Wayne Field’s lecture on rhetoric is a fascinating historical guide to the art and perils of persuasion, but what I found most compelling was his portrayal of our fear of rhetoric. In modern U.S. politics, he notes, rhetoric is constantly degraded as the tool of a weak opposition. If one cannot or does not wish to address the points of another’s argument, the other’s stance is derisively dismissed as “just rhetoric” and thrust aside. Such stigmatization is a disturbing development from what Fields terms the “rhetorical citizenship” of the constitution and, indeed, all U.S. politics up to the 1950s. The push and pull of debate, the constant revision and compromise in the process of creating law is essential to the running of any republic or democracy.

Without rhetoric, we would be incapable of any coherent action as a group, yet we fear the power words can have over us. When someone can persuade another to do or to believe something, they have a great power. It is true that this power of persuasion has frequently been exploited (Hitler and McCarthy are two notable offenders), but rhetoric is a double-edged blade, and it relies on the audience’s belief. Too often the audience does not fully engage with rhetoric, and then, if things go wrong, blames the rhetor. However, without the audience’s consent, the rhetor has no power. It is the audience’s civic and personal responsibility to approach speeches, debates, and all other forms of rhetoric with skepticism. Moreover, the political audience must take up rhetoric among its members, as well, else there is no actual representation in a republic. The members must acknowledge not only the danger, but the necessity and benefits of both rhetoric and rhetorical analysis. The United States has stepped back from this responsibility, and it is high time to return to our rhetorical citizenship.

Wayne Fields is one of the better orators I’ve heard in a while, and I suggest you listen to this lecture, which you can download in realplayer format here.