A Father Counsels His Sons How to Use Rhetoric in Family Life
DEFINING POLICY AND TERMS
Another area of the use of rhetoric is what the Roman orator Cicero called discussions about policy or the deliberative discussion. One domestic policy in our house concerned cleaning your rooms. Your room had be cleaned before you could go anywhere on Saturday, and it had to be done before a certain time. I found out that we needed to deliberate further on this policy by clarifying simple things like the meaning of clean. I had failed to account that we had developed different meanings of the same word.
Upon entering the allegedly cleaned room for inspection, I discovered this weakness in my rhetorical skills. There were no clothes on the floor, your desk appeared to be straightened up, and the bed was made, but then I opened the closet. Your closet floor had become the repository for all the dirty clothes—even the unfolded clean ones. I was amazed at how much you had crammed into the desk drawers, and I found your clean sheets stuffed under the bed. I should have known better but I asked anyway, “Do you call this clean?” Of course you did; that’s how you could announce that it was clean! Bill Cosby always thought his mother was an expert on pig-stys because after seeing his room she would exclaim, “This is the worst looking pig-sty I have ever seen.” I decided it best not to add that to the confusion.
In this you can see one of the prerequisites of persuasion: defining what your terms mean. What to you appeared clean was not clean as I expected it. Clean to you meant everything out of sight. Apple cores under the clothes, papers disorganized, and clothes out of sight in the closet seemed somehow perfectly logical to you. Words have meaning, and policy statements about clean rooms need to be spelled out long before persuasion can begin.
RHETORIC WITH OLDER CHILDREN
Other policy issues will depend on developing your rhetorical skills. Think about how you plan to tell your thirteen-year-old daughter that she is not allowed to wear make-up yet or that your sons or daughters alike are not allowed to bring members of the opposite sex home unless you or your spouse is home. Although Cicero spoke of the faculties of Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery when putting together an argument, I must admit that I have no idea which of those will work to get your point across. I’m thinking some of these ancient philosophers should have a warning label attached to their writings: NOT FOR USE WITH TEENAGERS.
Actually at some point in your relationship with your children after particularly exasperating attempts to persuade, cajole, and bribe, you’ll discover the greatest rhetorical statement ever invented by parents. You’ll utter that age-old, time-tested phrase to end all arguments: “Because I said so!” End of discussion. You haven’t actually countered their objections or contradicted their persuasive tactics. However, you have brought general quiet back to the house. Again, Bill Cosby, “Parents don’t want justice. Parents want quiet.” (Hey, who needs those ancient philosophers?)
Beware, however, of using this tactic with your sixteen-year-old sons. At sixteen they will most likely be bigger and stronger than you, but hopefully you have fully vetted your credibility with them in order to prevent them from engaging that most dangerous of all growing male attributes: testosterone. The credibility so valued by Aristotle in a speaker just may save your life.
THE LIMITS OF RHETORIC
There is, however, a time when no amount of rhetoric will help you. Perish the thought, but there may come a time when you forget your wife’s birthday or worse your anniversary. Flowers and promising her dinner at her favorite restaurant will help, but they will not get you very far. You will need to resort to delivery of words defined in rhetoric as “the graceful regulation of voice, countenance, and gesture.” The most important thing to exhibit in your voice is fear, in your countenance shame, and in your gesture, your head well below the head of the queen, in other words, groveling with your face to the floor eating dirt. However, there are two words that can be very persuasive: “I’m sorry.” They must be said with Aristotle’s three-fold appeals in mind. They must have credibility; they must appeal to her emotionally; they must be truthful (hint: you have to be sincere). Uttered profusely with flowers, dinners, and gifts in their wake, she may yet be persuaded to forgive you.
And so you see, my sons, that rhetoric is not something merely discussed in ivy towers and college classrooms. You will need to recognize how to persuade your family and how they try to persuade you; an understanding of rhetoric will help. Yet I still recommend the following advice. Let your overall demeanor be one of kindness, your love be apparent, and your words be few. When rhetoric fails, these won’t.
© 2023 Robert T. Weber, Words Done Right LLC