Bitzer honestly said it best. Rhetoric is, in a nutshell, “the art of altering reality”; not literally, not in a god-like sense, there’s no physical reshaping of matter itself into the form of your choosing and omnipotent control of the very fabric of space and time- but y’know, that’s not far off.
Rhetoric is the capacity to influence another’s perception of reality, to alter the way that they view the world around them. It’s basically an art form, where words are the colors and the mind is the canvas. It’s as honest as it is deceptive, operates in a sort of moral grey area, and if we strap on our conspiracy goggles, basically controls every aspect of our lives.
We all know at least one person who’s good at finagling themselves out of a tight situation through clever wordplay and appealing to people’s latent sympathies. Younger siblings are particularly good at this. There’s also incorrigible politicians, inscrutable car salesmen, and that one precocious little girl scout who lives down the block and always manages to get you to buy twelve boxes of Samoas even though you swore that you’d stick to your diet plan this year… They’re everywhere. Rhetoric is everywhere. From toothpaste commercials to political protests to Saturday Morning Cartoons. People are constantly trying to get others to conform to their personal ideologies. Clever wordplay is just one particularly useful tool for accomplishing that.
And that doesn’t mean rhetoric is a bad thing. Sure, there are some bad apples- Hitler was accredited as being a particularly effective orator for all that he spouted a near constant stream of hate and vitriol, but there are just as many great speakers – Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus – who used their talents to influence others for good. Tobacco companies worked really hard to make smoking look cool so that they’d make bank off of cigarette sales, but many concerned health activists have managed to lower the number of smokers significantly through successful (and often visually disturbing) add campaigns. It goes both ways. Rhetoric is a tool, like any other, and can be used for good or for ill.
So to sum up, if I had to explain rhetoric in one sentence, using an example, I would say something like this: Rhetoric is the capacity to write an entire blogpost in response to an article you didn’t bother to read and still somehow manage to get a passing grade.
…Of course, the truth of that statement is, at the moment of writing this, nebulous- but whether Dr. Smith laughs at my cheekiness and accepts this post or gives me a zero for admitting my deception is irrelevant. In the end, all that matters is this-
Did you believe me?