Tuesday, 9 July 2013

What Is the Difference Between Rhetoric and Manipulation?

I think there is a clear practical case to be made for rhetoric: since it is becoming more interconnected the world depends increasingly on good communication, therefore anything that makes an individual communicate more clearly and persuasive is obviously a benefit to that person. But what is the ethical argument for rhetoric? Why would a person with high ideals and democratic sentiments (as I would like to think of myself) study such an art? This is one of the oldest questions in Western thought actually, so I do not expect to solve it in one blog post. But these are some thoughts I have on the subject:

The first problem in making that argument is definition. Rhetoric is often, though mistakenly, used to describe the deceptive practices of some politicians and salesmen, and Plato once accused it of being "flattery" with no intrinsic ethical value (though he is more positive about it in later dialogues). In other words, if rhetoric was a person, it would be seen as a scoundrel, a deceiver. So how do you defend a scoundrel? Well, you can't, because a scoundrel per definition is indefensible. What you do is show how that label or definition is misplaced, and that another definition is better. Rhetoric is concerned with persuasion, but what is mislabeled as rhetoric is really manipulation: "Psychological manipulation is a type of social influence that aims to change the perception or behavior of others through underhanded, deceptive, or even abusive tactics. By advancing the interests of the manipulator, often at another's expense, such methods could be considered exploitative, abusive, devious and deceptive." Though a person who persuades and one who manipulates may have the same end in mind, the process is different (as I will show later in this post). The end does not justify any means in rhetoric, because, as most honored rhetoricians have observed, the means of influence can have implications which are more severe than the influencer ever dreamed of.

Of course, every definition depends upon some other definition. What does it mean that something is ethical? Rather than subscribing to a specific theory of ethics, Kantian or otherwise, I will work from a definition of ethical as something which promotes ends which are commonly held as good or favorable to individuals and society, and while doing so adheres to a common code of acceptable behavior.    

Plato argued in Gorgias that rhetoric is unethical because its end is power, which is not necessarily good for everyone, and it achieves this end through flattery, which is dishonest and prevents good judgment.


The immediate ends of rhetoric, according to Isocrates, are persuasion and judgment. How can persuasion, which is a method of power or influence, be ethical? Well, one may as well ask how any kind of power or influence can be ethical. We have to use methods of power and influence on each other, since that is the only way we can function as a society. People don't think the same way, and without a method of aligning thought, attitudes, and actions, even temporarily, any kind of communal living would be impossible. To have a society, people actually have to agree first that they are a part of a society. Therefore, though methods of power always have a sinister potential, persuasion should be evaluated in comparison to the alternatives for aligning thought.

I think a good starting place is this description from Bryan Garsten's Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment: "Persuasion in the strict sense identifies a way of influencing that is neither manipulation nor pandering. The speaker who manipulates his audience so as to bring them to a belief or action without their consent, as Kant thought orators moved men 'like machines,' has not persuaded but coerced. In contrast, the speaker who merely finds out where his audience itches and then scratches there, as Plato thought pandering Athenian orators did, has not managed to change his listener's minds at all. To truly persuade people is to induce them to change their own beliefs and desires in light of what has been said. Though we speak of 'being persuaded' in the passive voice, we recognize the difference between being persuaded and being indoctrinated or brainwashed; the difference lies in the active independence that is preserved when we are persuaded" (7). Persuasion is never complete when an orator has finished speaking. It includes a process of internal deliberation and evaluation which enlists all of our rational, emotional, and deliberative faculties. As Garsten goes on to write, "An orator does not coerce; he merely puts words into the air . . . mental digestion is a process over which we can exercise some control. We reject arguments that seem far-fetched or suspicious. Being persuaded is not the same as learning, but it is related. When someone sits back and decides, 'All right, you have persuaded me,' he is not merely describing something that has happened to him. In spite of the grammar, he is describing something he has done" (7).

Rhetoric is the art of "finding the available means of persuasion in any given situation" and since persuasive speech is not powerful enough to coerce and persuasion is not achieved through mere flattery, rhetoric cannot be reduced to pandering or manipulation. Rhetoric depends on individual judgment, and thus it respects agency. Manipulation, on the other hand, tries to make use of automatic responses, neurological pathways, and mental reflexes to change ones mind without detection. A perfect "victim" for a manipulator will never know what hit him. The mechanism of persuasion is much more overt, and it involves choice.

This appeal to judgment or agency may be one of the most democratic aspects of rhetoric, which may make it ethical in a society which values argument rather than force as a method of influence. As Kenneth Burke writes, "Persuasion involves choice, will; it is directed to a man only insofar as he is free" (50). Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca elaborate this point: "The use of argumentation implies that one has renounced resorting to force alone, that value is attached to gaining the adherence of one's interlocutor by means of reasoned persuasion, and that one is not regarding him as an object, but appealing to his free judgment. Recourse to argumentation assumes the establishment of a community of minds, which, while it lasts, excludes the use of violence. To agree to discussion means readiness to see things from the viewpoint of the interlocutor, to restrict oneself to what he admits, and to give effect to one's own beliefs only to the extent that the person one is trying to persuade is willing to give his assent to them" (55). As Dupreel writes, "Every justification is essentially a moderating act, a step toward greater communion of heart and mind." From these statements, argumentation (which inevitably uses rhetoric) is ethical because it is a method of influence which is more equal and less destructive than the alternative (violence, as shown below).


So persuasion is better than coercion through violence, but I would go even further. This is messy territory where not all rhetoricians would agree with me, but it is my personal opinion: Rhetoric can teach us how to use more ethical ways of communicating and how to improve our judgment.

It is usually acknowledged that there are two parts of rhetoric: rhetorica utens (the use of persuasive resources) and rhetorica docens (the study of persuasive resources). From Aristotle onwards, there has always been a normative element to rhetorica docens. There is, to be reductive, "good" persuasion and "bad" persuasion, good rhetoric and bad rhetoric. The best grounding I can think of for this distinction is found in the ancient often unspoken connection between rhetoric and democracy. As Tacitus writes, rhetoric needs the liberty of democracy to flourish. It was a system of learning bred and developed as a tool for and product of democratic deliberation, and that spirit remained in its traditions, topics and exercises. Good rhetoric therefore respects the constraints of democratic deliberation and considers what impact both its form and content will have on future public deliberations and indeed the demos itself. This is where there is a real difference between Hitler and Martin Luther King, even though both of them were very effective orators. In my coursework I will study Hitler in order to know what to guard against and how to debunk similar rhetoric in our society today, but I will not teach my students to talk, write, or think like him. Bad rhetoric poisons the well of public deliberation and undermines the virtues which are essential for a democracy. It prepares the way for totalitarianism. Good rhetoric supports and adheres to the basic virtues of democratic deliberation, one of the main being that you actually listen to both sides in a dispute. This normative function of rhetoric is perhaps best examplified by Isocrates and Cicero. Isocrates uses much of his Antidosis to teach and remind his audience about the dynamics and norms for good deliberation. For example, he warns his jury, "Those states in which an occasional citizen is put to death without a trial we condemn as unfit to live in, yet are blind to the fact that we are in the same case when we do not hear with equal good will both sides of the contest." He is warning here that if we do not hear both sides willingly and as much as possible without prejudice, our democratic deliberations may be no better than the arbitrary decisions of tyrants. Paul Woodruff writes that the intellectuals behind Athenian democracy "cultivated rhetoric and good judgment for their power in sorting out the better uncertainties from weaker ones" (176). 

This brings us to how rhetoric leads to better judgment. Eugene Carver mentions three ways, from an Aristotelian perspective, in which rhetoric can teach, train, and improve our judgment.
1. By judging persuasive speeches we experience an argument as an argument. Often we consider what we are being told as simple fact and do not realize that we are being given arguments which need to be evaluated for validity and acceptability before they should be accepted or rejected.
2. We learn not to rely solely on antecedent opinions, or what is usually called "reputation." It becomes clearer to us that those former judgments were also the results of a form of deliberation, and it may be faulty. Things that today seem cut in stone were at one time fluid; they were deliberated and argued and there were dissenting arguments at the time which may have been valid and which may contain lessons and warnings for current problems. 
3. We learn that concerning persuasion on deliberative matters there are no experts. Nobody can know what the future will be like, and nobody can know for sure what a certain course of action will lead to in the future. As such, we have to make decisions based on educated guesses and conjecture, and sometimes a normal citizen can have valuable insights into uncertain choices gained from personal experience which the experts are blind to because of the nature of their expertise.
Isocrates adds that the process of finding a good argument is similar to the process of deliberation that leads to good judgment, and therefore is good training: "for the same arguments which we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts; and, while we call eloquent those who are able to speak before a crowd, we regard as sage those who most skillfully debate their problems in their own minds." Most of the decisions in our everyday life we have to make by applying our skill of judgment to contingent and uncertain situations. The best of course would be complete certainty, but, as Isocrates writes, "in the next resort I hold that man to be wise who is able by his powers of conjecture to arrive generally at the best course, and I hold that man to be a philosopher who occupies himself with the studies from which he will most quickly gain that kind of insight." In other words, as Woodruff claims, "Rhetoric has more to do with setting up the conditions for good judgment than with persuasion . . . By bringing out the best points on both sides, rhetoric serves the cause of good judgment" (185). 

Finally, I guess my ethical case for rhetoric is based on my personal experience of teaching, studying, practicing, and experiencing it. Rhetoric does not overwhelm judgment. Judgment is all it can appeal to if it seeks to have any kind of power. A rhetorician meets an audience where they stand, with their experiences, beliefs, prejudices, hopes, fears, and desires, and works within their language and values to invite them to consider or reconsider opinions, attitudes, or actions. Any leader concerned about the deficits of public judgment should encourage the teaching of rhetoric and make the experience of citizen life a course in deliberative democracy. That decentralizes persuasive power, making people more immune to demogoguery which will forever be a potential evil in human societies. In the end, democratic deliberation teaches us humility. Any rhetor, no matter how skilled or thorough, in the end has to defer to the audience and say, as Isocrates at the end of his Antidosis, "Being assured, therefore, that I am of this mind, and that I believe that whatever you decide will be for my good and to my advantage, let each one cast his vote as he pleases and is inclined."

You have read my arguments and you have compared them with your own experiences, knowledge, and feelings. What do you think?