The term “rhetoric” is usually pejorative, especially in political discourse. “It’s just rhetoric” means someone is using fancy talk that doesn’t really mean anything. A “rhetorical question” is usually meant to evoke an obvious, often emotional response. And if you spent too much time in the liberal arts departments of a university, “rhetoric” might bring to mind the overly intellectual types with their heads in the clouds, reading essays by Marshall McLuhan or Jacques Derrida.
In fact, rhetoric stems from an ancient study of the art of discourse and persuasion. I took a class in rhetoric many years ago, and it did more to shape my thinking (not just my writing or speech) than any other class I’ve taken. Becoming a better rhetorician is not just about persuading others, but being a better consumer of other people’s rhetoric.
I’ve worked hard at making my kids good at arguing. Absolutely.
Why on earth would any parent want that? Because persuasion is powerful. Rhetoric originated in the lawsuits of ancient Greece, when citizens who weren’t good at persuading could lose their houses — or their lives. It was a staple of education until the early 1800s, teaching society’s elite how to debate, make public decisions, and reach consensus. It probably explains how the founding fathers managed to carve a nation out of 13 squabbling colonies.
And let’s face it: Our culture has lost the ability to usefully disagree. Most Americans seem to avoid argument. But this has produced passive aggression and groupthink in the office, red and blue states, and families unable to discuss things as simple as what to watch on television. Rhetoric doesn’t turn kids into back-sassers; it makes them think about other points of view.
I had long equated arguing with fighting, but in rhetoric they are very different things. An argument is good; a fight is not. Whereas the goal of a fight is to dominate your opponent, in an argument you succeed when you bring your audience over to your side. A dispute over territory in the backseat of a car qualifies as an argument, for example, in the unlikely event that one child attempts to persuade his audience rather than slug it.