Am I Arguing with a Wall? Defining the Rhetorical Situation

Am I Arguing with a Wall? Defining the Rhetorical Situation

Internet Argument by Flickr user fixedgearMy Facebook feed is filled with political commentary. My friends are my personal, 24-hour stream of punditry. (Bless their hearts.)

And if you’re like me there’s usually one post you can’t resist commenting on. You know the type. Maybe it’s purposefully incendiary. Maybe it’s just plain wrong. Maybe you’ve imbibed a few too many Mangrias, and the temptation is just too strong. Whatever the reason, we’ve all been there. And we’ve all experienced the joy and despair—though mostly despair—of arguing on Facebook.

My friends complain about it all the time. They tell me, “With some people, it’s like arguing with a brick wall!”

They’re exactly right. (And in most cases I prefer the wall.) But why?

It’s all about the rhetorical situation—the context in which an argument can occur and be successful. Your goal is to determine: Can I make a successful argument here? In other words, is this situation one where rhetoric is necessary or proper? If it is, then argue away. If it isn’t, then beware. You’re likely going to hit Facebook’s Brick Wall.

You can identify a rhetorical situation by its three necessary parts:

1. A problem that can be solved by persuasion.

There’s no point in making an argument if the thing you’re discussing can’t be resolved through persuasion. You can debate endlessly whether or not humans should sprout wings and shoot lasers from their eyes; it doesn’t matter. It’ll never happen. The problem you’re trying to solve must be grounded in reality.

TIP: In your next Facebook debate, make sure whatever you’re discussing corresponds to something real. If it doesn’t, either massage the topic into something genuinely debatable or cut your losses and grab a Fresca.

2. An audience that’s open to being convinced AND can act.

This might be the point that saves you the most time, and admittedly it’s where I like to start: What is the likelihood that the person you’re trying to convince is genuinely open to persuasion? If you’re trying to convince the president of the NRA that more gun control is necessary, you’re chatting with a brick wall. On the other hand, if you’re trying to convince your moderate Republican friend that more gun control is necessary, you’ll likely have an audience who, while hostile, is open to persuasion. It’s up to you to decide.

The other aspect of audience is that they must be able to do something once they’re convinced. You might convince the vice president that abolishing the first amendment is vital to national security, but he’s in no position to do anything about it. (Thank goodness.) So he’s not a genuine audience, and you don’t have a rhetorical situation.

TIP: Never waste your time with an inconvincible audience. It might seem like good practice, but you’re not learning any practical skills. In order to become a better rhetor, put your skills to use where they might be effective. And remember: an audience that agrees with you is also inconvincible.

3. A context that gives you clues for how to argue.

Every rhetorical situation happens in a certain context. That may seem self-evident, but it’s important to note and even more important to take advantage of. The person you’re trying to convince: What is her background? Is she well-versed in the subject? Is she emotional about it? What is her education? What can you appeal to that will convince her? Etc. There are endless questions to consider, and rhetoric is about finding the best approach. But a rhetorical situation does not exist if you can’t answer questions like these. If you have little or no context to support the argument, then do not proceed. You’re going to hit a brick wall.

TIP: A great way to examine someone’s context—and to decide if you have enough info to determine if a rhetorical situation exists—is to ask, “What is this person’s motivation?”  If you can answer that question, you’ll likely have enough context to proceed with an argument.

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Remember: All three of these components—problem, audience, context—must exist for there to be a rhetorical situation. If even one is missing, you’re not going to be successful at making an argument, so start burning through your Netflix queue instead.

To learn more about the rhetorical situation, I suggest reading Lloyd Bitzer’s article on the topic. His work heavily influenced my thinking about rhetoric and unlike most academics, he’s pretty easy to read.

Happy persuading!