Date Presented

Winter 12-1-2006

Document Type


Access Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



First Advisor

Chidsey Dickson

Second Advisor

Chip Walton

Third Advisor

Kate Gray


The classical definition of rhetoric is generally understood to be the art of persuasion. Originating in ancient Greece, rhetoric was one of the three original liberal arts. It focused on effective use of language, most often in the arena of politics and public discourse (Brummett, 35). By mastering persuasive language, politicians were able to shape and sway public opinion in their favor. Conversely, by understanding the mechanics of rhetoric, citizens were able to recognize and interpret speech that was purposefully constructed. The prevalence of rhetoric in political speech made it an integral part of a democratic society - politicians needed to know how to use it, and citizens needed to know how to understand it. While some of the theories of strategic communication from antiquity are still relevant, changes in social organization and media have precipitated new understandings and practices of rhetoric. While rhetoric used to apply only to the realm of political speeches it now encompasses a multitude of social actions and situations including public relations, journalism, advertising, and popular culture. The significance of rhetoric and the encoded meaning it carries has been scrutinized by intellectuals from all academic fields. However, one thing remains certain - understanding rhetoric is a requirement to be a responsible citizen in a democratic society. Social theorist Barry Brummett argues that rhetoric is abundant in today’s society - specifically in popular culture. Brummett acknowledges that rhetoric is present in political speeches, television commercials, and other obvious persuasive medias, but believes it is also present in other, more subtle, forms of popular culture like fashion, music, and movies. Most people assume that the choices they make regarding taste in music, hairstyle, or clothing are based on aesthetics

or personal preference. Brummett, however, believes that many, if not all, of the everyday decisions we make are affected by rhetoric. For Brummet, people are subjects (audiences/consumers) of the rhetoric that circulates in popular culture more than they are subjects of political rhetoric. This means that rhetoric in popular culture deserves as much, if not more attention from academia. So, what it means to study rhetoric and its impact on the formation of an informed and active citizenry has changed from antiquity to the present. While before, citizens needed to understand how to make and decode enthymemes (Aristotle’s description of probable arguments), now it means decoding the media’s representation of “reality” (in all aspects) and resisting our own (media shaped) habits of simplifying complex issues into metonyms. The process of metonymy, Brummett says, is “to personalize large and complex issues in ways that make them understandable, without distorting those issues so much that good decisions cannot be made” (Brummett, 63). In essence, Brummett says that we simplify complex problems in order to make them easier to cope with and understand. Brummett refers to this process of personal appraisal of meaning as metonymy. For example, terrorism is a complex term that we personalize through specific examples to better understand. Rather than probing the source of the problem - the social conditions that produce and support terrorism - the situation is framed by the technocracy to support a melodramatic interpretation. The coverage emphasizes individual violent acts in order to define what a terrorist is and is not. This process serves both to simply the problem into terms we can understand and to reinforce social groups and boundaries. By defining terrorists as, for example, Muslim extremists with unbridled hatred for America, we make them easy to identify and target, but more importantly, we

separate ourselves by making clear distinctions between “terrorists” and “normal” people (Brummett, 58). However, rhetoric can be dangerous when the representations it circulates reinforce—without calling attention to—an ideology. Ideology refers to both the result and the process by which a particular social group’s interests are expressed through and supported by a way of looking at the world and naming what exists and what is valuable (Best, 1999). Joel Best, in his book Random Violence, addresses the omnipresence of ideology-forming agents in everyday life Essentially Best is saying that it is impossible to name or label things without some sort of value assessment. The language we choose to use to describe ourselves is indicative of how we think. This thesis seeks to explain how the media’s presentation of crisis shapes, identifies, and confirms values of distinct viewing groups.