Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Innovative Strategist & Digital Expert

The iPad Question: Where Do Rhetorical Situations Come From?

Steve Jobs with Apple's iPad. Photo by Flickr user Matt Buchanan.No one needed an iPad before they needed one. Or did they need it and just not know? Is there a difference? Asked differently, did Steve Jobs fill a need or create one?

The answer isn’t simple, and how you think about the issue can reveal a lot about your view of knowledge, persuasion, and even reality. We’re gettin’ deep!

In the field of rhetoric, the iPad question looks more like this: How do rhetorical situations happen? Do we create rhetorical situations or do they exist in the world waiting to be found?

To refresh, a rhetorical situation (as defined by Lloyd Bitzer) is:

“A complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.”

Whoa. What does that mean in English?

A rhetorical situation is a context in which a successful argument can occur. The important parts of a rhetorical situation are a problem that can be solved with rhetoric (can’t argue with the weather), an audience that can be persuaded (can’t argue with zombies), and a context convenient for rhetoric (can’t argue during a loud rock concert). For a thorough explanation, check out my introduction to rhetorical situations.

If and only if you have all of those elements, you can respond with an argument.

Bitzer argued that rhetors find rhetorical problems (or exigences) in the world, and respond by resolving them. Voila! Rhetorical situation. But another scholar, Richard Vatz, argued that rhetorical situations are created by the rhetor and are not found “out there” in the world.

Per usual, both academics are wrong. And they’re a little bit right. (They’re wrought.) Let me explain…

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Not Everything Is an Argument

Rectangles on a blue background. An excellent demonstration of the shape tool in Photoshop. Yet this painting sells for hundreds of dollars. It may be fine decoration for a Nieman Marcus, but it’s not art.

Indignant Ian: How dare you, man! Who are you to say what is and isn’t art?

A thinking man, that’s who.

It’s a “habit” of mine to use my mind for the purposes of definition and categorization. You may not like my output, and I’m open to hearing your argument, but I’m willing, able, and ready to make a judgement call in this case. Those shapes aren’t art.

One thing I know for sure is that art is something. It’s not everything. (Then it would be nothing.) Art has characteristics, attributes, features. Art has a definition.

Likewise, something I hear all the time when I talk about rhetoric is that “everything is an argument.” ::sigh:: No, it’s not.

Your Wifi key is not an argument. The Florida Keyes are not an argument. Alicia Keyes is not an argument.  Arguments, like art, are something. I’ve covered what they are in previous posts, and I’ll continue to do so. But I want to take some time to discuss other kinds of discourse. What you can engage in if you’re not making an argument.

In composition studies, there are traditionally four categories of discourse:

  • Exposition
  • Description
  • Narration
  • Argument (not covered in this post)

Let’s look at the characteristics and distinguishing features of each:

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The Power of (Splitting) Dichotomies

A dichotomy is an equal split, taking a subject and saying, “There is THIS or THAT. The end.” Implied in the dichotomy is choice. Choose one side of the dichotomy or the other because choosing both would be a contradiction.

True dichotomies follow two criteria:

  1. Everything you’re discussing fits into EITHER one side of the dichotomy or the other.
  2. Nothing you’re discussing fits SIMULTANEOUSLY in both sides.

Violate either principle and you commit the logical fallacy of “false dichotomy.” Not cool.

For instance, if Joel claims that all food is either sweet or sour, he violates the first criterion since some food is bitter, savory, salty, etc. He also violates the second criterion because some food is both sweet and sour at the same time. BOO Joel.

Legit dichotomies can be rhetorically powerful as tools for framing debates. But the greatest power in dichotomy is breaking one. Let’s discuss:

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Resolving Resolutions

Tonight I’m celebrating last year’s future and everything I have to look forward to over the next twelve months.

2013 was a year of great achievement in my career and personal life. Please indulge me while I reflect on the highlight reel:

  • Celebrated two years with Faiza.
  • FrackNation premiered on AXSTV to rave reviews.
  • Started a blog about rhetoric (finally).
  • PUPPYCIDE raised $46,000 to make a documentary & raise awareness.
  • Began a new chapter of my life in Austin, TX.
  • Met Adam Carolla.
  • Made new friends and reconnected with old ones.

I’m genuinely excited about what I’ll accomplish in 2014, and I relish the opportunity to both reflect and plan. But I wasn’t always this optimistic about the holiday.

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Mack Truck of Rhetoric: How to “Be Persuaded”

“I can’t refute your arguments. You’ve refuted all of my mine. But I still disagree.”

I sat silently for a moment. Dropping my head a bit I stood up and walked out of my professor’s office. I turned back momentarily and asked, “If that’s the case, then what does it mean to be persuaded?” But he had no answer. And at that point, I didn’t either.

It was my last week of grad school, and the professor was someone I  admired. But his response bothered me. We had been arguing about a nerdy point of philosophy. By all measurements, I “won” the argument. He even conceded my points. Yet he wouldn’t agree with me. I thought about my rhetorical approach, my logic, all the things I learned in communication theory. Everything seemed to go as planned except my opponent’s reaction.

We have free will, of course, and my professor may have been purposely dodging the issue because he was tired, confused, or simply wanted me out of his office. Nonetheless, it got me thinking. I understood, well, the obligations of the rhetor, but what are the obligations of the audience? There is a lot written about the rhetorical situation. Is there a corresponding “situation” for audiences?

Bear with me while I conjecture…

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Description v. Prescription: Why Texts Drive You Crazy

Everyone has received one of those texts. The kind that makes you tilt your head or curse. Does he really hate your new shoes? Was he teasing you? WHAT IS HE TRYING TO SAY?

Meaning and intention rarely coalesce in written communication, and the shorter the text, the more likely you’ll misunderstand. Perhaps you read a message as “angry” when the sender was being flirtatious. Or maybe you responded to your boss with a “LOL” when she wanted your two weeks’ notice.

The problem with short, written communication like text messages is that people usually confuse description and prescription.

The basic differences between the two kinds of communication are obvious. Description focuses on what is:

Darren: Your sweater is made of wool.

Prescription focuses on what should be:

Paula: All sweaters ought to be made of wool.

But look what happens when description is confused with prescription.

Darren [to his girlfriend]: You got a haircut.
Paula: You don’t like it?
Darren: I was just making an observation!
Paula: Sounded like a judgement to me…

Oy. We’ve all been in Darren’s place—and Paula’s. Being misunderstood is no fun. And that brings us to texting. Watch what happens here:

Pierre [text]: Yo. How RU?
Daphne [text]: Super tired.
Pierre [text]: U don’t want 2 talk? (confusing description with prescription)
Daphne [text]: No! U asked how I was… (now a bit angry from being misunderstood)
Pierre [text]: LOL (not perceiving the anger)
Daphne [text]: Whatever. G’night.

I admit the conversation is a bit contrived. (Who really says “How RU?”) But it demonstrates a common issue that people experience every day—especially as the use of instant messaging and texting increases.

When emotional cues are missing, it’s easy to confuse description and prescription. That’s because statements about facts are also statements about values—but in specific contexts. This is important to keep in mind. Not every factual statement is a value statement in every conversation. To a clothing designer, “That sweater is made of wool,” might be an indictment of their work, but to your girlfriend, it should stand as an observation.

Luckily we can avoid confusing description and prescription by following a few basic guidelines for communication:

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Don’t Eat Bad Lobster: The Adam Carolla Corollary

Lobster is a luxury food. At least that’s how we see it now. (It wasn’t always that way. It used to be peasant food. After all, who wants to eat giant insects from the sea? Without butter!?)

It’s really no surprise, then, that people want to save a few bucks while enjoying some tasty sea steak.

Enter Red Lobster. Or don’t, actually. At least not according to Adam Carolla, master ranter and king of podcasting. In a recent episode, Carolla spun yarn about the perils of being cheap at the wrong time. I’ll paraphrase here, but if you’re not listening to his show you’re missing out on something special:

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