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4.1 Rhetoric - Advanced

What happens when we make ourselves understood?

Have you ever thought about how acts of communication happen? This is an important question that plays out in our lives every day. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who has had a profound impact on the Western world on a range of topics from politics to ethics, was also fascinated by this and he developed a theory of communication called rhetoric. This theory, set down in his book Rhetoric, has been with us since around 384-322 BCE. It’s no coincidence that democracy and rhetoric emerged from the same culture as when the people have a say in the running of the country, they need to be persuaded to certain points of view.

The rhetorical triangle

Aristotle believed that when people communicated they had three primary means of influence:

  • the arguments made and logic used by the composer (logos)
  • the personal character and, therefore, credibility of the composer (ethos) 
  • how the composer affected the emotions of the audience (pathos).

The relationships between these elements are often represented as a triangle and, as you can see by the arrows in the diagram, each element interacts with the others.

Today we also take into account the purpose of the text, its genre, and the context of the composer and the responder. 

We need to consider the interplay of all these elements when we compose texts and when we analyse, evaluate and reflect on the effectiveness of texts.

The rhetoric of images

Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric proposes that communication comes down to one person or group wanting another to understand and even accept that what they are saying is correct. This is how rhetoric plays a significant role in the ways people make themselves understood.

The image shows Raphael’s famous artwork The School of Athens. Here Raphael depicts many of the great Greek philosophers. The two figures in the centre of the image are Plato and his student Aristotle. Look carefully at this image and think about how Raphael’s representation of Plato and Aristotle operates rhetorically.

With another student, discuss:

  • how Raphael depicts the credibility and character of Aristotle and Plato – you might consider the architectural space, the centrality of these two significant philosophers and their distinctive gestures (ethos)
  • how the highly dramatic quality of the scene creates intensity in its depiction of the philosophers who are reading, writing, lecturing, arguing, demonstrating, questioning, listening, pondering and doubting. How do you think this influences the emotions of the viewer as they consider the subject matter of the artwork? (pathos)
  • the argument suggested in this artwork about the contribution of the philosophers to human thought. (logos)

But things are different in our own world.

How do we make our way in the world?

Consider this scenario:

You have decided to go to the movies. You have chosen the movie from an online ticketing site that has a mix of words, numbers, invitations to ‘Like’ on Facebook, offers for comment on Twitter. There are ads on the website promoting other movies, foods, local cafes, promos and giveaways.

You travel to the movies in a car that has a name – Hyundai, Audi, Cherokee, Aurion, a number plate that signifies place, purchase, sometimes the identity of the driver. As you drive down the road there is political advertising and banners displayed by community groups. Someone walks down the footpath with a T-Shirt, bag and shoes carrying brand names.

In the cinema foyer there are people talking on phones in different languages, others are texting on their phones, reading magazines or books. You take a selfie with your friends. It is destined for Instagram.

This is the rhetoric of the everyday. Here, rhetoric refers to the whole range of ways human beings draw on resources in their worlds to influence how people see one another.

Working with a partner:

  • make a list of all the ways people are making their way in the world by trying to influence others in this scenario
  • map one of these ways by drawing a rhetorical triangle, identifying ethos, logos and pathos at the three corners, explaining their relationships along the sides of the triangle.

What are the ways we see and say the world?

Different groups and activities in society use language in particular ways. This is called ‘discourse’. Brian Moon defines ‘discourse’ as the ways particular areas of human activity have their own particular ‘language’ [Literary Terms: A Practical Glossary, Chalkface Press. 1999]. Rhetoric is an integral part of discourse.

Think about some of the discourses you might experience at school. Let’s consider the ways assessment may be represented in, for example, school life. Much of the language associated with assessment aligns it to the idea of ladders. There are steps in a task, achievement descriptors are often represented as rungs in marking guidelines, there are heights to climb.

The discourse of assessment here is about climbing higher and higher. Height is often associated with superior status (rising to the top, climbing the ladder) or an optimistic outlook (things are looking up).

The discourse of assessment is often rooted in notions of competition and measurable success, rather than notions of reflection on learning or corrections of misunderstandings. How we see and how we ‘say’ the world comes from particular discourses.
Discourses portray the world from a particular stance or viewpoint.

Working with a partner, choose one of these ad campaigns:

  • Speeding: How Sorry Will You Be? This interactive video puts you in the passenger seat of a speeding car, where you choose what happens next. If you’re in a car with a speeding driver, speak up and tell them to slow down – you may never get a second chance to. The campaign targets males aged 17 to 49, who are most frequently involved in fatal speed-related crashes.
  • The Speeding? You’re in our sights poster aligned with the Stop it. Or cop it campaign.

Working with a partner, explore the stances and viewpoints at play in one of these campaigns on student worksheet 4.1.1 Rhetoric: Discourse (Advanced).
You will need to look at other campaigns on the Centre for Road Safety website to complete the worksheet.

Why do we get what we expect?

Composers draw on accepted or predictable ways of thinking about the world when composing texts. These ways of thinking are influenced by historical, social and cultural assumptions that influence both the composers and responders. We see this through the use of aspects of language such as archetypes, stereotypes, clichés and familiar tropes or metaphors. Exploration of these aspects of language, common in literary, media and advertising texts, is involved in rhetorical analysis.

Advertisers may draw on archetypes to connect with their audiences. An archetype, a concept attributed to Plato, refers to an image, form or pattern of behaviour that recurs across different times and cultures. Archetypes build culture because they illustrate expected ways of reacting to various situations in life.

Archetypes may reveal themselves in diverse forms or elements of texts: image, character, motifs and genres.

Survey the advertisements on the Centre for Road Safety website and make a list of the archetypes that you can observe.

Choose one of the character archetypes that you have identified and write down/discuss:

  • What patterns of behaviour do you think create this archetype?
  • What mirror of behaviour is held up to society through this archetype?
  • Do the advertisers affirm or challenge these behaviours through their use of archetype?

Stereotypes are another reason we get what we expect because responders and composers both recognise the power of stereotypes. A stereotype is an over simplified assessment of someone or some group that becomes generally applied as an expectation to all people who are linked to this individual or group, for example by way of age, gender, physical appearance, race or occupation.

  • Do you think some representations in the Centre for Road Safety advertisements are more stereotypes or archetypes? Which ones?
  • In what ways do these work to ensure that we get what we expect?
  • How do you think the use of archetypes and stereotypes operates in persuading people to change their minds? 

Can we ever be sure others know what we mean?

Advertisements, such as those on the Centre for Road Safety website, aim to change the ways people do things. Their messages have to be clear and purposeful because the ultimate goal is to fix problems. Look carefully at the 30 Years of Random Breath Testing advertisement. Its purpose is to remind drivers that the campaign against drink driving is relentlessly ongoing. You can see how important it is that the audience is sure about the wide ranging on sequences of drink driving. The CRS needs to be sure others know what they mean.

The CRS has made deliberate rhetorical choices in this advertisement because they want to promote a particular set of values. In the field of advertising, this advertisement could be referred to as a ‘blunt instrument’. Its rhetorical methods are direct and heavy-handed because it wishes to elicit particular social behaviours through foregrounding arguments associated with notions of:

  • inevitability
  • fear
  • regret.

Write two or three sentences commenting on the representation of each of these ideas. Comment on the beliefs, values and attitudes that the advertisement taps into through these representations.

The impact of these representations, however, is dependent upon the responder’s attitudes, beliefs and values. In this way we could say that representation is inevitably a two-way process. Responders might accept the beliefs and values as suggested in the advertisement or they might resist them. Working with a partner, consider how this advertisement might be received by its broad audience, drivers in NSW:

  • what assumptions do you see underlying the attitudes and values portrayed in the advertisements that responders may need to accept?
  • which assumptions echo your worldview?
  • do you think we can be sure others know what we mean?
  • do you think we can be sure others accept what we mean?

Persuasion: Using rhetoric for effect
In our everyday world, the texts that we encounter tend to be multimodal. These too are composed with a clear rhetorical purpose

After choosing one of these posters from the CRS website, make notes analysing its rhetorical effect on student worksheet 4.1.2 Rhetoric: Persuasion (Advanced).

Bringing it all together: How can we make people believe what we say?

All of us are called on to make other people believe what we say. This happens on an almost daily basis at school when you discuss and propose answers to questions, solutions to problems and so on. Often at school we produce these answers in various forms of paragraphs and essays and in English you are encouraged to develop a strong personal voice along with your argument.

Often the best way to make people believe what you are saying is to make sure
you believe in what you are writing.

Working on your own, preview the advertisements on the Centre for Road Safety website and the information you have gathered from this sequence of activities. As you preview these texts, make a list of any issues, attitudes, archetypes, patterns, symbols or motifs that appeal to you across the different advertisements and activities. Use the student worksheet 4.1.3Rhetoric: Ideas (Advanced) to record a list of examples from different sections of the site that you think are important.

Next to each idea in your list, draft a sentence describing how the chosen aspect seems to be operating and/or how it is changing across the texts.

Working with a partner, share your sentences and edit them for clarity. Fill out the checklist on the worksheet.
Your sentences should state a claim about your view. By stating a claim, you will have a sense that you are writing with authority. You will show that you believe the position or stance you have taken.

Preview your sentences to choose one to develop as the focus for an essay. Use the Rhetorical aspect questions on page 2 of the student worksheet 4.1.3 Rhetoric: Ideas (Advanced) as a guide.

Refine your sentence so that you are pleased with the strength of its position, its stance. When you feel this way about the writing, you will write with authority. The stance will be the driving energy of your essay.
Now that you have developed a stance, review the examples from campaigns you have noted down earlier and select those that best relate to your stance. Use the Critical questions on page 3 of the student worksheet 4.1.3 Rhetoric: Ideas (Advanced) to guide your choice.

Writing your essay

Before you write your essay, there is another really important step. Sentences that link the stance in your writing to the evidence you have selected give your writing authority. Use the Notes on authority questions on page 4 of the student worksheet 4.1.3 Rhetoric: Ideas (Advanced) to develop your authority.

Go back and look at the rhetorical triangle diagram. By going through this process you have applied key aspects of rhetoric that strengthen essay composition. Now you have planned your rhetorical strategies, you can draft your essay.

Last update: 24th September 2020