Guest Post by Pamela Lindsay: A Crash Course in Rhetoric.

Apropos Paul’s post Of Decolonisation and Marranos , re: the perlocutionary force of language.

The extent to which language controls thought is a hotly debated topic. John McWhorter, for one, argues language doesn’t control thought as much as some believe. 

Still, the belief that language controls thought is widespread and underpins many political movements, many ending in -ism, e.g. feminism. The introduction of Ms.; changing the gender ordering on an invitation; God the mother; de-gendering occupations, such as ‘mail carrier’ rather than ‘mailman’; and so on. 

To the extent that the material conditions led to a change in language, or that language led to a change in the material conditions which then led to the emancipation and enfranchisement of women, I don’t know. How would one?

What is known is that language has changed, the role of women in the West has changed, and material conditions have changed. Was it the cries for equality or the invention of the birth control pill that was the greater catalyst for women’s liberation? 

But since language and material conditions both played some role, and since the change matters to us, we’ll keep asking these questions. Unanswerable questions are not unfruitful questions. The questions we ask can determine the fruits we pick. The fruits we pick are those we desire. And desire is indexed to our present material – social and political – conditions.

Mick Jagger belted out a trivial truth: we can’t always get what we want. But sometimes we can get what we want. Sometimes what we want belongs to someone else. And so we reckon with how we can have it, or at least a piece of it. We can ask. We can bargain. Or we can force it from his grubby little hands, as Hobbes says, “by secret machination or by confederacy with others.”

As a woman, I am economically disadvantaged. I want higher wages. I ask my boss for a raise. I get the raise, but it’s not enough. I’m told that’s the most I’ll get, but I believe I can get more. I look at what I have available as leverage. I point out that (1) I belong to a class that’s been disadvantaged for millennia by men. (2) I argue that this disadvantage is unfair. Therefore, (3) he must pay me a higher wage. (3) does not follow from (2). But the confederacy of government agents, legal professionals, and other women standing behind me provide a very powerful reason for my boss to give me a raise. As would a photo of him with his pants down … in the sheep stall of a barn. 

We humans desire only what we believe are in our grasp. If fulfilment of a desire is thought impossible to attain or it’s been satisfied, then it’s no longer a desire. 

Often there are impediments to attaining our desires. And these include the interests of others. 

If I’m disadvantaged, and my being disadvantaged is neither a disadvantage nor a benefit to you, then I need to elicit, or maybe more aptly, solicit, your desire to remediate my disadvantage. And so my solicitation will include a narrative that highlights the disadvantages you will incur by not doing so, and the benefits you will gain. 

These narratives are of the kind that sell laundry detergent. Detergent ads pitch the disadvantages incurred by the personal shame of having a dingy, permanently stained blouse, and the advantages of having a new-looking blouse that smells great. I’m sold! But are others? 

How many others do you need to buy-in to your product? You’re pitching your detergent to a lot of people, in your own country and maybe abroad. And you’re up against competitors pitching their respective detergents to the same, often by comparing their detergents to the leading brand A — yours. Brand B is cheaper than A, your kid will be deprived of Disneyland if you don’t save money. Brand C is more expensive than A and B, but works better in cold water. You do want to reduce power consumption so your child has a future, don’t you?

Isn’t it interesting how the themes in laundry detergent ads correspond with three fundamental social and political interests – morality, economy, and the environment? Laundry detergent doesn’t care if it’s bought or sold, but people do. Hence these fundamental interests underpin all of the political economy, laundry detergent as much as the redress of my disadvantage.  One is hard pressed to find an example that doesn’t include morality and the distribution of resources. 

The remediation of my disadvantage is likely to diminish the benefits of others, exacerbate the disadvantage of still other disadvantaged people, and benefit others only so long as the remediation of my disadvantage is sustained (e.g. Frances Widdowson’s Aboriginal Industry). Hence the stories I tell, the questions I ask, and the words I use need to be carefully selected for these selected audiences. As do those I diminish or suppress.

Indexed to different milieux, there are places we ought not go, taboos and orthodoxies we ought not challenge. I’m well-advised to know what these no goes are so I can avoid them or leverage them to my advantage. And here especially I’ll need to be very mindful of word choice. “My lived experience” will heighten the allegiance of some among my university crowd. But just imagine “my lived experience” spoken in a Southern drawl from the lips of a recently broke old white man wearing a MAGA hat and sitting on a rusty tractor. It’s because neither you nor I can do so without laughing that he won’t give two shits about my three dollar an hour pay gap. Nor should he. 

As Viminitz has said, “my lived experience” is about group membership. 

All that I’ve described here belongs to rhetoric, which Aristotle defines as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” (Rhetoric, 1355b, 25) Rhetoric gets a bad rap because of its association with sophistry, speech used to fool ya’. But rhetoric just describes the way we all use speech to bring others around to our point of view. Rhetoric was used by both Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Even if you don’t like rhetoric, I’ll bet you want a good speech writer on your side. Some people are naturally silver-tongued devils, like the kid who could always talk his way out of run-ins with the cops. Others aren’t so gifted, but can get better with practice. Hence back in the day a classical education included rhetoric. 

Aristotle identifies three divisions of rhetorical oratory: i) Forensic is used to attack or defend someone for a past action; ii) Ceremonial is indexed to the present state of affairs and “praises or censures somebody”; and, iii) Political is “concerned with the future: it is about things to be done hereafter, [that the orator] advises for or against.” (Rhetoric, 1358b, 15) 

My interest is in political rhetoric.

The political orator aims at establishing the expediency or the harmfulness of a proposed course of action; if he urges its acceptance, he does so on the grounds that it will do good; if he urges its rejection, he does so on the grounds it will do harm; and all other points, such as whether the proposal is just or unjust, honourable or dishonourable, he brings in as relative and subsidiary to this main consideration. Parties in a law-case aim at establishing the justice or injustice of some action, and they too bring in all other points as relative and subsidiary to this one. Those who praise or attack a man aim at proving him worthy of honour or the reverse, and they too treat all other considerations with reference to this one.

Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1358b, 15

Let’s take Hobbes at his word that, A man’s actions proceedeth from his opinions. And let’s take Aristotle at his word that rhetoric can induce an opinion. The aim of rhetoric is to drive people’s actions toward or away from some thing. Perhaps the injustice of the gender pay gap. 

Would that a woman were alone in the world, there would be no battle for the equity of wages. 

Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions [*desire and aversion]. These are qualities that relate men in society, not in solitude.

Hobbes, Leviathan, Pt 1, Ch 13

So how do these disputes arise? Why can’t we all just get along? A woman’s equity in pay, that she has it or doesn’t, is an element of prediction and control as indexed to corresponding moral spheres. Here a word-soufflé of passionate rhetoric mushrooms and expands, but at its nucleus is the equilibrium from where these two moral spheres collide. A population that reaches these equilibriua is a stable polity, and a stable polity tends to enhance the survival and delectation of its members. Even of those at the bottom of its social echelon, in comparison to populations without such equilibria. For all our worries, Canada’s reservations are not behind barbed wire and are not riddled with shrapnel. 

But there exists an asymmetry between the survival and delectation of those on and off the reservation. And its redress threatens the stability of the broader polity in which they’re both embedded unless it’s done cautiously, attending other interests and evaluating autonomous effects. These considerations are not something the outraged activist is likely to reckon with, and in fact she might be prohibited from doing so. The only good traitor is a dead traitor by some people’s reckoning. A band of brothers can take special glee in putting one of their own, like Pvt. Eddie Slovik, in their rifle sights and firing. Such is the peril of the peacemaker if her good intentions are misinterpreted. Or resented.

As for the outraged activist, if she achieves anything at all it might be shooting herself in the foot. She’s likely the one calling the peacemaker a traitor, screaming for his blood. 

“If any two men desire the same thing which never-the-less they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavor to destroy or subdue one another”

Leviathan, Pt 1, Ch 13, 3


(See Saturday Morning Pam-toons: And from this, an entire political theory.) 

Carl Von Clausewitz says war is a continuation of politics by other means. Some, such as Michel Foucault and Paul Viminitz, suggest Von Clausewitz’s definition might be inverted to read politics is a continuation of war by other means. I add another means: political rhetoric. 

If political rhetoric is a means of war, bear in mind Hobbes’ observation that the two cardinal virtues of war are “force and fraud.” And so neither should anyone be surprised or appalled by tactics used by political rhetors to move the masses, nor be too readily be impressed.

Can one trust anything said in political rhetoric? First ask what alternatives to political rhetoric are available. Pol Pot had a solution. As did Stalin. So you might now sigh with relief at how disturbed you are by a cacophony of rhetoric. 

One way to cut through the noise and evaluate rhetorical arguments is to commit a little time thinking about their perlocutionary force. What do people do with rhetoric, and how do they achieve it? How is it that words hook up to mental states, and mental states to words? What strategies are employed to move a mind, and how does a mind move a body? Who is your Pied Piper? Here’s a crash course.

Aristotle identifies three modes of rhetoric: character (ethos), emotion (pathos), and the argument, a proof or apparent proof (logos). 

Plato, as analytic philosophers today, tries to cut out the ethos and pathos to evaluate arguments. This is where a schism develops between philosophy and rhetoric, the former thought by some to lead to truth and the latter to trickery. 

But, as Hume points out, philosophers are human and nature will have her way. Our training makes it less likely we’ll go down the road of fallacies and logical errors, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Especially when philosophers give their hearts to an activist cause. 

Contrary to rumour, analytic philosophers do have hearts. And because a heart will have its way if left to its own devices, philosophy is at its best in a community that practices combative camaraderie. And preferably a community comprised of perspectival diversity that sets a special plate at the table for a devil’s advocate. If the only ethicists in a department are two women who are both Kantians, how likely are Utilitarian and Hobbesian analyses going to be brought to bear on a problem? The Kantian analyses might prove the best fit, but how would we know? 

Ethos and pathos don’t readily come apart, since people tend to have strong emotional reactions to people they consider good, e.g. Kantians, or evil, e.g. Hobbesians. One man’s villain is another’s hero. Relying on ethos and pathos alone are shortcuts to judgment. The brain is a metabolically expensive organ, so evolution has provided mental shortcuts that conserve energy. And in familiar settings, these shortcuts are near-enough good-enough to get us through the night. However, they aren’t so reliable when we encounter strangers in unfamiliar settings. The political arena is unfamiliar to most of us, as are politicians. And so like Jiminy Cricket, we let our conscience be our guide. With such limited time and so much information, do we have a choice?

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken to make us think him credible. We believe good men more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.” (Rhetoric, 1356a, 10) Such as? Such as anthropogenic global warming, the intent of the architects of residential schools, whether transgender women should compete in cisgender women’s sports … .

A lot of people believe that strong emotional reactions impede reasoning and lead us into trouble. And this is often true. The problem is that people can over-generalize and think emotion is equivalent to bad reasoning. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio discovered that people who’s amygdalae were damaged became hyper-rational but made more decisions leading to bad outcomes. So it seems the human sweet-spot for emotion is in the Goldilocks zone – not too much, not too little. 

Cf. Hume, reason is a slave to the passions. Reason needs a driver, and so without some go-juice, as passions provide, there would be no reasoning at all. And certainly no disciplined reasoning, since the passions set us off in a particular direction. 

But, like driving, fewer accidents occur when we stay within the speed limit but pay attention to the road conditions. Sometimes we have to adjust our speed. But it’s better we do so with eyes open and both hands on the wheel. And sometimes we need to brake. Shit happens. Big animals do cross the highway. 

Emotion is one component of cognition, else it would have no leverage on thought. Emotion is vital for risk assessment, our survival, (Slovic, Kahneman, Damasio) and for our delectation (Kahneman) such as joy and love.

Without a shot of fear at the appropriate time, homo sapiens wouldn’t be called homo sapiens because sabre tooth tiger poop wouldn’t be called anything. One rhetorical strategy is to leverage this fear. 

A skilled rhetor can by words alone cause people to experience fear as if they’re looking close-up at the dangly thing deep in a sabre toothed tiger’s mouth. Hence one rhetorical strategy is to make a far off threat, whether geographically or in the future, seem immanent. This is a common strategy in global warming rhetoric. It’s real and it’s happening now! The house is on fire! Note the counter-rhetoric portrays these rhetors as alarmists and their rhetoric as Chicken Littles. Hence a volley of rhetoric: Denier! Alarmist! Denier! Alarmist! And back and forth, ad nauseum. This, in a nutshell, is the global warming debate. 

A skilled rhetor knows words get associated with particular attitudes and emotions, and so word choice becomes a critical part of his strategy. A single word can be loaded with powerful go-juice: genocide. Once this Molotov cocktail is tossed into an already emotionally volatile crowd, it can be very hard to clean up. The gases are easily ignited by just a little rubbing. 

Words connote attitudes and emotions, and attitudes and emotions are mental states belonging to individuals. So the words people use are one way others gauge their mental states. And, by gauging their mental states, the likelihood of their actions. This scanning for friend and foe is an attempt at prediction and control, another function of human cognition geared to our survival. And it’s another place a rhetor can gain some leverage, because she can dissimulate to look like a friend. 

The words people use are taken as evidence of mental states, and mental states are taken as evidence of the speaker’s character. It doesn’t follow that the words people use are, alone, indicative of her character, but in an unpredictable world it isn’t a bad heuristic. 

A denotation is what a word picks out in the world. Viminitz’s worry about words such as my lived experience is that they don’t denote. People think they do, but when you push on these words for a meaning, if they’re not trivially true, they usually die the death of a thousand qualifications. But pushing on these words can evoke a defensive emotional response. Why are you bullying me? 

Like other animals, when humans encounter something unexpected, they try to get a scent. They sniff the air, What are you? Friend, foe? Can I take you, can you take me? 

If we feel uncertain about whether another is friend or foe, we’re not at ease. And our uneasiness dials up the threat scanner in the back of our heads. We scrutinize our interlocutor, looking for signs. We use words peculiar to our group memberships, like my lived experience. And when she doesn’t reply in kind, we’re still uneasy. If she rolls her eyes, we might launch into fight or flight mode. With one gesture, she has identified herself as a foe. And even if we accept her protests of innocence, she’ll always be stained by our suspicion. In fact, her protest might make us all the more certain she is a foe, Methinks the lady doth protest too much. 

One powerful rhetorical strategy is to elicit fear, and fear is very difficult to override. Daniel Kahneman says one instance of fear might remain a fear for life. Hence trust, once broken, is hard to win back. Unscrupulous rhetors can especially take advantage of people’s shortcut reasoning where fear is involved, fear = bad and wrong. Of course eliciting fear can backfire since some people will believe they can’t trust anyone, the unscrupulous rhetor included.   

Since emotion is a critical component of cognition for risk evaluation, especially when a quick reflex is required, it can be dialed up (run) and dialed down (relax). A skilled rhetorician can play these dials like a disc jockey in a country ‘n’ western bar. You’ll go from line dancing to waltzing to suicide in the nine minutes and fifty-four seconds it takes to play three consecutive songs. Although if you don’t like country music, you’ll likely avoid the bar. But just remember the control a disc jockey has over your dance steps! 

Rhetors use words as their dials. And words that elicit outrage, genocide, or pity, think of the children, tend to the maximum settings on the dial. Notwithstanding these settings are sometimes clearly warranted, they’re often not. Hence rhetoric leads to more rhetoric, but not usually to getting clear on the meaning of words. Nor to the facts of the matter in a given situation. I believe there’s a song that goes, words get in the way. 

Yet much political rhetoric just is about the meaning of words, because the meaning of a number of words just are political decisions: genocide, pronouns, rape, consent…. Again, if two men desire the same thing which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy … to whom pronouns refer, cultural genocide or genocide … they become enemies and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.  

If words don’t directly control thought, they can certainly be an outboard motor that impels one this way or that through the social and political waters. Sometimes at full throttle. 

I leave off with some advice.

  1. Slow down. Controversies tend to generate high-octane rhetoric. 

Don’t cut your engine, but pull back on the throttle. Identify not only your own emotional buttons, but also both the characters and words that press them. I have a class chip on my shoulder (I’m trailer trash) that circumvents careful reasoning. Often unexpectedly. I try to be cognizant of this button and work very hard to recognize it, but often I have to rely on my husband to recognize it for me. A good practice is to cultivate friendships with people you trust who don’t have the same buttons. 


  1. Beware of grand narratives that demonize one’s opponents or glorifies one’s own side. Let people be shits or saints on their own merit. Of course there are people you shouldn’t trust. I merely caution against knee-jerk reactions. Even then, people you shouldn’t trust aren’t necessarily bad people. You can love Aunt Emma dearly and not trust her with a secret. Trust requires indexicals: who should trust whom with what? 

 I’ve said on my blog, 

Look below a grand narrative, e.g. left vs right, dark vs light, and you will discover people doing the best they can with the circumstances in which they find themselves.

So be a little charitable. For all the bad airplay the statement mistakes were made gets, mistakes really are made. People get sloppy. Politicians and activists aren’t always that well educated, even those with a degree, and for the most part they do what we all have to do – rely on sources we trust for information. By which I mean we trust. 

  1. Remember that rhetoric emerges from our shared lives, and shared life is a common interest if no other can be found. And an alternative to ethnic cleansing! 

“‘The ancient rhetoricians taught their pupils that no man is an island, and our politics, morality, and sociality depend on beings who think and feel.”(*38) Ancient practitioners of rhetoric recognized that people hold diverse opinions on matters of moral and political import, and so on such matters they will inevitably disagree. Rhetoric was used to “make decisions, resolve disputes, and mediate public discussion of important issues.” (*12) And so, as Aristotle says, rhetoric does not arise “from the fancies of crazy people, but out of material that calls for discussion.” (Rhetoric, 1357a)

*Crowley, Sharon, and Debra Hawhee. Ancient rhetorics for contemporary students. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.

**Addendum July 23/21: (3) It’s unlikely discussion will happen — no disputes resolved, no decisions made — without attending (1) and (2).

  1. Read the following three books as one work: Aristotle’s Rhetoric ; Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind; and, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Respectively: strategy, morality, and cognition. 

Of course, if you read all three books you are now the most dangerous person on the planet. There’s always the risk that by understanding how to bend people to your will, you can use it to achieve world domination. Just remember me favourably when you come for the academics. Someone has to look after the dogs. 

Categories: Guest Posts

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1 reply

  1. I wonder if deciding which came first, language or thought is a bit like deciding which came first, the chicken or the egg. And is it possible that we thought in terms of images rather than language those many years ago? Two your second point, I would argue that our reason rides on top of our much larger and more powerful emotion and we do need emotion for our reason to work properly, even though we made be led down the garden path to a less than efficacious result given our proclivities for group membership.


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