Oct 2, 2014
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And guys. Guys, today we address the last of the three traditional branches of rhetoric. This makes me sad. We had the Law and Order rush of judicial or forensic rhetoric and the pageantry of epideictic rhetoric and today we come to deliberative, or political rhetoric. And then we won’t have any more branches of rhetoric, because if there’s one thing Aristotle loved, it’s breaking things down into threes.
It is, of course, Aristotle who thought to divide rhetoric into the three genres of judicial, epideictic and deliberative and there’s nothing that says rhetoric always fits into these handy three categories, but it was convenient for Aristotle to do so. Think about it: Three branches of rhetoric. One of them, the judicial, focuses on the past—did the accused do something accuse-worthy? One of them—epideictic—focuses on the present—let’s celebrate how great this day is right now. And so one of them, deliberative rhetoric, will focus on the future. Judicial, epideictic, deliberative; past, present, future; law, community, policy.
It’s deliberative rhetoric that focuses on determining a future course to take. Traditionally, this was read strictly, as a matter of political debate by those who had authority to determine policy for a city state—should we go to war with Sparta? As Aristotle says, deliberative rhetoric "aims at establishing the expediency or the harmfulness of a proposed course of action; if he urges its acceptance, he does so on the ground that it will do good; if he urges its rejection, he does so on the ground that it will do harm." Aristotle gave two pairs of criteria for practitioners of deliberative rhetoric to keep in mind as they chose their debates. First, the moral—is it good or is it unworthy? Good or unworthy includes ethical concerns, but not exclusively that. Remember that for Romans “virtue” meant “manly” and “gentleman” used to mean a rank and not a compliment, so in some ways, worthy has to do with a specific set of political and social ideals and not just some sort of kindness-first morality that seems more natural to contemporary readers. It may be “good” to go to war to avenge some perceived slight to the country’s aristocratic pride, if pride is considered a moral priority. Aristotle lists things that are “good” like good birth, bodily stature, wealth and reputation, which might seem a little shallow alongside ethical virtues like justice, courage and generosity.
The second pair of criteria are even more pragmatic: is it advantageous or disadvantageous? In this pairing, you can see these less squishy values becoming more important. The country needs money and war with Sparta will bring spoils and rewards. War with Sparta will increase our reputation as a fearsome city state. Things like that. So that’s Aristotle for you: deliberative rhetoric deals with the future, and you can argue about whether an act is good or whether it is advantageous.
But a lot has happened in the years and centuries and millennia since Aristotle. Mostly we keep going back to the divisions that Aristotle came up with, even though we have changed our ideas of democracy and deliberative rhetoric for that matter. Oh, but don’t worry—Aristotle isn’t the only person willing to divide things into three parts! G. Thomas Goodnight, a rhetoric professor at the University of Southern California, studies argumentation, especially deliberative rhetoric, and he decided that deliberative rhetoric can take place in what he calls three spheres—the public, the technical and the private. The public is the one that is most familiar to us.
We think of deliberative rhetoric as necessarily political, but that is not necessarily that case. If deliberative rhetoric just means “forward looking,” and “policy deciding” it doesn’t just have to be about whether we should go to war with Sparta—and not just because the city state of Sparta isn’t much of a threat anymore. No deliberative rhetoric can also include private arguments: from questions as trivial as “where should we go for lunch today?” To as important as “should our family accept that job in North Dakota?” and “should Billy join the marines?” These instances of deliberative rhetoric are usually informal—we have a speaker of the house, but we don’t have a speaker of the home. They are, however, no less important. Consider the impact during the 60s and 70s of a hundred thousand private deliberations over how to treat people of other races, or the family debates about moving to the city during the industrial revolution. Private sphere deliberation matters.
Technical deliberation is the deliberative rhetoric that takes place among experts who have specialized knowledge of the subject matter. For instance, you might think about a group might come up with professional standards or expectations like the rules of conduct for lawyers or teachers. They set rules of their own group. Technical deliberation might also result in suggests or recommendations for other groups. A group of climatologists, for example, might write a brief on climate change, or a congress of feminist scholars might make a declaration on pornography, something that everyone argues over until they can agree on a common stance. These experts can debate in a very technical and in-depth register.
When private and technical deliberation can’t get the job done, it’s time for public sphere deliberation. Goodnight classifies the public sphere as the "argument sphere that exists to handle disagreements transcending personal and technical disputes." Once things enter the public sphere of deliberation, Goodnight says it’s time to focus on the common good—not just what’s right for individuals or families, and not just for groups of experts, but for everyone in the public.
And that’s the general gist of deliberative rhetoric.
Now if you’re as sad as I am that we’ve wrapped up the last of the 3 genres of rhetoric, then I have good news for you! All month long, the month of October is going to be devoted to deliberative and political rhetoric. That’s right, to lead up to America’s election day on the first Tuesday of November we’re going to talk about all kinds of ideas and issues about using rhetoric in politics, especially in a democracy. So strap on your star-spangled goggles, for a wild ride into the radical idea that we can talk about what we’re going to do before we do it.