Rhetoric: Misunderstood, not just words

[Story and photo by Mike Foley, originally published in the BYU–Hawaii “electronic newsroom,” February 2, 2009]


Dr. Greg Clark, a BYU Provo professor and Associate Dean of the College of Humanities on exchange with BYU-Hawaii’s Dr. Ned Williams, said in the Honors colloquium on January 28 that the ancient art of rhetoric is “often terribly misunderstood” and extends beyond talking into many phases of our lives.

Clark, who earned a doctorate in the subject and first became interested in the Pacific islands when he taught at Samoana High School in American Samoa, explained that rhetoric began in ancient Athens in a “first attempt to try to govern a community [of all male property owners] by democracy… They were gathered together in a council of 500 people, selected not by election but by lottery. That assembly legislated the laws of Athens, and they were the courts.”

“They learned that decisions, whether they were judicial or legislative, had to be made by discussion. They had to come to agreement,” he said, “and in order for your side to win, you had to persuade people to see something the way you saw it.” He added this is no different today in trying give others “the opportunity to see things the way you see them, so that they might come to agree with you. Missionaries do it. We do it all the time — in a marriage, in a friendship. We’re always trying to influence other people.”

He said the Athenians found there were “some skills involved; that is, it just doesn’t come naturally to be able to successfully influence people. It involves thought, sensitivity to the other person, the ability to use the right language at the right time…and they began to work out the art of rhetoric.” In fact, Clark noted Aristotle wrote one of the first treatises on the subject. “The purpose was to bring people with different points of view to agree.”

He added that decisions were usually not between right and wrong, but of making better choices. “You’re more likely to have a good proposal if you expose it in a situation where people thoroughly discuss it, think about it, suggest changes and criticize it. Then you adapt and change it, and out of that evolves — most of the time — a good proposal.”

“Rhetoric has to do with people, working with others and learning to do two things: Presenting their ideas for the purpose of persuading, or I prefer the word to influence others to consider a point of view; and being a careful and thoughtful evaluator of attempts to influence you.” Clark said the latter includes seeing through dishonesty and manipulation, detecting honesty and sincerity, “and how to think through consequences.”

“Rhetoric and democracy are about a lot more than politics,” Clark continued. “The democracy that matters most day-to-day isn’t governmental, it’s how we treat each other when we do the things we: You can be democratic in a business, or undemocratic. You can be democratic in school, or undemocratic. You can be democratic in a family, or undemocratic. The interests of the individual and the group are best served if individuals are free to make the choices they want to make and have their decisions respected.”

“If you’re working with other people, and have to share resources, you have two ways of doing that: One is by force, and the other is by persuasion and influence.”

“Rhetoric, in most people’s minds, is limited to words…but there are other things that are powerfully rhetorical, influence people and affect their attitudes,” Clark continued, pointing out that BYU-Hawaii’s main visual icon, the David O. McKay mural, reminds those who visit and enter of the university’s purposes. He also said this type of experiential rhetoric “is designed to reinforce in the minds of people…particular attitudes of the place they are in, and the goal of that place. That mural is designed to remind every one of us that we are part of a prophetic mission.”

Clark said the beautifully landscaped Hale La’a Boulevard in Laie, the road leading from the beach to the temple, is another example of experiential rhetoric. “This is an assertion. This is the Church saying, without words, that this is some place special you shouldn’t ignore.” He added that the Polynesian Cultural Center is another “powerful example” of such non-verbal rhetorical influence.

“Rhetoric is not just in words and writing,” he said. “We construct experiences to influence people, if not their acts.”

Clark also said a Latter-day Saint Church leader in a General Conference address tries to help us “see the world a little differently, and understand something about our lives the way that person understands it…but the one thing that rhetoric doesn’t address is the power of the Spirit. Spirit is the ultimate influencer. Rhetoric doesn’t encompass that.”