Rescuing Rhetoric

rhet·o·ric  ˈredərik/


the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.


Two people were shot and killed around the corner from me.  This happened on Monday, December 7.  A man drove into our neighborhood, targeted these two individuals, murdered them, and drove away.  Within the next 24 hours he would take his own life.  Our neighbors were scared.  There were witnesses who saw and smelled and heard things that are nightmarish and mercilessly unforgettable.  We are a shaken community.

Lives were lost.  Children were scarred.  Families were broken.  But that is not all.  Because then came the words.  For years this neighborhood has lived under the weight of a ruinous reputation.  In the past, the greater community saw higher crime and limited resources in this area and wrote it off for good.  The dominant narrative said that you would only live in this neighborhood if you were absolutely incapable of going anywhere else in town.  For the last 10 years residents have worked tirelessly to change that story.  They know that this battle of words is not trivial.  It is vital to the soul of the community.  Crime is down.  Relationships among neighbors are stronger than ever.  Neighborhood leaders have done incredible things.  They have won inspirational victories in community development.  But what may be more difficult to win is the war of words.  Leaders fight against entrenched rhetoric that classifies certain places as bad.  An isolated incident like this happens and the zombie narrative reanimates: That neighborhood is no good.

The public argument is critical.  It can be devastating to a community.  It may matter just as much as other measures of community health.  And this neighborhood has endured some nasty rhetoric.  But is that the only example of rhetoric at work in this story?  Not at all.

Neighborhood residents led a powerful counter-narrative.  And we employed several rhetorical forms depending on the context.  In the days following the shooting we flooded every medium we could with positive reminders of the talent, growth, and hope so evident in our neighborhood - Facebook, local news outlets, community meetings (where the Chief of Police joined the chorus of praises), and private conversations.  We are desperate to maintain the community pride that has been so hard won.  It has been a public deluge of rhetoric coming to the noble defense of this hurting, beautiful place.

And never has our world need rhetoric that is life-giving, gracious, and thoughtful more than it does today.

But we almost never think of rhetoric that way.   When politicians make empty promises we say it is “only rhetoric.”  When Donald Trump spews his latest xenophobia we call it “rhetoric.”  Here at Shared Justice we recently had an excellent piece on the dangers of polarized rhetoric.  Rhetoric has come to stand for empty words, when it originally described the construction of arguments. 

Either way, rhetoric has defined 2015.

I would argue that it may be the most important lens through which we can view the year’s news.  It has been a year when it seemed that “persuasive speaking and writing” mattered very much.  We scrutinized Hillary Clinton’s emails.  We argued over the handling of the refugee crisis and the way we even speak about refugees.  Media used animal references to describe the crisis.  We talked about them as if they were a natural disaster.  And people noticed and pointed out the dehumanizing nature of that language.  College students lifted their voices to talk about racial symbols and structures and the definition of “safe space.”  Their speaking and writing sparked public discourse and arguments and resignations.   People championed and questioned the effectiveness of President Obama’s Oval Office address.  Christians increasingly spoke out about public rhetoric.  Many denounced Donald Trump’s opinions and expressed their deep disagreement with the militant language of Jerry Falwell Jr. We may be seeing an awakening to the important power of rhetoric in our public life. 

Let’s rescue rhetoric.  Let’s rescue the word itself.  Rhetoric is not bad.  It describes the ways we craft our communication - the content, the style, and the persuasive properties.  It can serve a noble purpose in our political life.  It is not a necessary evil for politics.  It is a potential good.  It is the reminder to construct our viewpoints well.  Rescuing rhetoric helps us remember that our words have power to shape political realities.  How we look at rhetoric influences how we engage in the public square and how we pursue public justice.  Our goal is not to avoid rhetoric altogether because it is bad or just to avoid bad rhetoric.  Our passion as followers of Christ is to embrace excellent, life-giving, dignifying rhetoric.  Rhetoric that honors our audience through intelligence, playfulness, and thoughtfulness.  Rhetoric that does justice to our opponents with civility and fairness.  Rhetoric that proclaims hope in the face of so much cynicism.  The goal is to love rhetoric and make it our life’s work to study it so as to craft winsome arguments and stories. 

To rescue rhetoric is to regain the hope that misguided politicians do not own a monopoly on our public life.  It means that Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant declarations are not the only rhetoric we can point to. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s welcome to refugees at the airport is rhetoric in action.  “This is a wonderful night,” he said simply.   Rhetoric is the pain and beauty of President Obama singing Amazing Grace during his Charleston eulogy.  Rhetoric is the genius of the simple hashtag #blacklivesmatter, which was an incredible melding of content, style, and inspiration, enough to launch a movement (and yes, it is good, life-giving rhetoric – for a concise, clear defense see here; or see Soong Chan Rah’s brief, biting comments here ). The articulate responses to Trump’s blustering also utilize rhetoric.  These include Dick Cheney’s rebuttal of Mr. Trump. There are good arguments growing in the world, too. 

In some ways, as we pursue justice together, all of life is political.  And all of politics needs rhetoric. We need the creative crafting of ideas and the persuasion of an audience. And never has our world needed rhetoric that is life-giving, gracious, and thoughtful more that it does today.  Part of our vision for human flourishing is a society where a rich tapestry of ideas abounds in the public square.  When they are guided by quality rhetoric, the words themselves become part of the public justice we so desperately desire.      

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.