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Beyond The 'Rhetoric' – Reclaiming What's Become Almost A Pejorative Term

Rhetoricians Lauren Obermark (at left) and Paul Lynch joined Monday's talk show.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

While the art of persuasion and the study of public discourse have enriched human civilization for millennia, negative connotations frequently surround contemporary notions of rhetoric. Politicians are dismissed as “all rhetoric, no action,” and talking heads on TV make everyday people sigh over “all the rhetoric” of the 24-hour news cycle.

But for those who conduct research in the academic field of rhetoric – and anyone interested in the work that words can do – the term “rhetoric” still holds great hope and possibility for society.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with two local scholars about cultural understandings of rhetoric, its positive uses and the ever-shifting ways in which humans communicate.

Paul Lynch, who is an associate professor and writing program coordinator for St. Louis University’s Department of English, was quick to note that in some ways a negative view of rhetoric is hardly a new phenomenon.

“[Rhetoric] had its critics right from the start,” Lynch explained. “Plato was probably the most famous of them and is credited with coining the term ‘rhetoric’ as a pejorative.”

The ancient Greek philosopher was alarmed to see his contemporaries begin writing down their speeches, fearing that writing would destroy humans’ capacity for memory.

“We see these sorts of concerns every era just emerge in different ways,” added Lauren Obermark, assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “The way we’re worried about people texting now destroying the English language – people have been worried about all of these rhetorical elements since the ancient folks.”

The current pop-culture eagerness to “cut through all the rhetoric” has its roots in a lingering Enlightenment-inflected impatience with the supposed “ornamentation” of rhetoric, Lynch said.

Today’s political climate doesn’t help either, the guests agreed, yet they also communicated much more hope than despair about the continued role of discourse and all forms of persuasion in the 21st century. Their work with students at SLU and UMSL, for instance, help keeps them positive about the possibilities ahead.

“I always want to frame [rhetoric] first as being about civic engagement – that rhetoric is how we engage as citizens with each other, how we listen to each other, how we speak to and about one another,” said Obermark, who is particularly interested how people grapple with issues that make them uncomfortable, such as disability or racism.

Lynch, whose primary research interest is in rhetorical religious discourse, has been writing most recently about Pope Francis as a rhetorician.

Listen to the full conversation:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.