetoric in hopes of staying a step ahead of my little Odysseus. And since the benefits of classical rhetoric are not limited to parenting, I’ll also strengthen myself against the marketing folks trying to convince me I need an iPhone, the politicians vying for my vote, and my darling husband who, for some reason, doesn’t understand why I need to spend more money on rubber stamps.

As you can see, classical rhetoric is enormously useful for the modern mommy, and I hope you’ll stick around for periodic essays that explore the devious strategies our children use to manipulate us and even more devious strategies we can use to manipulate them.**

*Classical character of Greek epic poetry made famous to modern high school students by Homer, the blind—and completely fictitious—poet. Odysseus cunningly talks his way out of many a nasty scrape.
**If you have any examples of your children’s rhetorical skill, please email them to me for possible analysis on this blog. We can have A LOT of fun with this.

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