Rhetoric and Power: The Darkside of Persuasion


This class is experimental. I've never taught it before and it has only recently occured to me to teach it. The reading list is composed of books rarely seen on academic lists. They are trade books in the self-help genre, intended for a popular audience and packaged for easy digestion. Even the comparatively ancient The Prince can be described in that way, although of course it frequently appears on academic reading lists.

The darkside of persuasion refers to the practices which the rhetorical tradition has tended to shy away from on ethical grounds. From Plato's injunction against pandering and flattery down to the present day, people who have felt compelled to discuss rhetoric at all have always provided warnings about using nefarious practices to capture other people's imaginations and convictions unfairly, of using craft and guile instead of sound arguments and solid reasoning.

Ironically there is something disingenous about the Greek injunction against cleverness and deceipt. Their primary hero was "the wiley" Odysseus. They also understood that arguments were exchanged only when opposition couldn't be silended by subordination. Thucydides renders this fact transparent during his description of the Melian debate.

"For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretense . . . since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" (History of the Peloponnesian War, Strassler 352/5.89).

Chilling, but incomplete, because the weak too can impose their will, or at least they have strategies at their disposal. Guile, seduction, humor, deception, opiates both literal and figurative, the list of indirect rhetorical techniques goes on, but the traditon has mentioned such practices only in passing and almost always with a disaproving blush. Real men take what they want and when they are too weak to do so, they suburdinate their desires to self-discipline and self-denial. Do you remember the exchange between Callicles and Socrates, about the soul that leaks like a cracked jar?

If you like to think emblematically, recall the exchange between Diogenese and Alexander the Great.

One of the oddities of the rhetorical tradition is that while there have been a handful of recognized teachers in the field, there is no record of any direct intellectual descendents of them. And with the exception of Cicero, none of the thought leaders in the field were themselves significant politicians or leaders in a general sense. So one has to ask, does rhetorical lore actually empower it's students or is the promise of empowerment merely a ruse used to sell the product? Is it possible, in other words, that character is more significant than technique? An ancilary hypothesis of this class is that character is in fact the controlling factor in persuasive skill and that at the heart of that character is an absense of concience and a willingness to do (and say) whatever is necessary to get the job done, whatever the job is.

In other words, the truly great rhetors are sociopaths. Belief, conviction, the truth, the constant impulse to "do the right thing" actually disable leadership because they are forms of consistency and what doesn't float on the currents of history sinks like stones tossed in a river.

Art and Sociopathy

Were we to pursue our hypothesis through literary representation, we would have to read Othello, of course, since Iago is a touch stone character in thinking about unmotivated destructive impulses. And perhaps McBeth as well, as a contrasting alternative since he is plagued by conscience and thus fails to usurp the throne. From there I would leap to a contemporary fascination with criminality and power as played out repeatedly on HBO, OZ, The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones. Or you might like to look at NetFlicks' House of Cards.



Rhetoric and Deception

The most important rhetorical skill is being able to predict what will become obvious to everyone shortly. Rhetors can create favorable circumstances, certianly, but for the most part they can see what's coming next and what the consequences of different actions (and forms of inaaction) will likely be. Because people and human interaction behavle largely according to patterns, and pattern recogniton is the rhetor's supreme skill, it's as if a rhetor can see into the future, just as a chess master can play blindfolded.

Most of the time, being obvious is the worst mistake a rhetor can make. You don't want people to see what's coming, what you're doing, or what your goals are. You don't have to decieve to confuse. You can simply leave your options open and your goals flexible, abstract, even kind of vauge. That way, when an opportunity arrises, you can go for it unimpeded by prior committments of capital, financial, human, pscyhic, etc. And becuase you are not tending or trending, that is follwing a pattern, other people can't anticipate your moves and so choose to get in your way or get there first.

"Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee" -- Muhammad Ali