But you may not know that each genre of rhetoric has its own special topics. They’re the hipsters of rhetoric, the topics who were around before the other topics came along, and they apply only to their specific genre.
Really they’re not so much special as foundational—almost obvious. The special topics for each genre of rhetoric are:
– Justice / Injustice
– Good / Unworthy
– Advantageous / Disadvantageous
– Virtue / Vice
Every special topic is a dichotomy. That is, there are two paths for argumentation: positive and negative. Compromise or even finding a middle road is often a great way to defuse a hostile rhetorical situation. But keep in mind that it usually works best in deliberative rhetoric.
Once you know what genre of rhetoric you’re arguing in (or want to argue in) the central dispute will likely be related to that genre’s special topic(s). They’re at least a good place to start. That’s why special topics are important to know. And special!
Now let’s take a look at how to use them…
The Justice / Injustice League (Judicial)
Judicial rhetoric has its origins in (surprise!) courtrooms. So it makes sense that forensic debates, which are concerned with what happened, will be focused on matters of justice. There are two primary issues in justice: recognition & reward.
It’s no secret that people like to be recognized for their success, and a little bit can go a long way. A simple “thanks” or “well done” might defuse a nasty rhetorical situation quicker than drafting a rhetorical strategy.
People also like to see others chastised or punished for failing. Sounds vindictive, eh? It’s actually just a matter of justice. If people aren’t facing consequences for their failures, it seems less likely people who are doing well will be rewarded.
Good Plan / Bad Decision (Deliberative)
Deliberative rhetoric stems from the ancient Greek legislature where brilliant orators would argue about war, taxation, and what policies will best serve the people. And since these concerns are all about what should happen in the future, the central topic is whether the ideas are good or bad (in a given context).
In exploring this deliberative topic, you might look at dichotomies like the individual vs. the collective, short-term effect vs. long term effect, or moral vs. pragmatic. (Though the expert rhetor will look for ways to bridge these dichotomies.)
Moral vs. immoral falls into this topic, too, as long as you’re talking about the morality of a specific action. If your concern is about morality as such then you’re not engaging in rhetoric but in philosophy. (I’ll discuss this further in a future post.)
Take Advantage / Or Don’t (Deliberative)
It’s important to note that some deliberative debates sidestep the question of morality (or replace it) with a matter of advantage or disadvantage. While it’s important to note such a distinction I have to warn that advantage disconnected from morality can be dangerous. Keep this in mind when making arguments that appeal to self-interest. Ask yourself, “Is it an appeal to genuine self-interest?”
Angel / Devil (Ceremonial)
Much ceremonial or celebratory rhetoric derives from eulogies, toasts, or encomiums. Therefore the primary topic is concerned with virtue and vice. Was the person noble or ignoble? Genuine or fake? Good or evil? But the topic could also expand to public policies or ideas as long as your rhetoric is limited to its virtue or vice.
* * * * *
You might sum up the special topics with one dichotomy: right vs. wrong. All of the hipster topics discussed here deal with this issue applied to their specific genres of rhetoric—whether past, present, or future. The lesson, then, is to be aware of your rhetorical situation and prepare for the fact that most of the fundamental arguments in each genre deal with right and wrong. If you have that level of awareness, you’re on your way to being a better rhetor.