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Pedagogy 6.2 (2006) 353-358

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Ethics, Motives, and Character in Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Rhetoric

The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. By Wayne C. Booth. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Manifestos are inherently oppositional texts. They are voicings of a break, a struggle, a reaction against, and as such invoke the rhetoric of high moral purpose. Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication, which characterizes itself as a manifesto, is no different, and yet it is curious for that very reason, particularly as it comes from one of the preeminent literary critics and foremost teachers of his time. The published remembrances of Booth following his recent passing make consistent note of Booth's focus on ethical concerns, his language of high moral purpose, and the tirelessly hopeful quality of his criticism. Such hopefulness is manifest in the way Booth poses rhetoric as the alternative to violence, and the final section of the book is a plea for mutual understanding in the interest of "Reducing Rhetorical Warfare" (149)—yet, strangely, much of the language of the book sets up relations of opposition, unreservedly characterizing some uses of rhetoric as good and others as bad, referring to "enemies" and "battles" and "wars." Booth here writes for a nonspecialist audience, and his numerous uses of examples drawn from the rhetoric surrounding the second invasion [End Page 353] of Iraq in 2003 seem intended to demonstrate that rhetoric is, indeed, a matter of life and death.

This ethical deployment of rhetoric depends both upon the motives of the rhetor and on the content of the rhetoric. After offering a comprehensive survey of the variety of ways in which rhetoric has been defined and contextualized, Booth offers his own definition of rhetoric as "the whole range of arts not only of persuasion but also of producing or reducing misunderstanding" (10). As such, it incorporates both "listening-rhetoric," which is "the whole range of communicative arts for reducing misunderstanding by paying attention to opposing views," and "rhetrickery," which is "the whole range of shoddy, dishonest communicative arts producing misunderstanding—along with other harmful results. The arts of making the worse seem the better case" (10). The chapter continues in this Manichaean vein, with Booth acknowledging a belief in certain eternal moral truths, and this stance is echoed in chapter 3's taxonomy of the degrees of ethical goodness of various forms of "win-rhetoric," "bargain-rhetoric," and "listening-rhetoric." This chapter on "Judging Rhetoric" (39) and its firm ethical stance are the heart of the book's first, more theoretical section, rounded out by chapters devoted to a brief history of rhetoric and a discussion of some of rhetoric's most prominent modern "rescuers" (55), including Booth's mentor Kenneth Burke, I. A. Richards, Chaim Perelman, and Richard McKeon.

Booth dedicates the second portion of the book to examining the status and practice of rhetoric in three fields: education, politics, and the media. The "rough center" of his book, Booth declares, is a concern with the dire consequences for democratic society of the "neglect of rhetorical education" (89), but he makes a strong case against the long-standing neglect (and subsequent pressing need) of listening-rhetoric on the part of politicians, the media, and the public. The book concludes with an expressed hope for an irenic rhetoric that seeks common ground and creates peace out of strife standing in stark contrast to the rhetrickery Booth sees in the media and in politics.

For Booth, the rhetor must have good ethical reasons for using the rhetoric she chooses, and that rhetoric must be used in a moral way, the alternative to such use being "the whole range of shoddy, dishonest communicative arts producing misunderstanding—along with other harmful results" (11). The second half of Booth's definition of rhetrickery—"the arts of making the worse seem the better cause" (11)—is of course familiar from Aristotle, and that fact, taken in conjunction with references to Quintilian and other Greek and Roman...


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