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Kennedy’s Comparative Rhetoric

The basic function of rhetorical communication is defensive and conservative…the major function of rhetoric throughout most of human history in most of the world has been to preserve things as they are or to try to recover an idealized happier past” (Kennedy 216).

While there are several of Kennedy’s claims that I could choose to examine or critique, this idea – that rhetoric is or has been primarily used for conservative ends – struck me as both surprising and interesting. I understand that Kennedy is using this term “conservative” to mean, in a sense, conserving one’s position or even life and am reminded of the Latin roots meaning to save, watch over, or protect. In this sense of the word I can see the place of rhetoric in aiding in this endeavor – it is the idea, also supported by Kennedy, that “nature has favored the use of communication by utterance or body language over the use of force” (216). At the same time, Kennedy clearly argues for rhetoric as a conservative force as “contribut[ing] to the preservation of pasts values,” which is a slightly different way of interpreting that idea.

I’m not so sure about this, as even in the situations cited by Kennedy, would they not also imply that counter-rhetorics were being employed at the same time that were resistant to that conservatism? He does briefly acknowledge that there is a place for “rhetoric as a tool of change, uncovering the inconsistencies and irrationality of traditional assumptions and beliefs and opening up the possibilities of objective logical argument” that has, at least in the contentious climate of the West, aided “in the development of democracy, with its insistence on freedom of speech and the rights of individuals” (207). However, this is the only place I noted in the book where this idea, of rhetoric as used for counter-hegemonic or resistive practices, is mentioned. Perhaps because of my interest in equality and the ways that rhetoric can be used to empower otherwise silenced groups, I found this premise, that rhetoric is primarily used as a conservative force, difficult to accept.

Suffrage Parade

Suffrage Parade

While Kennedy himself seems surprised by this finding, I am not sure that it is accurate or is a claim that can be substantiated. It may be that the bulk of the rhetoric he examined fits into this category but 1) the existence of, or need for, conservative rhetoric implies a force that was counter to that and 2) it is likely that counter-rhetorics (for lack of a better term) may not have survived if the conservative rhetoric “won.” I think even of Cicero who, unlike Kennedy, thought of rhetoric as a uniquely human act and credited it with the ability to “gather scattered humanity into one place, or to lead it out of its brutish existence in the wilderness up to our present condition of civilization of men and as citizens” (De Orator 295). This idea of rhetoric as a progressive force, or in a less teleological sense, as the impetus for change, seems to be at least as apparent as rhetoric used for conservative ends.

The second thing that I found interesting about Kennedy’s book is the way that it was impossible, despite his best efforts, to not privilege Western epistemological paradigms in his discussion and organization of concepts. While I think that Kennedy attempted to move away from this (and stated as much) and while I think that this comparison is useful in many ways (it seems almost necessary even if it is “moved beyond” in later works) there were several parts of the book where I could not help but notice the bias toward Western progressive narratives that always put the Western model, inadvertently or consciously, at the top of the developmental heap. The movement from animal, to non-literate, to literate is one apparent example, but there were also several places where the bias was more subtle.

One aspect of this was the idea that rhetoric almost should be considered as its own IMG_2029entity, “as an art or discipline distinct from politics, ethics, or literary criticism” (144). The copy of this book that I have is used, and though I’m not sure if the previous owner is of Chinese origin, there were comments that I found telling in the margins. Next to the above quote, which was in the “Rhetoric in Ancient China” chapter, was the note, “Of course not, why need to,” as well as the occasional circling of IMG_5404words in this chapter with the word “wrong” written above it. It also seems thatsomewhere in this chapter this person stopped reading this book, as the notes in an Asian script which had appeared through the book up until this point abruptly stop. I found myself continuing to wonder about this previous reader, wondering what she might have thought of Kennedy’s works, and also postulating about the emotions or motives for quitting the book when and where she did. After reading the work of Hall and Ames, this sensitized me to the possible mis-readings in the Kennedy book, not just in this chapter, but potentially throughout the whole book.

A speaker who only needs a majority of one can ignore the concerns of parts of the audience, concentrate on rallying supporters, and bringing in the undecided. Majority rule results from the tolerance of contention and at the same time sharpens it” (222).

Something useful that I gained from this reading was the idea that rhetoric based upon the Greek system was uniquely contentious compared to rhetorics found in other parts of the world. While I am suspect of any large, sweeping generalizations or claims, this struck me as interesting for a variety of reasons. In addition to the uses of rhetoric for empowering under-represented or silenced groups (including overtly combative and risky acts of speaking out, e.g. parrhesia) in a society, I have likewise been interested in the uses of irenic rhetoric for the purposes of reconciliation, empathy, and understanding[1]. I see the contention of the rhetoric within this (American) society all the time and am sometimes rather disheartened by the lack of effort taken to understand multiple views, or to stop and listen to the “other” side in arguments. I’m also aware that debate in our culture is largely a spectator sport, thus Kennedy’s connection between contentious debate and competitive sports in ancient Greece was of interest to me as well. In agonistic debate, the people arguing “against” one another are not really trying to convince each other of anything, but rather are arguing as a spectacle before an audience (e.g. televised political debates) whom they are trying to convince. There is no effort to understand or compromise, or to concede that the other side may have a valid point; in fact, these things are often taken as “signs of weakness” in American culture.

argueTo me, this is all pointless fighting that leads to nothing productive. Raised in this culture, at times I enjoy this type of debate and I have a group of people with whom I occasionally do this, but at the end of the day we are all still friends – there are no negative feelings between us. I am wondering if there is a way to support freedom of speech and a multiplicity of views and also harboring good-will, listening, and genuinely hearing all sides in a debate. I know that this is possible on a personal or small-scale level, but can it be made possible writ large? Nationally? Culturally? Without sacrificing individual expression? I believe that it can – I don’t buy that these are binary opposites that cannot live harmoniously next to one another or nested within one another, though history seems to reflect a long-standing belief in one or the other….or perhaps that is just the history recorded for me through the Western lens that can’t imagine any other focus.

I do appreciate Kennedy’s attempt to give an overview of multiple cultures’ rhetorics, and to compare them in some way to Western rhetoric, with which much of his readership will be acquainted. I likewise understand that in any broad-sweeping work, there will necessarily be places where depth is sacrificed for breadth and where generalizations will have to be made. I would have liked, perhaps, more attention to this, though he does say at the end that he hopes he has “provided a starting place for future study,” rather than claiming that the work of comparative rhetoric is somehow done (230). I think that more postioning on his part would have been helpful to me – what is his background? What are his assumptions? How closely has he examined his own motivations and ethics in this work, as suggested by Alcoff? Though Hum and Lyon state that “the most important work, at this stage in comparative rhetoric, is the focused study, one conscious of its standpoint,” it seems that at least an attempt at a broad comparison was almost necessary, if for no other reason than to have something against which to compare more in-depth works.

Honestly, I think that I would find Kennedy’s book most helpful as a graph, with (Aristotelian/Western) categories across the top and cultures down the side, with short notes in each box where these things do or don’t intersect. Likewise, I would enjoy seeing Western rhetoric examined, say, with the criteria set forth (or implied) in other cultures to see how Western rhetoric compares. This, of course, would not be a satisfactory “end” to the comparison, but I think that it would be a more “readable” chart that would impart largely the same information as this book, just in a graphic rather than textual/linear representation.

Works Cited:

Cicero. “De Oratore.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd Ed. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2001. 283-343.

Hum, Sue, and Arabella Lyon. “Recent Advances in Comparative Rhetoric.” The SAGE Handbook of Rhetorical Studies. Ed. Andrea A. Lunsford, Kirt H. Wilson, and Rosa A. Eberly. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008. 153-65.

Kennedy, George. Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-cultural Introduction. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.


[1] Prior to returning to graduate studies, I did some mediation work and practiced a modality called Non Violent Communication, which is a way of re-languaging interactions founded in compassion, empathy, and a disentangling of responsibility between communicators based upon an inter-dependence model rather than the oppositions of dependence/independence.

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