The Art of Rhetoric, Public Discourse and Civil Debate

The public square has always been the foundation of a thriving democracy, since it is the space where public discourse occurs. The American origins of the public square were often colonial village schoolhouses and outdoor town centers. The first printing presses gave rise to pamphlets and small newspapers.

Plato and Aristotle, the founding fathers of the study of rhetoric and public speaking as a medium of free speech and political enfranchisement, identified logos and empathy as the two most important tenets of a well-constructed argument. Logos appeals to an audience’s sense of logic and reason with scientific data, a methodical line of reasoning and events relevant to the argument. Empathy is a conscious choice of making connections with the audience by drawing from the experiences and emotions of others.

Constructing and/or opposing a valid argument supported by factual evidence and empathy toward others’s experiences and points of view, is still taught in public schools and universities. Students, no matter the subject, learn to carefully weigh all evidence before forming their own conclusions. They are taught that an opinion backed by factual evidence is vastly different and superior to one that is not.

An opinion on its own is the equivalent of liking a certain flavor ice cream or preferring one brand of sneakers over another. Individuals have every right to these opinions without having to provide justification. For example, if a parent places a bowl containing ice cream, half chocolate and half vanilla, in front of a toddler, and the toddler replies, “Vanilla, No! Chocolate, Yes,” the child has expressed a personal preference for one flavor of ice cream over another. The child’s opinion does not constitute a valid argument, however, for banning vanilla ice cream from the household.

People can, and often do, change their opinions in the face of contradictory evidence and well-supported factually based arguments: the Suffragette and Civil Rights Movements are a few examples that have led to great change in society. The scholars, speakers, writers, and supporters associated with such movements, skillfully based their alternate arguments for equality on factual data and evidence.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was perhaps one of the greatest modern orators and speech writers of our time. In his infamous Letter from Birmingham Jail, he presents a brilliant case for the connection between equality, public health and safety, and systematic racism.

When addressing the City Council, he says,

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

He goes on to say,

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954, outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.

He further references examples from the past and present to determine what makes a law just or unjust: “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.”

As one can see, in these few excerpts from his plea for social justice and equality, MLK Jr. incorporates current and historical events, quotations from important past and present social figures, and empathy, which are all the markings of a great rhetorician.

Lately, however, we have seen a trend in individuals and groups blatantly ignoring the conventions of rhetoric and debate, which have sustained civilization and human progress for thousands of years. This rise in shoddy public discourse, particularly on social media, is based purely on opinion and personal preference, void of logos and empathy, and often misquotes history and important social figures. Moreover, it has posed a threat to the integrity of a responsible exchange of ideas and free speech.

Although the physicality of the public square has changed dramatically since Ancient Greece and Colonial times with the invention of newspapers, radio, television, and more recently, the Internet and social media, the model for the exchange of ideas has not. Creating a valid argument, particularly an opposing viewpoint, still requires providing factual evidence, historical or current events and a claim based on commonly shared knowledge. Don’t forget the empathy.

Gale Bellas Papageorge teaches Rhetoric, Composition and Ethnic American Literature at Fairfield University.

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