My appreciation for the complexity of the English language stems from the fact that it wasn’t my first — rather, the harsh consonants with their softer counterparts, the reduction of unstressed vowels and the phonetic nightmare that is the Russian language was how I first began to think and express myself.
It was through my deep admiration of all of my English teachers, from grade school to university, that I began to uncover the English language — one in which rules are created only to be destroyed by hundreds of exceptions, singular words are fraught with multiple meanings and its existence is not as a language that borrows from other cultures, but rather one that attacks other languages on a crowded subway to claw at their pockets for loose grammar. It is a wild concoction that relies on syntax and verbs for expression of complex moods, passive and future constructions, interrogatives and negotiations.
We then begin to discuss the beauty, and necessity, of rhetoric.
In a broader sense, the language thrives with opportunistic words; the language itself gives the speaker an opportunity to distinguish a certain degree of understanding or garnering of respect. Through that lens, I believe the discussion of rhetoric is one of the most critical and anticipated conversations needed in order to bridge a currently polarized society, and one that is absolutely teeming with miscommunication and lack of transparency.
The purpose of rhetoric is to communicate effectively. The intention could be to inform, to educate, to persuade or to mock, but in the end, it is the strategy by which a person can express themselves most clearly. It is the proverbial divergent road, at which either path leads to its own unique, particular conversation. I introduce rhetoric in the oldest, most Aristotlelian way — not as a distinction of proud elitism, but as a way to do what everyone loves to do: talk.
That is why, when approaching points of controversial social values, identity politics, generational differences or cultural divides, proper rhetoric can dictate the difference between a conversation and a series of one-sided monologues. In the words of Aristotle, “An emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise.”
Current political leaders display a clear mastery of rhetoric — specifically, a horrid love for hyperbole and fake reluctance. Hyperbole is, in its purest form, exaggeration, an effective form of lying while rationalizing and excusing your lies. A constant return to blasphemous, over-the-top claims are used not to convey fact, but rather to inspire anger and hatred — feelings that are overwhelmingly powerful in creating biased communication. Fake reluctance allows the stress of a point without accepting the responsibility of stating it — a dishonorable cop-out in discourse.
If value was placed on proper word choice, on exact language, on the dismissal of blanket statements and what my fifth-grade teacher affectionately coined meaningless word-diarrhea, our current political climate would truly reflect the difference. Understanding proper terms in identity politics would honor those who have fought for so long to earn them. Comprehension of the severity of language in its ability to spread useless fear and hatred would be regulated, and recognition of abstract and generalized statements would call insight into the lack of care, knowledge and respect the speaker has for the particular subject.
It’s about time we stopped excusing intentional ignorance.
It’s about time we really honored the mantra, “Think before you speak.”
And it’s about time we gave English teachers a thundering standing ovation for helping us understand the value of rhetoric.
Hannah Gulko is a sophomore majoring in human development.