September 24, 2012

Rhetoric: Choosing Words to Represent Ideas

John Locke separates words into two distinct groups: "First, One for the recording of our own thoughts. Secondly, The other for the communicating of our thoughts to others" (Locke, Pg 817). The power of word choice instantly shows the separation between the core message of any rhetorical speech and the words chosen to represent this meaning. The ambiguity and meaninglessness of the words we use to shape these ideas is emphasized by Locke, "For since sounds are voluntary and indifferent signs of any ideas, a man may use what words he pleases to signify his own ideas to himself" (Pg 817). Locke shows how unimportant words are in the shaping of our theories, as he literally strips all words of all meaning. At the same time, this shows how important words are in the actual act of getting out our ideas and representing them. In making this distinction, I think he properly defends rhetoric by showing how utterly dependent it is on the user. For if words are simply chosen to represent the ideas that are formulated, how can the words be blamed? At the same time, it shows how easily rhetoric can be distorted often purposefully by the user and other times a result of their lack of understanding of those words.

I can't think of a better example of good word choice than an ad I recently saw in the 2012 Presidential Campaign. Barack Obama has a campaign sign that says,

"if you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference then other folks are going to fill the void - the lobbyists, the special interests, the people who are writing 10 million checks, the folks who are trying to keep people from voting, the politicians who want to tell you who you can marry, tell women they can't have control over their own health care choices. Only you can make sure that doesn't happen".

When putting this statement through Locke's system of choosing words to represent ideas, the message being portrayed is clear: "a lot of young people are giving up on voting because they feel they aren't represented. I may not be perfect, and you may not want me as your president, but remember that a vote for me is a vote for gay marriage, pro-choice, easier voting registration, etc. If you don't vote for me your voting against these things. Only you can make sure this doesn't happen".

Obama is clearly making an attack ad at Romney, however he chooses to represent his ideas in a more positive, uplifting way. Obama is essentially saying "A vote for me is a vote against Romney" but because of his rhetorical tactics, he can shape it in a democracy first tone that works to include everyone instead of exclude few. Still, though, he is most certainly working to separate his views from the republican views. This has been Obama's "idea" from the beginning, but the words he uses to represent his idea are picked carefully and spoken much more elegantly than most speakers. As a result, he comes off as someone who wants to unite America and protect freedom. But is not showing how separated our values really are? This is one reason he won the 2008 election, when America needed an uplifting voice. Ironically, I believe Obama will win a second bid as president because of his ability to define his idea while sounding rational and steady-handed. The power of rhetoric!

-Joel Bergholtz

2 comments:

Steven Loer said...

Joel, you used this quote, "if you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference then other folks are going to fill the void - the lobbyists, the special interests, the people who are writing 10 million checks, the folks who are trying to keep people from voting, the politicians who want to tell you who you can marry, tell women they can't have control over their own health care choices. Only you can make sure that doesn't happen".

I don't understand how that makes complete sense. I'll use the social media angle to this. One can only try to enact the same influence that the aforementioned would when they "filled the gap." In reality all they are doing is demonstrating something more to the intellectual environment which is hoped to be picked up by more individuals. In reality "you" aren't doing much at all, but the group of followers would be.

Joel Bergholtz said...

Steven,
It is a shame you didn't explain your point further. I would love to debate with you, but I can't really understand what you are attempting to say. I also feel like I can't make it much clearer. Instead of coming out and saying, "Romney doesn't support gay marriage! Romney makes voting harder!" He chooses to speak in a more uplifting tone about why a vote for him is a vote for all of these things which - in Obama's rhetoric - all seem like American rights. What is it that you do not think makes sense or are failing to understand?
Joel

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