Rhetoric – The Art of Persuasion is a Cultural Imperative

Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men**

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Julia Gillard – she’s making a point while wearing a hard hat and he’s trying hard not to react or be ruled. It’s funny and fantastic, if only it all wasn’t so very serious – after winning the war of words there must be action

Most people, who have ever observed Australia’s current Prime Minister when Parliament is in session, would believe that the Rt Hon. Julia Gillard is indeed a master of political rhetoric. She has honed her skills for the effective use of language to a point of near perfection over the last two decades. Her use and understanding of the English language, her figure of speech and exaggeration is concerned with so much more than mere style or effect. Such is her ability to persuade that it often leaves people observing her with mixed feelings. Some are mesmerized and completely convinced by her argument, while others feel uncomfortable, even ambivalent, unable to decipher the root or point of what she is saying or to whom she is saying it.  And, yet even more scary still, many now are unable to detect truth. There is often also a level of ‘vitriol’ attached to the words she uses when being involved in the ‘art of persuasion’. For some that may be alarming.

So how do we distinguish the difference between what she is saying and what she is meaning to say. How can we ascertain if she is being prejudicial, or not? And is the greater good and her representation of the citizens of Australia foremost in her mind, or are there hidden agendas? Politicians are supposed to be leaders pursuing policies on behalf of the ‘greater good’. You may also think professional politicians should be able to keep their emotions in check? But emotion is a key weapon in the arsenal of rhetoric, which is about the art of speaking or writing effectively. It is part of an ongoing tradition that, for over 2000 years has been attached to the freedoms of speech and expression we all enjoy.

Boosting our economy means attracting international investment, especially if we are to take charge of Australia’s future. If we want to go from gloom to boom a change of attitude is required, as well as a tidal wave of innovation, inspiration, industry, resourcefulness, creativity, community togetherness, cultural development, courage, conviction and commitment. Words well delivered can be loaded up with many meanings, both positive and negative. They can infiltrate and influence our thoughts, our ideas, and opinions. Words are how the world works. But after the war of words  has been waged, or won, there needs to be a point where they are converted to action.

Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action***

The style of life words have produced is what we enjoy in Australia today. Many have died to protect those rights and secure our liberty under the law. While those sitting at a two-day forum about reforming tax laws in Australia’s capital Canberra need to be forgiven for going to sleep on the job, as images of the first day’s session revealed, they were displaying a complete lack of respect. They were there to discuss how they or their departments or organisations could contribute to creating the future, no mean task. True, they were subjected to lots of rhetoric and robust words but they were supposed to help inspire our nation’s leaders not go to sleep.

This near million dollar ‘talkfest’, some said was an event to be missed. The belief was that only a few dozen people would be present, repeating things that had been going the round for years. But that was wrong, and there was a reasonable turn out, including Heather Ridout, spokesperson for a social profit Australian industry association who opened the first meeting. She provides advocacy and services to businesses in a broad range of sectors, including manufacturing, construction, automotive, ICT, transport, defence, labour hire and other industries. She talked about ‘building a culture of entrepreneurship as a means of lifting our national ability to make ongoing improvements to productivity, to employment opportunities and to wealth creation in Australia’ as if it was a brand new idea.

Following World War II traditional imperatives and, we’re set in our ways rules and routines kept the parent population of Australia going throughout the 40’s and 50’s as they recovered from the aftershock of war.

The newspaper arrived on the lawn, the baker with his horse and cart brought bread to your doorstep every day, the milkman left his bottles in a box at the back door and, the ice man helped keep milk cold. By the end of every work day millions of men were lining up to go to a pub on their way home to have a cold one with the boys.

But then it all started to change. New products like plastic kept food fresh and changed the way we shopped. Refrigerators too now didn’t need ice allowing Mum to keep the beer cold. That meant Dad could come home and help with the kids. God forbid, what was the world coming too. Then a new style of shopping arrived, the American supermarket. We loved Americans, so us Aussies embraced this idea quickly. When the American fighting force were stationed in Australia during the war they had the ‘gift of the gab’, and we loved that. They also kept our mothers and older sisters giggling by giving them stockings, when everyone else was living on ration cards.

Teen years for baby boomers were spent in helping breaking down barriers of class, which was helped by the anthems of rock n roll. During the sixties and seventies a new positive optimistic attitude began to prevail. There were no negatives, everyone let their hair down. The great thing was that if baby boomers decided to do something well, they just went out and made it happen.

From the mid 70’s and throughout the 80’s entrepreneurs abounded. Regular risk taking became a major part of many a baby boomer’s life. However a large majority of older people still suffered from Australia’s ‘tall poppy’ syndrome. Cutting anyone with an innovative creative idea that just might work down to size was still a national sport. The fear was about people rising above a perceived station in life; a leftover remnant of another time and age that threatened the lives of Australia’s aging population, for whom rules and routines had meant stability and security.

Imagination is more important than knowledge

If entrepreneurs are needed again in the next few decades of the 21st century to lead recovery from economic downturns they will need to take on even more considerable risks. However today many have support from colleagues, family and friends and that will no doubt kick in to help boost their optimism. The world has changed so much in the last two decades.

The government hopefully will contribute by inventing new services, generating new jobs and ensuring there is an all new style of economic freedom for creators who are helping to shape enterprises built around people and their talents.

Who would have thought a few short decades ago we would be walking around with ‘beam me up Scotty’ type devices in our hands. Well Steve Jobs saw how it would and could be done and changed the world to make it happen. And as President Obama pointed out, had the talent to do it.

Culturally, and in so many other ways innovative and tracking technology has ensured we are all now connected, whether we like it or not. Big brother is a reality with cameras everywhere we go. While we all have to look to our own countries first, it is blatantly obvious economic recovery in the next few years will only really work if a continuing dialogue also takes place between nations to plan how all our diverse cultures and societies can keep the peace and achieve real outcomes for all. New ways of thinking will change people, politics, policy and practice.

Rhetoric is well and truly back on the agenda.

I must follow the people. Am I not their leader? ***

In order to discuss or debate major decisions people collectively and individually will have to, at first embrace the ideology or philosophy behind an idea they are supporting. When a belief in its merits has taken place then driving the argument forward and the point home will be imperative. When using rhetorical skills those involved will need to use all their strength of character, as well as provide reasons for and against an argument, which is based in logic or reason. By adding the use of emotion many can be won over to the cause. Appealing to a sense of right and wrong, an understanding, decency and respect are all skills we can learn. Some people seem to have an innate gift for delivering rhetoric, more than others. And, for the highly skilled once learned the argument can be be turned against an opponent through disarmament techniques.

Today rhetorical skills are utilized visually by marketing and promotion professionals and advertising gurus. They help drive home a point about products they are selling on behalf of their clients. Texts, titles, colours, graphics, icons, buttons and images all provide the means of achieving an almost instant and successful result.

While having its downside, an ability to discuss the challenges we face from every angle and from one extreme to another is also one of the attributes that will continue to make us stronger as a nation. Without the ability to debate, discuss, digest and then challenge ideas many of the great social and political reforms of the past, such as the abolition of slavery, would never have taken place.

You will find as you grow older that courage is the rarest of all qualities to be found in public life.***

Opening the Australian Democracy Museum

Rhetoric is at the very essence of our democratic systems and is invested in we the people, who must always be vigilant to ensure its survival. It is in constant danger from apathy and indifference, or from those with other agendas. Without in depth analysis through a war or words necessary reforms that contribute to the ongoing cultural capital of our community will not succeed and society, its health, wealth and well-being will be seriously threatened.

After two centuries of sorting out our Australian style of democracy, including religious tolerance, we have at last reached a place where our democratic system is unique. Our political heritage was based on traditions established at parliaments in England, America and Europe.

We have safeguards in place that protect our Constitution, which can only be amended with the approval of the electorate as a whole.  I am not sure if we have enough protections in place for our indigenous population, or for giving people an appreciation of each other’s cultural stories and creeds, although if the proposed ‘National Cultural Policy’ currently being discussed is established it may help. Having a double majority to make changes and alterations to our Constitution while difficult is a good thing. One thing history does do is inform and reveal that once freedoms and liberties have been lost fighting to win them back can take many lives or lifetimes.

Learning how to cooperate with others who have their own agendas, are on different pages and many levels of political and social development is an important part of process. Just like everywhere else Australians need to show tolerance, understanding and respect for other peoples and their points of view. This means working with them, not against them, to make changes that needed. Change, change is inevitable. And in a progressive society and world change is constant. Being readily and easily adaptable is the skill to be learned for a new age.

The broad masses of a population are more amenable to the appeal of rhetoric than to any other force#

As part of Alexander the Great’s studies, his tutot the philosopher Aristotle taught him how to argue a point in a debate

Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with being the father of rhetoric, of working out how the words being delivered make things work. His opus ‘the Rhetoric’, is regarded by many scholars as the ‘most important single work on persuasion yet written’. What it does do is provide a point of reference, where respect for how important knowledge is can start. Rhetoric battled for centuries; pushing civil liberties and rights, ensuring that political bullies don’t survive and are punished; helping to make alternative choices in religion and lifestyles acceptable to a mainstream view; making sure the rights and voices of indigenous peoples are heard and that everyone enjoys the right to free speech.

Many have tried to overthrow the use of rhetoric but if the cause is just, the voices measured and carefully controlled, then reason can and will prevail. Thanks to the Internet and an ability to communicate on a grand scale via a computer or smart phone, the ability to express opinions has heated up the intensity of debate. While that may disturb many, rather than think negatively about it you could choose to believe that this it is a positive approach that will only continue to make us stronger.

Rhetoric is an important communicating skill. Some people seem naturally endowed to fill this role and go on to become truly great orators and debaters such as Winston Churchill in the 20th century and Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th. For others it’s a learned skill, which while practiced with proficiency can also fail to convince, especially when it comes to the crunch and if their commitment doesn’t seem real.

If we are to meet the challenges of the transformations that must take place to keep growing and going forward politically, culturally and socially we will all need to adapt, and keep on adapting if we are to rise above entrenched vested interests and take on the task of grasping opportunities as they present.

First and foremost any group indulging in rhetorical debate must also have a commitment to action. Results only happen when a community of people, be they local, state, national or global come together and decide they will make sure that it is mandatory, that following moderated discussion and a war of words, that when it must end will turn results into action.

Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action, and we have trusted only to rhetoric. If we are really to be a great nation, we must not merely talk; we must act big*

Carolyn McDowall, October 2011 The Culture Concept Circle

* Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President U.S.A. (1858-1919)
** Plato, ancient Greek philosopher 428-348 BC
***Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Mininster and Novelist (1804-1881)
#Adolf Hitler, German Chancellor and leader of the Nazi party (1889-1945)

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