Aristotle’s types of rhetoric

Aristotle identified three kinds of rhetoric (with, he admitted some overlap). Any kind of decision-making body (a group that is setting policies) should engage in deliberative rhetoric, or what is sometimes called policy argumentation. As Aristotle said, in deliberative rhetorical situations, people argue about the pragmatics of the situation—people try to get the best outcomes, and they make issues like honor secondary (or don’t consider them at all). Scholarship in rhetoric would go on to identify the really crucial ways that communities can engage in healthy arguments about policy, and it isn’t rocket science.

Let’s imagine that we’re deliberating about the problem of the litterboxes needing cleaning (I have three cats—they always need cleaning). A good argument about a policy has certain content rules:

  • you have to debate (and that means disagreement is crucial and helpful) about whether there really is a problem (the litterboxes are nasty);
  • whether it will go away on its own (inherency: they will not clean themselves);
  • whether it’s significant (yes, they’re nasty);
  • what policy options we have, and this is important, since faux deliberative rhetoric says there is Our Policy or doing nothing at all, when we always have a lot of policy options (we could hire someone to clean them, we could invade another country, we could rant at the cats about how much they poop, we could hope that quantum physics puts the poop in some other part of the universe, we could invest in self-cleaning litterboxes, we could let the cats out, we could make the catio more attractive for pooping, we could declare the problem of the litterboxes is part of the squirrel conspiracy and so the answer is to eradicate our property of squirrels, we could clean the litterboxes more often, we could have fewer cats, we could see whether people on the neighborhood mailing list who clearly have way too much time on their hands could be persuaded to use some of that time cleaning our litterboxes);
  • and then we assess those policy options in terms of feasibility (what it would cost to hire someone to clean the litterboxes), solvency (would invading another country actually clean our litterboxes), and unintended consequences (people who have way too much time on their hands and engage in long and useless threads about graffiti on the neighborhood mailing list would probably insist on ranting at us in person about how pretty meh graffiti on a wall means our thoroughly upper middle class neighborhood is just one mark from being the kind of sodomic drug scene you see in video games and that would mean hours of loss in productivity and maybe an assault charge against me).

Deliberative rhetoric is hard. It requires thinking you might be wrong, and it privileges long-term thinking. It requires that the people involved in the deliberation believe that all the groups in the discussion have shared goals, so it means a world in which some kind of value is more important than the short-term triumph of the ingroup, and it requires a world in which fairness is dominant as a value.

In judicial rhetoric the whole issue is determining what happened in the past, and who is guilty. Judicial rhetoric relies on binaries—someone is guilty or not, this person is the victim and that person is the villain. And it isn’t about causality; it’s about blame. Judicial rhetoric is always about people who do or don’t intend to do wrong. Deliberative rhetoric always has arguments about causality (this person or this movement or this action caused that thing) but it isn’t about intent—healthy deliberative rhetoric acknowledges that people will good intentions can make decisions with disastrous consequences.

Judicial rhetoric, however, needs to find a person to punish. It doesn’t matter whether punishing that person (or group) will lead to a good outcome. All that matters is attributing blame and then punishing. Deliberative rhetoric and judicial rhetoric get confused for a lot of people who spend their whole lives in judicial rhetoric, since they hear all causality arguments as blame arguments—if a butterfly here causes a hurricane to happen there, then the butterfly is to blame. That’s judicial rhetoric. Deliberative rhetoric doesn’t blame the butterfly, but tries to figure out whether we could find processes that would keep a butterfly from being able to do so much damage.

Aristotle’s third category is epideictic, or ceremonial rhetoric. Aristotle says that kind of rhetoric is all about honor and dishonor. The classic (even classical) examples of epideictic rhetoric are a funeral oration or Fourth of July speech. A good funeral oration always presents the dead person as entirely honorable, an argument that not uncommonly involves skipping over some things (I once heard a Catholic priest say about a woman who had refused to attend mass for some twenty years, “She has a good Irish name, and so we know God welcomed her.”) More recent scholars of rhetoric have argued (correctly, I think) that ceremonial rhetoric creates an “us” (often, but not necessarily, against a “them”). Epideictic rhetoric says there is “we” and invites you to be a part of that “we.” It makes you feel good about that “we” and it generally (but not always) makes you feel angry about the “not-we.” A Fourth of July speech doesn’t invite you to consider complicated things about what “we” means for the US (unless you’re Frederick Douglass); it invites you to feel part of the “American” community and take pride in that.

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