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Monday, April 30, 2012

“Words Like Loaded Pistols”: The not-so-lost art of rhetoric | Laura Miller, Salon.com

Words Like Loaded Pistols isn’t a how-to book, but chances are that anyone who reads it will acquire a trick or two. Many a catastrophic best-man toast or limping pitch meeting demonstrates the need for a better understanding of the elementary guidelines laid down well over 2,000 years ago: Know your audience and strive to portray yourself as one of them; adjust your style to the tenor of the occasion; consider starting with a tactical concession; and so on. The marvel is not that the old techniques still work, but that we ever persuaded ourselves that we could do without them.
That's how Laura Miller concludes this review of a new book by Sam Leith that "celebrates the power of persuasion, from ancient Greece to Barack Obama." So, it sounds like a useful read--and a stimulating read as well, as Miller suggests in her first paragraph:
Yet as Sam Leith points out in his delightful and illuminating Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, we live in the most rhetorical era in human history, surrounded by and embroiled in argument, enticement, invective and panegyric wherever we turn.
Between the beginning and end of her review, Miller describes how Leith describes the upsides and downsides of rhetoric. Referring to Barack Obama's speech-making, for example, she writes:
If Barack Obama won the presidency largely on his strengths as an orator (a testimony to rhetoric’s importance if there ever was one), that same eloquence has become a stick to beat him with in the hands of his critics. Rick Santorum is typical in dismissing Obama “just a person of words.”
And quoting Leith on the 2008 election:
It seemed that though we expected politicians to make speeches, we didn’t like them to be too good at it.
Sad, if not totally true.

And in another example from U.S. politics, Miller refers to the brouhaha over Sarah Palin and "paramilitaristic language" after the 2001 shooting by a lunatic gunman of Rep. Gabrielle Gillfords and 13 others in Arizona. Miller writes:
Leith breaks down Palin’s statement using classical rhetorical terminology, but he also holds it up as an illustration of the ironic paradoxes of anti-rhetoric. “The way she chose to defend herself against trial by media was through the media; while denying that words could be held responsible for inciting hatred and violence, she asserted that media reporting on her” was inciting hatred and violence.
Sadly, again, Miller writes:
Leith, a British journalist and novelist, wants to revive the formal appreciation of rhetorical technique, but he acknowledges that today it’s precisely when we are most aware of rhetorical skill that we condemn it.
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