3.6 Successful Rhetoric and Rhetorical Imbalance

Tim Personn

We think you can see that learning how the rhetorical triangle (with all its elements) works allows you to consciously (and with skill) perform a range of communicative tasks – from writing an email to more complex actions like changing someone’s perspective on an issue through argumentation (perhaps in an academic paper!). However, this is not yet the whole story. Here, at the end of the chapter, we invite you to think about the broader and more serious implications of argumentation, especially if we regard the idea of “successful rhetoric” only as a matter of being persuasive to an audience. Consider the possibility, for instance, that the audience might simply be wrong to accept an argument. Or consider, in turn, that the audience has been manipulated to give their agreement to a dubious claim by a speaker who is good at addressing their psychological idiosyncrasies or relative beliefs? In this case, the speaker or writer’s rhetorical stance or orientation is both unbalanced and unethical.

History provides many examples of the devastating effects that rhetorical imbalance can have if it serves the interests of dictators and authoritarian leaders. You may well study historical instances of such rhetorical imbalance that has impacted your own cultures. Certainly in Canada, Indigenous peoples have long understood and countered unethical, irresponsible rhetoric by Canadian politicians, educators, and others in positions of colonial authority. But we don’t have to look into our history books to see why catering only to the prejudices of a particular audience might undermine a common basis of truth. In today’s online world of echo chambers (where your own beliefs are “echoed” back to you, and you rarely encounter other points of view), this danger has even intensified and, from the point of view of some commentators, threatens the free exchange of ideas in a democracy. At times, it may even threaten our species’ survival.

An area where this can be seen at work is the current debate over the issue of human-made climate change. As many commentators have pointed out, often by using humor to great effect, there is an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that human behavior is indeed the cause of a warming planet. Still, this does not prevent climate change deniers from calling global warming a “hoax” as in this Forbes article from 2012.[1] The author of the article labels the measures taken to mitigate the effects of climate change “the crime of the century” committed by “liberal elites.” Thus, the Forbes article clearly appeals only very narrowly to its audience of business-minded readers in the context of the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Other writers have taken a different approach. For instance, an article from The Guardian in 2019,[2] which also addresses questions around the reality of climate change, invites its readers to consider how climate deniers might be persuaded to believe scientific facts. The article therefore appeals predominantly to an ethos of scientific transparency, which presupposes that everyone with the same training, qualifications, and information would reach the same conclusions. We think you might agree that this kind of address is more broadly effective than the approach taken by the Forbes article, which restricts itself from the outset only to agreement by its particular audience and as such, that article unlikely to appeal to those beyond that base.

This question of what we might now call “universality vs. particularity” has been debated for a long time. In fact, Aristotle’s teacher Plato already recognized the problem that arises when we identify the quality of an argument only with its ability to receive agreement from particular audiences. In the twentieth century, some theorists returned to this line of thinking and added new ideas to the tradition of rhetoric. Thus, the Belgian philosophers Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca begin their (foundational) book The New Rhetoric with the question of different forms of addressing an audience: Does a speaker merely draw on particular aspects of their audience, they ask, or do they aim at features that are more universal?[3] You have already encountered similar considerations regarding audience analysis in earlier parts of this chapter. In Section 3.4.1, we encouraged you to think of your instructor as standing in for a larger audience; in many ways, the concept of a “universal audience” is related to this notion of a “larger audience” that stands in for the particular audience you are addressing. After all, we would expect those people who belong to the assumed larger audience, such as specialists in a discipline, to be able to distance themselves from their personal beliefs and agree with a claim based only on their own membership in the group of specialists.

However, in Section 3.4.3 you also came across the idea that it is important to identify the different cultural contexts that audiences belong to. And it is definitely true that different cultures have different convictions that audience members draw from when they decide whether or not to agree with a thesis. To take up a term that we have already mentioned in this section, what counts as a “good reason” for undertaking an action, such as a medical intervention, might be determined quite differently depending on whether an audience subscribes to Western medicine or Traditional Chinese Medicine . So how, you may ask, can we reconcile the need for a common basis of truth as expressed through the concept of a universal audience, with the fact that, in a pluralistic society, we have different belief systems? In other words, who decides what counts as “universality” here? This is a very good question that deserves a long answer which we will not attempt to give here. The short answer, though, is that every arguer(author?) has their own conception of “universality.” It is a good idea to make these conceptions explicit in your own work and point them out in your analyses of other people’s rhetoric. Doing so might illuminate points of disagreement more clearly and can even lead to the possibility of addressing them on a new argumentative level to reach a consensus.

At other times, a writer may only be interested in reaching a particular audience. In such cases, your rhetorical analyses should reflect the limited scope; needless to say, that your own writing should employ such a particular address only when appropriate, and always with an awareness of its limitations. After all, what we want you to take away from this section is that making an argument is not just about being persuasive; you also need to orient your argument to address certain issues from the local (such as campus politics) to the international (such as climate change). This means thinking about your potential audiences with care and attention.

  1. Mark Hendrickson, “Climate Change: ‘Hoax’ or Crime of the Century?,” Forbes, September 6, 2012, forbes.com/sites/markhendrickson/2012/09/16/climate-change-hoax-or-crime-of-the-century/?sh=17d3006576d3.
  2. Kate Yoder, “How to Change the Minds of Climate Deniers,” The Guardian, February 3, 2019, theguardian.com/us-news/2019/feb/03/climate-change-denial-changing-minds.
  3. Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (University of Notre Dame Press, 1969).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada 2nd Edition Copyright © 2022 by Tim Personn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book