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Rhetoric in Popular Culture
Fifth Edition
For Elizabeth Duncan Windler and Katharine Duncan Brummett
Rhetoric in Popular Culture
Fifth Edition
Barry Brummett
The University of Texas at Austin
Los Angeles
New Delhi
Washington DC
Copyright © 2018 by SAGE Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Brummett, Barry, 1951- author.
Title: Rhetoric in popular culture / Barry Brummett, The University of Texas at Austin, USA.
Description: Fifth edition. | Thousand Oaks, California : Sage, [2017] | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017021693 | ISBN 9781506315638 (pbk. : alk. paper)
Subjects: LCSH: Rhetoric. | Popular culture. | Rhetorical criticism.
Classification: LCC P301 .B67 2017 | DDC 808—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017021693
Printed in the United States of America
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
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Brief Contents
1. Preface
2. Acknowledgments
3. Part 1 Theory
1. Chapter 1 Rhetoric and the Rhetorical Tradition
2. Chapter 2 Rhetoric and Popular Culture
3. Chapter 3 Rhetorical Methods in Critical Studies
4. Chapter 4 Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism: INTERVENTIONUnderstanding
5. Chapter 5 Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism: UNDERSTANDINGIntervention
4. Part 2 Application
1. Chapter 6 Paradoxes of Personalization: Race Relations in Milwaukee
2. Chapter 7 Notes from a Texas Gun Show
3. Chapter 8 Simulational Selves, Simulational Culture in Groundhog Day
4. Chapter 9 Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One
Duct Makes You Small
5. Chapter 10 The Bad Resurrection in American Life and Culture
5. Works Cited
6. Suggested Readings
7. Index
8. About the Author
Detailed Contents
Part 1 Theory
1. Rhetoric and the Rhetorical Tradition
Definitions and the Management of Power
The Rhetorical Tradition: Ancient Greece
The Rise of the City-States: How Democracy Grew Up with
Rhetoric in Athens
Plato’s Complaints against the Sophists
Two Legacies We Have Inherited from the Greek Rhetorical
Rhetoric Is Conventionally Equated with Traditional Texts
Rhetoric Is Paradoxically Linked to Power Management
Definitions of Rhetoric after Plato
Rhetoric in the Eighteenth Century
New Theories (and New Realities) Emerge in the Twentieth Century
What Changed in the Twentieth Century and Beyond
Managing Power Today in Traditional Texts: Neo-Aristotelian
Summary and Review
Looking Ahead
2. Rhetoric and Popular Culture
The Rhetoric of Everyday Life
The Building Blocks of Culture: Signs
Indexical Meaning
Iconic Meaning
Symbolic Meaning
Complexity of the Three Kinds of Meaning
The Building Blocks of Culture: Artifacts
An Action, Event, or Object Perceived as a Unified Whole
… Having Widely Shared Meanings
… Manifesting Group Identifications to Us
Definitions of Culture
Elitist Meanings of Culture
Popular Meanings of Culture
Characteristics of Cultures
Cultures Are Highly Complex and Overlapping
Cultures Entail Consciousness, or Ideologies
Cultures Are Experienced through Texts
Managing Power Today in Texts of Popular Culture
Four Characteristics of the Texts of Popular Culture
Summary and Review
Looking Ahead
3. Rhetorical Methods in Critical Studies
Texts as Sites of Struggle
Texts Influence through Meanings
Texts Are Sites of Struggle over Meaning
Three Characteristics of Critical Studies
The Critical Character
Concern over Power
Critical Interventionism
Finding a Text
The First Continuum: Type of Text
The Second Continuum: Sources of Meanings
Defining a Context
The Third Continuum: Choice of Context
The Fourth Continuum: Text–Context Relationship
Intertextuality: When the Context Is Another Text
“Inside” the Text
The Fifth Continuum: From Surface to Deep Reading
Direct Tactics
Implied Strategies
The Text in Context: Metonymy, Power, Judgment
Summary and Review
Looking Ahead
4. Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism: INTERVENTION-Understanding
An Introduction to Critical Perspectives
Methods Focused on Power
Culture-Centered Criticism
Cultures and Their Own Critical Methods
Unity and Harmony
Other Tenets
Whiteness as a Kind of Culture: Analysis and Examples
Marxist Criticism
Materialism, Bases, and Superstructure
Economic Metaphors, Commodities, and Signs
Preferred and Oppositional Readings
Subject Positions
Standpoint Theory
Feminist Criticism
Varieties of Feminist Criticism
How Do Patriarchal Language and Images Perpetuate Inequality?
Language and Images That Denigrate
How Can Texts Empower Women?
Alternative Rhetorical Forms
Queer Theory
Analysis and Examples
Summary and Review
5. Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism: UNDERSTANDING-Intervention
Methods Focused on Self and Society
Psychoanalytic Criticism
Making Minds and Selves
Visual Rhetorical Criticism
Images as Focal Points of Meaning Attribution
Images as Focal Points of Collective Memory and Community
Point of View
Methods Focused on Story
Dramatistic/Narrative Criticism
Language as a Grounds for Motives
Terministic Screens
Narrative Genres
Comedy and Tragedy
The Pentad
Analysis and Examples
Media-Centered Criticism
What Is a Medium?
Media Logic
Characteristics of Television as a Medium
Analysis and Examples
Characteristics of Handheld Devices as a Medium
Connective Power
Context Mobility
Characteristics of the Computer and Internet as a Medium
Speed and Control
Analysis and Examples
Summary and Review
Looking Ahead
Part 2 Application
6. Paradoxes of Personalization: Race Relations in Milwaukee
The Problem of Personalization
The Scene and Focal Events
Problems in the African-American Community
Violence against African-Americans
The School System
White Political Attitudes
Tragedy and Metonymy
Metonymizing the Tragedies
Metonymy and Paradox
The Paradox of Identification
Identification and Race
Enabling Identification
Forestalling Identification
The Persistence of Race
The Paradox of Action: The Public and the Personal
Personal Action and Loss of Vision
The Paradox in Milwaukee
African-Americans “In Need of Help”
Some Solutions
Reciprocal Personalization
Metonymizing Yourself
Metonymizing Others
Resources for Careful Metonymy
Stepping Back from the Critique
7. Notes from a Texas Gun Show
Texas and Gun Culture
At the Gun Show
8. Simulational Selves, Simulational Culture in Groundhog Day
Simulation and Groundhog Day
9. Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One Duct
Makes You Small
Steampunk and Jumping Scale
The Aesthetic of Steampunk
Jumping Scale Down
Jumping Scale Up
10. The Bad Resurrection in American Life and Culture
The Fast and the Furious Movies
Halloween and Friday the 13th Movies
Works Cited
Suggested Readings
About the Author
Welcome to the fifth edition of Rhetoric in Popular Culture. Here I want to address
instructors who may be considering adopting this volume for their courses. This book
brings together two vital scholarly traditions: rhetorical criticism and critical studies. There
are several good textbooks, either well established or new, that cover rhetorical criticism
from a fairly traditional perspective. They focus on the analysis of discursive, reason-giving
texts, such as public speeches. On the other hand, there are several good books of critical
studies available. Some of the newer textbooks of critical studies are much improved over
their predecessors in covering techniques of Marxist, feminist, and other critical approaches
in ways that are accessible to students. But there is a need to apply the growing and cuttingedge methods of critical studies to the study of rhetoric and to link these new approaches to
the rhetorical tradition. That is what this book tries to do. It sees critical studies as
rhetorical criticism, and it argues that the most exciting form of rhetorical criticism today is
found in methods of critical studies.
There have been some changes between the fourth and fifth editions, primarily in Part II,
the Application sections. Of course, the entire book has been updated in regard to
examples, which must be done in every edition. Regrettably, even these updates may be a
little out of date by the time you see the fifth edition! Beyond that, these major changes
deserve note: Applications in Chapters 7, 9, and 10 are changed from the fourth edition.
Chapter 7, Notes from a Texas Gun Show, uses a culture-centered approach to study an
aspect of gun culture in America: the gun show. In doing so, it also studies a central aspect
of Texas—especially rural and working-class—culture. Because the gun show is such a
visual experience, the chapter also uses a visual rhetoric approach.
Chapter 9, Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One Duct Makes You
Small, studies the recently popular cultural and aesthetic movement of steampunk. It
primarily uses the media-centered and visual rhetoric approach, also giving some attention
to dramatistic/narrative criticism. Both Chapters 7 and 9 are reprints of studies published
by the author elsewhere and are used in this book for the first time. Chapter 10, The Bad
Resurrection in American Life and Culture, is a newly written essay published here for the
first time. It uses the dramatistic/narrative approach and media-centered approach to trace
the recurrence of a narrative theme in a homology that crosses many experiences and texts.
I have consistently refused to “dumb down” this textbook despite the occasional appeal to
do so, having faith in the ability of today’s undergraduates to wrestle with challenging ideas
that are (I hope) clearly explained. I also have faith in you, the instructor, to carry them
through it. Theory and method need not be scary, and they must not be something distinct
from the lives of ordinary people. If our students do not understand challenging ideas, then
we have failed them—or possibly they have failed themselves by not trying. I have also not
attempted to exhaust any topic I have brought up, but instead I have faith that my teaching
colleagues will ably fill in whatever gaps I have left. Any textbook should be the beginning
of a discussion, not the whole of the discussion, and surely not the end of it.
I am grateful to the editorial staff of SAGE, especially Karen Omer, who has been
instrumental in bringing this fifth edition of Rhetoric in Popular Culture to fruition. I also
want to thank Rachel Keith for a masterful, helpful, and thoroughly professional job of
editing the manuscript.
Reviewers for all five editions of the book have been more than helpful, and I want to
acknowledge their assistance here.
In preparation of the fifth edition:
Cori Brewster (Eastern Oregon University)
Ken Corbit (University of Alabama)
Mindy Fenske (University of South Carolina)
Leslie Hahner (Baylor University)
Matthew Meier (West Chester University)
Matthew Petrunia (Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY)
Patrick Richey Middle (Tennessee State University)
Anne Marie Todd (San Jose State University)
In preparation of the fourth edition:
Mary Elizabeth Bezanson (University of Minnesota, Morris)
Michael L. Butterworth (Bowling Green State University)
Peter Ehrenhaus (Pacific Lutheran University)
Trischa Goodnow (Oregon State University)
Christine Horton (University of Waterloo)
Kristy Maddux (University of Maryland)
Peter Marston (California State University, Northridge)
Theresa Russell-Loretz (Millersville University)
In preparation of the third edition:
Donathan L. Brown (Texas A&M University)
John Fritch (University of Northern Iowa)
Yvonne Prather (Austin Peay State University)
Roy Schwartzman (University of North Carolina at Greensboro)
Joseph Zompetti (Illinois State University)
In preparation of the second edition:
Paul E. Bender (Ohio Northern University)
Christy Friend (University of South Carolina)
Donna M. Kowal (The College at Brockport, SUNY)
Michael W. McFarland (Stetson University)
Ronald B. Scott (Miami University)
Deanna D. Sellnow (University of Kentucky)
Donna Strickland (University of Missouri–Columbia)
In preparation of the first edition:
Bruce Herzberg (Bentley University)
Tom Hollihan (University of Southern California)
James F. Klummp (University of Maryland, College Park)
John Llewellyn (Wake Forest University)
Skip Rutledge (Point Loma Nazarene University)
Helen Sterk (Calvin College)
Barbie Zelizer (University of Pennsylvania)
I am grateful to all who have profited from reading previous editions of this book and used
it in their own work. Finding references to this textbook elsewhere is always a nice
reminder that one’s efforts are making a difference. I am grateful to the many students who
have used this book in my classes and in classes taught by others. Taking the principles
explained here, they have taught me through their insights about popular culture. I hear
often that readers of this book see the world differently; I could ask for no higher thanks or
Part One Theory
In Part I, we learn about the history of the practice and theory of persuasion, which is
called rhetoric. We will see why the rhetoric of popular culture is so important today.
1 Rhetoric and the Rhetorical Tradition
© iStockphoto.com/HAYKIRDI
Do you know what your blue jeans are doing to you? What kind of person do you turn
into when you go to shopping malls? After a day of hard knocks at work or at school, do
you use social media to “fight back” or to escape?
If you are like most people, you are probably not in the habit of asking yourself questions
like these. We may think of our clothing, favorite kinds of music, favorite websites, or
preferred forms of recreation as ways to express ourselves or to have fun. But we may think
it a little far-fetched to believe that there is any serious meaning in TMZ, or Jimmy Fallon,
or that our personalities and values are involved in checking out this spring’s new
Although most of us realize that clickbait ads or political commercials are designed to
influence us, it may not be clear to us how the regular programming outside and between
the advertisements has the same function. A lot of us may feel that we wear our hair in
certain styles for aesthetic reasons—because we like it that way. We may not often think
that those styles also express certain positions in important social and political battles. We
may feel that we consistently shop at Abercrombie & Fitch rather than at Old Navy only
for reasons of taste; we might be surprised to hear that our choice has the potential to turn
us into different kinds of people.
This book asks you to think about how everyday actions, objects, and experiences affect
you and others. You are probably already familiar with some of the more serious and
newsworthy consequences of music, television, or films, such as the association of countryand-western music with conservative patriotism or the criticism of certain hip-hop
musicians for their use of particular words and images. This book will expand on things
you may already be aware of, leading you to see how all of popular culture works to
influence the public. You will have noticed that the book has two key terms: rhetoric and
popular culture. In this chapter, we will focus on rhetoric and its traditions.
There are some well-developed theories available for studying how messages influence
people. These are theories of rhetoric, or persuasion. The word rhetoric has many meanings,
and we will examine many of them in this chapter. Many people understand rhetoric to
mean the ways in which words influence people. “That’s just a lot of rhetoric,” we say, and
by that we mean that it’s just so many empty but persuasive words. In this book, we will
work from a different, expanded understanding of what rhetoric means: the ways in which
signs influence people.
Let’s pause for some quick definitions. The term signs refers to the countless meaningful
items, images, and so on that surround us; it will be explained more fully in the next
chapter, beginning on page 41). A sign is something that induces you to think about
something other than itself—and everything has that potential. The clearest example of a
sign is a word; you read the word hat, and you think of something other than—something
beyond—the marks on the page that are that sign. There can be nonverbal signs also, such
as the American flag, which encourages you to think of something—the United States—
beyond the colored cloth that is the sign. There will be more on signs in the next chapter.
In this chapter, we will also use the word text, which will also be discussed in more detail in
the next chapter, but for now we can think of a text as a message, as a collection of verbal
and/or nonverbal signs that create meaning. This book is a text composed of many signs in
the form of words and pictures.
Has popular culture always been an important site of rhetoric? Not necessarily. To
understand why the conjunction of rhetoric and popular culture is especially potent today,
we first need to understand the history of rhetorical theory. We will begin with the ancient
Greeks and how they thought about and practiced rhetoric. As we move toward our own
time, we will come to realize why the focus of rhetorical practice has shifted from great
oratory in public speaking in ancient times to music, film, television, and the Internet in
our time. The historical review in this chapter will help you to understand why, if you want
to influence people far and wide today, you start a viral video rather than preparing a public
Rhetoric has been around for centuries, both as something that people do and as a subject
that people study. One thing that is particularly striking about rhetoric is the many
different ways in which it has been defined, today and throughout history. In this chapter,
we will explore some of those definitions. Students of rhetoric are often frustrated with so
many definitions for a term; “Why can’t people just settle on a meaning?” they sometimes
ask. To anticipate that frustration, let us first think about what a definition is and about
defining as a strategy.
Definitions and the Management of Power
You may have taken courses that were a little frustrating because you learned that key terms
have been defined by different authors and in different eras in different ways. You may also
have noticed that the ways in which you define certain terms can make a lot of difference;
in fact, definitions can be a way of securing power. If you define culture, for instance, as
high culture—as ballet and oil paintings and symphony orchestras—that lets you reduce to
second-class status everything else, including baseball games, cheeseburgers, reggae music,
and hip-hop. This arrangement makes a pretty nice setup for the wealthy and talented
people who already control “high culture,” doesn’t it? If “culture” is something that people
think of as generally a good thing, then being able to define some things and not others as
“culture” is a source of power.
If you study history, you find that certain terms have been defined in many different ways.
Throughout history there have been varying definitions of what it means to be human.
Some societies defined humanity by way of race; such a definition empowered people of
one race to enslave whole groups of people who did not look like them on the theory that
they were not really enslaving humans. In the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis
in Germany attempted to define humanity along ethnic lines, portraying German Aryans as
the only authentic humans. Through that definition, the Nazis denied that Jews, Gypsies,
and others were fully human. Women have been defined in different ways throughout
history, generally in ways that were disempowering (as incomplete or imperfect copies of
men, as inferior versions of humanity, as essentially assistants or helpers for men, and so
There are many terms that can have different definitions, such as terms used in describing
families or sexual orientation. But there are also many terms that do not have varying
definitions. There are not widely different definitions for carrots, cats, dogs, umbrellas, or
walking, for instance. What is the difference? What makes one term have lots of different
definitions while other terms seem relatively straightforward? Some words have little to do
with power; you will find that these terms do not get defined in very many ways. When
power and influence are at stake, the words in which power and influence (or
disempowerment) are expressed or embodied will come to have lots of definitions. Settling
the definition of carrots will not affect who has control over others, who has freedom to do
as they will, who will have to accommodate others, and so forth.
Exercise 1.1
The following exercise, which you can do on your own or in class with the instructions of your teacher, will
help you understand what is at stake in the general strategies of definition.
One of the most important ways in which people are defined is in terms of race. Consider these questions:
1. What are the major terms for human races?
2. Are there any disagreements over what to call certain racial groups? Is there lack of agreement over
what to call other groups?
3. What does it mean that certain racial groups seem to be called by only one term, with little struggle
over what to call them?
4. Do different terms of races imply different definitions of people? If so, what does that have to do
with power? Why are those terms struggled over? For example, in the last sixty years, one group of
people has “officially” been called Negroes, Blacks, Afro-Americans, and African-Americans (and
other, “unofficial” terms). Why so many terms? What does each term have to do with
empowerment and disempowerment?
People struggle over power; therefore, they struggle over the words that express power. We
may take it as a general rule that terms that have several different definitions—definitions
that are controversial or argued over—are usually terms about important dimensions of
human life. Such terms will have something to do with how power is created, shared, or
denied. To control words is to control the world.
We have seen how there are disagreements and struggles for power over how the word
culture is defined. Now we will see that an even greater disagreement exists over how to
define rhetoric. Struggles over how to define rhetoric run through history. It seems,
therefore, that there must be some connection between rhetoric and power. This
connection was clear from the very beginning of thinking about rhetoric in Western
civilization. We are about to take a detour of some length through ancient Greece. The
reason for this is that the ways we—both the general public and rhetorical scholars—think
about and define rhetoric are grounded in the ways the ancient Greeks thought about
rhetoric. When we do rhetoric differently today, we do it differently from Greek practices.
The Greek legacy to us includes ideas about the relationship between power and rhetoric as
well as about the ways in which popular culture is related to both. Let us see what the
Greeks thought rhetoric was all about.
The Rhetorical Tradition: Ancient Greece
Rhetoric has been studied for centuries throughout the world, although, in this country, we
are most influenced by Western traditions of rhetoric that originated in the Mediterranean
world. Western civilization has historically thought that the formal study of rhetoric began
in about the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. in the ancient city-states of Greece and their
colonies. To understand what rhetoric meant to these people, how they practiced it, and
what they studied, we will make a quick (and therefore somewhat simplified) survey of
their history.
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Rise of the City-States: How Democracy Grew Up with
Greece used to be a considerably more fertile, prosperous, and even more populous land
than it is now; some scholars think poor farming and land use techniques eroded the soil.
At any rate, at one time the Greek land supported a large population that was organized
largely around city-states—relatively small political entities, each anchored in a capital city
such as Sparta, Athens, or Mycenae. In the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., several
important developments took place. The Greek city-states had joined together to subdue
their common enemy to the east, Persia, and thus they enjoyed a period of relative peace
and safety from outside dangers. Many of these city-states were on or near the sea, and they
developed navies and advanced techniques of navigation. Many of them became great
trading powers and began to prosper economically as a result. As is so often the case, trade
brought with it new ideas about science, government, philosophy, and technology,
especially from Asia and Africa. Another important development was political; many,
though not all, of the city-states developed strong democratic forms of government.
A democracy requires that people govern themselves, and to the extent that people are selfgoverning, they must talk about common problems and devise procedures for shared
decision-making. When new ideas are coming quickly into a place, the people will want to
talk about them, weigh them to determine their usefulness for themselves, and debate their
applications. Peace gives people the freedom and leisure to participate fully in public
discussions. And as economic prosperity grows, the consequences of public discussions also
grow; what was decided in a prosperous city-state could have an effect on half the
Mediterranean world. Do you notice the common theme in this paragraph? The ancient
Greek world was an especially fertile context for the growth and development of rhetorical
communication, particularly public speaking, as an important human activity.
Nowhere was that more true than in Athens, the largest and most prosperous of the citystates. This time period was known as the Golden Age of Athens; under leaders such as
Pericles, it prospered and came to dominate many of the other city-states culturally,
economically, and militarily. To understand some important assumptions that people make
even today about rhetoric, we must understand how rhetoric was practiced in this
important city-state.
Rhetoric in Athens
The Athenians had no lawyers, no legislators, and no public relations or advertising
professionals. All public decisions were made by an assembly of the citizens of Athens. We
often hear of Athens as a perfect example of a democracy. In fact, it was not; only the free,
native-born, property-holding, adult males of Athens were counted as citizens. In such a
cosmopolitan and rapidly changing population, that number came to only about 15
percent of the total. Still, given a population of about 150,000 for the entire city-state
during this period, it made for a sizable group of people who participated in public
From time to time, these citizens would gather at a place outside the city, and any and all
issues of important public business would be raised then. When an issue was raised, it was
dealt with through debate and discussion. Because such gatherings required that large
groups of people be addressed at once, the discussion took the form of public speaking.
That meant that every citizen needed to be able to speak in public at a moment’s notice
and on any topic that might come up. If you were an olive grower and someone proposed a
new law that would regulate olive growing, you had to be able to speak on that issue
immediately to protect your livelihood. If you were a young man of the proper age for the
military and someone proposed sending an army or navy on some action, you might need
to speak on that issue. If you wanted some public works constructed in town, there were no
city council representatives to call; you had to stand up yourself and suggest that a bridge or
dam be built. If you thought your neighbor was violating the law, there were no police or
district attorneys to call; you had to stand up and accuse the rascal yourself. On the other
hand, someone might accuse you of some form of wrongdoing, and you would be called
upon to defend yourself in an impromptu speech.
In sum, an ability to speak, clearly and forcefully, on any subject that might come up was a
vital skill for these Athenian citizens, crucial for their business and personal affairs. Today,
nobody would think of starting a business without some training in accounting, business
mathematics, administration, business law, and so forth. For many Athenians, the sine qua
non—the most essential component—of successful business was public speaking.
Public speaking was also vital for the Athenians’ political affairs. Athenians took
participation in political discussion to be both a duty and an entertainment. Unlike the
situation for most of us today, political decisions would be carried out by those who made
them; if you voted to repair the city wall, you had to help with the planning, construction,
and financing. Politics also required well-honed public speaking skills.
This need to be able to speak in public created a market for those who could teach such
skills. (An analogous need today would be the great demand for training in computer
competence, a demand created in just the last few decades around the world.) A class of
traveling teachers of public speaking, known as the Sophists, arose to meet this need in
ancient Greece. You may be familiar with the term sophist or sophistry; today, such terms are
used to refer to those who argue for the sake of arguing, who devise empty arguments that
sound good but are not solid. A sophist is, in this sense, one who is more concerned with
winning an argument than with establishing the truth. But the Sophists of ancient Greece
would not have defined themselves that way. These definitions of sophistry actually arose
from the viewpoint of another philosopher of ancient Greece, Plato. Let us see why.
Plato’s Complaints against the Sophists
Two complaints were lodged against the Sophists. The first is that they claimed to have
knowledge about public speaking but really did not. It would not be surprising if this
complaint was true of some of them. After all, there have been quacks and charlatans in
every profession throughout history. In ancient Greece, there were no accrediting agencies
that could certify whether a given Sophist was a qualified teacher. So, certainly, some
Sophists claimed to be able to teach something they really knew little about, though this
was not true of all Sophists.
A second complaint is more substantial and was the primary reason for Plato’s objection to
the Sophists. This complaint centers on the idea that public speaking is not an art of
anything in particular, because a person can speak about everything. If public speaking is
not an art of anything in particular, Plato argued, then it ought not to be taught at all;
instead, speakers should learn more about the things they spoke about. Certainly, given the
way that public decisions were made in ancient Athens, people needed to be able to speak
on any subject at a moment’s notice. They might have to speak about shipbuilding if
Athens was trying to decide whether to construct a navy; about wheat farming if Athens
was trying to decide what sort of agricultural laws to have; about rules of evidence under
the criminal statutes if an accusation of lawbreaking was made. The problem was, as a
person took a course and learned about public speaking, that person did not, through those
studies, learn about shipbuilding, agriculture, or law. Instead, a student of public speaking
learned about introductions and conclusions, arguments, and verbal embellishments that
could be applied to any topic.
Plato objected to this state of affairs because he thought it made more sense to learn the
subjects about which you would speak than to learn techniques of speaking itself (Plato
discusses this idea in the dialogue called Gorgias). Pursuing that logic to its conclusion,
Plato argued that because true democracies refer all issues to all the people and because
nobody can be an expert on every issue, democracy itself was flawed because it asked people
to discuss problems and issues on which they were not experts. Plato instead preferred to
refer problems to experts in the appropriate subject rather than to democratic decisionmaking (see his Republic). He feared that democratic gatherings would be too swayed by
rhetoric itself, by technique rather than substance. He therefore defined rhetoric as
“pandering,” as an art of appearances rather than reality (see the Gorgias). Only later in his
thinking did he allow some room for rhetoric as a tool or servant of those who were already
knowledgeable in a subject matter for better instructing their audiences (see Plato’s later
dialogue, Phaedrus).
Thus, at the very birth of thinking about rhetoric, we find disagreements over definitions.
And once again we see that the struggle over different definitions has a lot to do with
power. For the Sophists, rhetoric was the art of persuasion carried out through public
speaking, the art of determining how to speak to popular audiences on the wide range of
subjects that might come before them for review and decision. For Plato, rhetoric was an
art of fooling people, of flattering them, of getting the public to make decisions based on
oratorical technique rather than on knowledge or a grasp of the truth. These definitional
disagreements arose precisely because power was at stake: the power to make public
decisions about important public business. If the Sophists were correct in their definition,
then all citizens should share in the power to speak about important decisions, to influence
others, to sway the judgments of others. If Plato’s definition was correct, then decisions
should be made by a small group of experts in whatever subject came up, and persuasive
speaking should not at all be a factor in what was decided.
So, what is rhetoric, really? Bear in mind that any answer this book might give would have
its author’s own arguments for rhetoric—in other words, its author’s own power issues—
embedded within it. But the impulse behind asking such a question is understandable; it
would indeed be useful to have some “core idea” of what rhetoric is, a basic notion
underlying all the definitions rhetoric has accumulated over the centuries. Such a single
summing up is probably not possible, but we might return to a general sense of rhetoric
that we have already examined. Earlier, we used an extremely broad definition of rhetoric
that could underlie at least most of these other definitions: the ways in which signs
influence people. A public speech, like an essay or article, consists of lots of signs (words)
working together in what we will call a text; rhetoric is, very generally, the ways in which
these texts influence people. We will learn more about what a text is and the different forms
it can take in the next chapter, but for now, think of it as a message, as an attempt to
influence someone. Certainly, the Athenians had to use the public speaking form of
communication in their assemblies to influence others. But what were they doing when
they used those texts to influence others? What are we doing today when we use signs with
rhetorical influence upon other people, or when signs influence us? How that influence is
carried out, and ideas about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing to do, will be
expressed more clearly in the narrower definitions that different thinkers offer.
Two Legacies We Have Inherited from the Greek Rhetorical
The ancient Greeks were extremely influential in the development of rhetorical theory. The
Sophists and Plato initiated arguments over rhetorical theory, and Plato’s pupil Aristotle
wrote the most famous work on this subject, the Rhetoric, which in one way or another
influenced all subsequent rhetorical theory. Many of the assumptions, theories, and
practices of ancient Athens have had an extraordinary effect on how people have thought
about rhetoric ever since. We need to evaluate what the Greeks taught us, and whether the
rhetorical tradition they began is relevant to rhetoric today. Let’s examine two important
legacies from that rhetorical tradition: (1) Rhetoric is conventionally equated with
traditional texts, and (2) Traditional rhetoric is paradoxically linked to power management.
Rhetoric Is Conventionally Equated with Traditional Texts
When the ancient Greeks spoke of rhetoric, they were referring to a particular kind of text.
The Greek rhetorical legacy encourages people to assume that only the texts of public
speaking had rhetorical functions. In exploring this idea further, it is useful to draw a
distinction between rhetoric as a function and rhetoric as a certain kind of manifestation.
Rhetoric does certain things; it has certain functions. In its broadest sense, rhetoric refers to
the ways in which signs influence people, and through that influence, rhetoric makes things
happen. When people speak, when they make television advertisements, when they write
essays, they are attempting to carry out some function. What that function specifically is,
whether it is good or bad, will vary with one’s definition. The Sophists would say that the
function of rhetoric is to persuade others while participating in a democratic society, while
Plato would say that the function of rhetoric is to flatter or mislead people. But the general
function—that of influence—remains the same.
On the other hand, whatever rhetoric is doing, whatever functions it is performing, it must
take on some physical form that can be seen or heard. The signs that influence people come
together as texts in certain forms or manifestations. In ancient Greece, the manifestation
that was almost universally called “rhetoric” was public speaking. There are, of course,
many different kinds of public speeches. But, for the Greeks, public speeches shared four
important characteristics as a form of text. These four characteristics describe what we
might call traditional rhetorical texts. The Greek ideal of public speaking called for a
traditional text that was (1) verbal, (2) expositional, (3) discrete, and (4) hierarchical.
Public speaking is a primarily verbal text: its main tool is language. Certainly, nonverbal
dimensions of the experience, such as gestures or vocal expression, are important, but the
words in public speaking are of primary concern. When we study the great speeches of the
past, for instance, we look primarily at what was said; there is rarely any record of how the
speakers moved or used their voice to emphasize certain points, how they dressed or
combed their hair for maximum effect.
Public speaking is also a largely expositional text: its main purpose is to argue and explain.
Here we will draw on critic Neil Postman’s usage of the term expositional in 1985.
Postman’s broad definition refers to the sort of speeches that make several claims, then
defend or develop those claims by providing evidence, clarification, examples, and
elaboration in carefully organized structures. Such speeches rely on evidence—especially
technical, scientific, historical, or other knowledge—to make and defend points. In other
words, traditional texts are based on argument, not in the sense of being disputatious but in
the sense of advancing and defending propositions. Expositional speaking entails lengthy
development. By way of contrast, President Donald Trump took the themes of “change”
and “draining the swamp” among several campaign slogans, often without specific
explanation of what changes he meant or what he felt he could do. These expressions were
not expositional in that the challenge was not developed, explained, or elaborated upon.
Public speaking is also a discrete text. By discrete, we mean clearly distinct and separate in
time and space, surrounded by clear boundaries. A snail mail letter in an envelope is
discrete: it is all contained in one place and usually read at once, at one time. Text
messages, although they may respond to previous texts and may prompt new ones, are
usually discrete messages: you hear the familiar jingling of your cell phone, you call up that
particular text, you read it, you either reply or ignore it, and you are done.
A discrete text is a unified series of signs that are perceived to be separate and distinct from
other signs. Elevator music is not usually perceived to be a discrete text, because it blends
into other texts. It is heard as its producers mean it to be heard: as a background noise that
merges with whatever else you happen to be doing. Traditional speeches are usually
perceived as discrete texts. They begin when the speaker begins to speak, and they end as
the speaker is finished. The words of a speech form the text for the most part; coughs and
clearings of the throat by the speaker are not considered part of the text. Similarly, reactions
by the audience—what they said and did in response to the speaker (even during the
speech)—are not part of the discrete text that is the speech.
Traditional speeches are especially discrete texts in that they occur in special times and
places. You go to a certain place at a certain hour to hear a speech. Speeches are not likely
to be found breaking out unexpectedly in your living room. In that sense, traditional
speeches are the epitome of discrete texts, texts that are bounded in time and space.
Finally, traditional public speeches are hierarchical texts. By that we mean that a structure
of relationships is imposed on the process of using signs, of sending and receiving a
message. In traditional public speaking, the structure of relationship calls for one person to
speak while many people listen. One person is, therefore, put in a position of advantage
over others, at least for the moment. The audience may heckle or shout approval; they may
violently disagree; others may stand up to speak in agreement or opposition afterward—but
as long as a speech remains a speech (rather than turning into a riot, for instance), the roles
of speaker and audience are relatively different. It is very clear in public speaking who is the
source of the message. The speech is identified with an individual, and that individual is,
during the moment of speaking, put in a relatively privileged position. After all, that
individual gets to claim the attention of an audience for the duration of his or her speech.
In contrast, think of how often during the day you get to command the attention of thirty,
one hundred, or more people all at once.
An example of a nonhierarchical message would be graffiti. Any of us can place a message
on a public wall, and any of us may choose to read or not to read it. There is no structure
prescribed or imposed for how we are to relate to either writers or readers of graffiti.
Another example would be a highly informal, animated discussion among friends: people
talk over, around, and through one another, paying little attention to anybody having more
status or more of a right to speak.
The Greek legacy tells us, then, that rhetoric occurs in traditional texts (verbal,
expositional, discrete, and hierarchical). While the mainstay of Greek rhetoric was public
speaking, other kinds of texts (such as newspaper editorials) can also be traditional in form.
But rhetoric occurs in many different manifestations. If rhetoric is using signs to influence
others, then editorials, letters to the editor, advertisements, and public speeches as well as
your lunch, your blue jeans, Beyoncé’s latest recording, and so forth, are ways in which that
influence is materialized, or made manifest, in the texts found in real life. The Greeks,
however, did not share that understanding, nor did later theorists who wrote under their
influence. Theorists of rhetoric throughout history have mostly assumed that rhetoric is
found in traditional forms and manifestations. In sum, the first Athenian legacy that we
have inherited is an assumption that whatever is called rhetoric must have most or all of the
four characteristics of traditional texts.
Rhetoric Is Paradoxically Linked to Power Management
The second part of the legacy that the Greek rhetorical tradition has given us is a paradox.
A paradox is an apparent contradiction. The paradox we inherit from the Greek legacy is
that traditional texts both include and exclude people from the management of public
business and thus from positions of power. To understand this paradox, we must first
clarify the idea of power management, or of managing important public business.
When we manage power, we make use of our ability to control events and meanings. Our
ability to manage the decisions we face or that influence us varies with the amount of power
we have. Imagine an invalid, unable to rise from a hospital bed. Although largely helpless
and subject to the routines of hospital staff, this person will still manage what happens to
him or her as well as possible through the means at his or her disposal, such as using the call
button or granting and withholding cooperation. At work, others of us might be invited to
help manage decisions concerning who gets to take vacations during prime months. Other
decisions, however, are managed without our involvement, such as whether to sell the
company we work for to a foreign investor. An ability to participate in the management of
decisions is empowering. Public business must similarly be managed. To the extent that we
are excluded from or included in decisions to pave streets, finance welfare programs, or go
to war, we are correspondingly empowered or disempowered.
We often manage power in one more important way. Note that power has been defined as
the ability to control both events and meaning. Sometimes, as in the case of our imaginary
invalid, the ability to control events may be sharply limited. But a kind of power can be
gained by controlling the meanings of what happens; it makes a difference whether the
invalid sees his situation as “recovery” or as “hopelessness,” for instance. Similarly, the
president has the power to send troops at a moment’s notice into action in the Korean
peninsula, a decision very few might participate in managing, but the press and public have
a different kind of power insofar as they manage what the military action means: Is it a
noble gesture, an act of self-defense, or the last gasp of imperialism? Given how responsive
many public officials are to opinion polls, management of the meaning that results in
public opinion can be a form of empowerment.
This second “paradoxical” legacy from the Greek rhetorical tradition can best be
understood by considering two aspects of the way in which rhetoric is defined. First, the
more favorably rhetoric is defined, the more people it involves in managing public business.
This is because rhetoric and democracy fit together naturally. When the public are officially
entrusted with managing public business, they make those decisions through arguing about
them together. The more decisions are made by involving people in the rhetorical exchange
of open discussion, the more democracy occurs. Therefore, if rhetoric is something people
are able to do and feel that they should do, and if rhetoric is the way important public
business is managed, then rhetoric is a form of communication that distributes power
If, on the other hand, rhetoric is defined unfavorably as something that not everyone
should do because not everyone should be persuasive, have a voice, or be influential, then
public business will be managed by people who have some special status, some special claim
to decision-making other than being persuasive. These people will be the experts—those
who are already powerful, the highly born or the specially chosen few.
We have learned that within the Greek rhetorical legacy, a favorable definition of rhetoric
enhances the democratic management of society’s important business. But, paradoxically,
the specific Greek understanding of rhetoric as pertaining to traditional texts—texts that
are verbal, expositional, discrete, and hierarchical—is not as democratic as it might be.
There is a reason for this paradox. When people assume that democracy occurs with
rhetorical discussions but then go on to define rhetoric as referring only to verbal,
expositional, discrete, and hierarchical texts, they are unable to see the democratic
participation in public decision-making that can occur through different, nontraditional
kinds of texts. In ancient Greece, democracy was officially conducted within the assemblies.
But after the assembly, citizens returned to the marketplace and conversed informally there.
All the while, women instructed and nurtured children. Slaves and foreigners talked among
themselves within their own groups. People were, of course, exposed to nonverbal signs of
all sorts, and there was surely the ancient Greek version of today’s blue jeans that all the
younger people wore. But in the thinking and writing about rhetoric at that time, there is
no mention at all of these everyday communications. There is no awareness of what is
rhetorical about everyday texts, or of how they might also be involved in the management
of important public business.
Exercise 1.2
This choice between defining rhetoric (a) in order to democratize power and defining it (b) in order to
concentrate power among a few is one that we continue to face today. Let’s leap over several centuries and
think for a minute about how this choice confronts you. For each decision listed below, think about how
you would prefer that the decision be made and by whom.
Should this decision be
made democratically or
by an expert few?
If democratically,
who will be
involved in the
If by an expert
few, who will
the experts be?
1. How should city officials
organize their office filing
2. Should your state permit
construction of a new
nuclear power plant?
3. What should you do
about a lump that you have
discovered in your body?
4. Is the president doing a
good job?
Some classical theorists such as Plato were concerned about the effects of certain kinds of
texts—such as music, poetry, or drama—on the public. These kinds of texts may appear to
be just the sort of popular culture texts we are studying in this book. But there are actually
some important differences. First, the forms of ancient Greek music, poetry, and drama
were closer to traditional texts than they would be to today’s texts. A Greek drama, for
instance, was highly verbal, with frequent expositional passages and not much in the way of
the kinds of special effects you find in Red Dead Redemption. Second, part of what was
traditional about those texts was that they were experienced less in the moment-to-moment
flow of everyday life than today’s popular culture is. They tended to be presented as special,
and thus discrete, moments of high culture, very much under the auspices of established
power structures. And, finally, nobody ever thought of calling those entertainments
To refer back to our very general definition of rhetoric, there was no attempt among the
ancient Greeks to theorize how any and all signs might have been influencing people.
Instead, we find in Greek rhetoric an assumption that the important business of the society
would be conducted largely in traditional rhetorical texts. However, many everyday,
moment-to-moment decisions are not made by reasoning them out through the knowledge
associated with traditional rhetorical texts. We arrange dates, figure out how to get along
with the new family next door, and decide which television program to watch, all using
something other than traditional texts. But within the Greek legacy, experiences and
decisions that people face in everyday, mundane contexts, and the ways in which those
decisions are made, are all assumed to be of little consequence.
The chief result of this paradox within the Greek legacy for the study of popular culture is
that traditional thinking does not recognize any important rhetoric of everyday life. If any
important business of society is being conducted through the texts of everyday experience
—through nonverbal signs or informal conversation, for example—then any thinking
grounded in the Greek legacy will not recognize a rhetorical dimension in the management
of that business. This is because Greek rhetorical theory views rhetoric as sharing the four
characteristics described on page 10, and everyday conversation, nonverbal signs, and
ordinary social practices will probably not be verbal, discrete, expositional, and hierarchical.
In the traditional view, texts that do not share those four characteristics have been seen as
not fully rhetorical and as not fully performing rhetoric’s important functions. But students
of popular culture take issue with the idea that texts that do not have those four
characteristics are less important and not concerned with a society’s serious business.
In talking about different kinds of texts, we should not make any absolute distinctions.
Clearly, many kinds of communication will have some but not all of the four characteristics
of the traditional texts of public speaking. There is no sudden cutoff at which everyday,
mundane business becomes public (and therefore important) business. Also, societies have a
full continuum of business, from the vitally important to the trivial; the majority of a
society’s business probably falls somewhere in the middle. But historically, traditional
rhetorical theorists have assumed that the closer a communication is to having all four
characteristics of the traditional texts of public speaking, the more clearly it deserves to be
called rhetoric.
In sum, the ancient Greek rhetorical legacy assumes that rhetoric means verbal,
expositional, discrete, and hierarchical—that is to say, traditional—texts. This legacy links
rhetoric and democracy: the more public business is decided rhetorically, the more people
will be involved in managing that business. But, paradoxically, the Greek conception of a
traditional text places limits on the widespread management of public business. The Greek
legacy does not allow for the rhetorical management of public business within popular
culture. That inability to see the rhetoric of the everyday lasted for centuries beyond the
time of the Greeks.
Exercise 1.3
To understand the assumptions that are sometimes made about what is rhetoric and what is not, write
down your reactions to the following exercise. In this exercise, you will indicate whether the texts listed
below share the four characteristics of public speaking.
Is this text verbal? expositional? discrete? hierarchical?
a. A speech by the president of the United States
b. This book
A website
An Internet-based video game
A mother’s routine for getting children ready for school
Your favorite song
A city bus going along its route
You probably answered yes to more of the four characteristics of traditional rhetorical texts for the first two
or perhaps three items on the list than for the later ones. Not coincidentally, most people would have no
trouble identifying a speech by the president or perhaps even this book as rhetoric—but the ways in which a
city bus is a rhetorical text may not be at all clear to most people.
Now look over that list of texts again, this time asking yourself which ones are most often involved in the
management of society’s serious business. Which texts are composed of signs that influence people in
important ways? We are likely to think that the more traditionally rhetorical texts fit that description. A list
of other traditionally rhetorical texts—texts that would be likely to share all four characteristics of the texts
of public speaking—would probably include most essays and articles in periodicals and to some extent the
literature of novels, poems, plays, and so forth.
Definitions of Rhetoric after Plato
In the centuries between Plato and the present, many thinkers and writers have devised
their own understandings of what rhetoric is, what functions it performs, what
manifestations it takes on, and whether and how it manages important public business.
This book is not meant to be a history of rhetorical theory, but it would be useful to review
very briefly some of the ways in which some of these later thinkers and writers thought
about rhetoric. We will see that the Greek legacy has remained strong; though there are
differences, these people’s ideas are fundamentally similar to those of the Greeks. However,
we will also see that as cultures have changed through history, definitions of rhetoric have
moved more toward an understanding of popular culture as also rhetorical.
We noted earlier that Plato’s student, the philosopher Aristotle, diverged from his teacher’s
views to write a comprehensive treatise, the Rhetoric. This book is a system for studying as
well as doing rhetoric, and since Aristotle’s time, rhetoric has been a term that can be
applied both to what people do and to systems of knowledge or explanation about what
people do. Thus, we might say that someone delivering a speech is “doing” rhetoric. At the
same time, however, there is likely to be a systematic explanation of how the introduction
and conclusion to the speech are constructed, how the arguments are devised, how
emotional appeals are used, and so forth; we would refer to this system of rules and
practical advice as a rhetoric. You could also call a systematic set of rules a rhetorical theory.
Aristotle broke with Plato over the subject of rhetoric because Aristotle viewed it more
consistently as an activity worth doing, a subject worth studying. In Chapter 2 of Book 1 of
the Rhetoric, Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the
available means of persuasion.” In further defining his subject, he made it clear that he
viewed rhetoric as public speaking in legal, political, and ceremonial contexts; it was in
those contexts that he saw much of the important business of his society being managed.
Aristotle did not include within his definition everyday conversation, bargaining in the
marketplace, entertainment, religion, or other experiences of communication. His treatise is
concerned with the construction of public speeches, which are clearly discrete and verbal
texts. His focus is on expositional texts as well; how to discover and express argument is a
major focus of his theory. And, for Aristotle, rhetoric is also hierarchical: He envisions the
classic relationship of a speaker holding the floor before an audience that has gathered to
In the first century B.C.E., the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero
wrote extensively on the subject of rhetoric, most notably in Of Oratory. Cicero exemplified
the Roman ideal at that time, which maintained that life is lived most fully when one is
actively involved in public life—that is, in public debate and discussion and in public
decision-making. Romans considered it both a duty and the very rationale behind life to be
involved in public life, discussing the important business of their society. One of the most
important ways in which that involvement occurred was through oratory, or eloquent
public speaking, which is how Cicero defined rhetoric.
Cicero was a Roman senator, and at that time the senate made many of the most important
decisions for the Roman Republic. It made those decisions through inspired public
speaking, many examples of which are still studied as model speeches today. Cicero also
valued lively and learned discussions among his fellow patricians as a profitable way to pass
the time and to acquire knowledge. But he would assign the management of most of his
society’s public problems to rhetoric in the form of public speaking; the involvement of
every citizen in public affairs, rather than the assignment of problems to experts, was his
ideal. And, clearly, when rhetoric was used to manage public problems, it did so through
forms of public speaking that were verbal, expositional, discrete, and hierarchical.
Cicero died, the Roman Republic came to an end, and the age of the Caesars was ushered
in. Within the Roman Empire, public business was managed largely by the emperor and by
officials appointed by him. Although Plato would probably have disapproved of many of
the people who were in charge of imperial Rome, the Roman Empire did follow Plato’s
model, which called for the removal of the management of public business from the hands
of the people and, consequently, from rhetoric in the form of public speaking. Consistent
with Greek assumptions, as democracy faded, theorists began writing as if rhetoric were also
reduced in scope and importance. In the first century C.E., the Roman teacher and
rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, or Quintilian, wrote a long rhetoric called the
Institutes of Oratory that both prescribed a course of study for training in rhetoric and gave
practical advice for its use. But Quintilian was forced to define rhetoric primarily in terms
of public speaking in the courts because that was the only important arena left in Rome in
which public speaking could be exercised meaningfully. It is interesting that Quintilian did
not look for rhetoric—for the ways in which signs influence people—in manifestations
other than speaking; clearly, the Greek tradition was influencing him as well. This
shrunken definition of rhetoric as legal public speaking reflects the relationship between
rhetoric and power: As power was denied to the public and as rhetoric (public speaking)
was restricted in terms of what it could control, so was the sense of what counted as
“rhetoric” more narrowly defined. For Quintilian, rhetoric continued to be defined as the
manifestation that is traditional public speaking, with its four key characteristics.
An important rhetorician after Quintilian was Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in Africa,
who lived around 400 C.E. St. Augustine took on one of the most pressing problems for
the early Christian Church: what to retain and what to discard among the artifacts of the
polytheistic culture that the Christians were replacing. Rhetoric especially came under
suspicion, as many in the Church thought that the faithful had no business seeking to gain
advantage over others through any means, including public speaking. In On Christian
Doctrine, especially in Book IV, St. Augustine argued that rhetoric should be used by
Christians—that, in fact, it had the high calling of inducing belief and stimulating faith in
people. St. Augustine shows the influence of the Greek legacy as well, for his view of
rhetoric is embodied in the written texts of the Bible and the form of public speaking that
is the sermon or homily, traditional texts that embody the four characteristics very clearly
(particularly the verbal and hierarchical traits). It is significant that St. Augustine does not
have much to say about person-to-person witnessing or testimony, rituals and ceremonies,
or nonverbal signs such as pictures, icons, and costumes, as elements of rhetoric. His
writings instead reflect a sense of traditional rhetorical texts as managing the important
business of the Church.
Widespread participation in public decision-making was scarce in Europe for centuries after
the collapse of the Roman Republic. Various forms of powerful, centralized political
control succeeded one another: the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the feudal system
with its absolute monarchies and principalities, and so forth. The important business of
societies was officially being managed by priests and princes in their abbeys and castles, not
by peasants and merchants. Certainly, people talked and went about their business as they
had for centuries, but we can find little evidence that any thinkers thought that those
everyday experiences were important in shaping society or managing its business.
Significantly, because what was considered the important business of society was being
managed by an elite few and not through public speaking, rhetoric came to be defined in
increasingly narrow and restrictive ways.
Between St. Augustine’s time and the eighteenth century, the Greek legacy continued to
hold sway. The most interesting developments in rhetorical theory were the ways in which
the definition of rhetoric became limited, paralleling the highly centralized and
nondemocratic forms of government and social control of the times. One way in which
rhetoric was limited was its restriction to certain kinds of texts and not others. For instance,
the province of letter writing was assigned to rhetoric. In the centuries after Cicero, letter
writing was not unimportant; it was a major means of communication over long distances.
But letter writing certainly represented a restricted scope of subject matter and contexts
compared to the days when rhetoric involved thousands of people in political, legal, and
ceremonial speaking.
Another means of restricting rhetoric had to do with the kinds of strategies or techniques it
used. Peter Ramus, a sixteenth-century thinker, defined rhetoric so as not to include logic
or reason; those strategies he set apart as a separate field of study. Instead, he defined
rhetoric more narrowly as the study and art of verbal style. Because logic was undergoing
systematic development and was seen as an important tool of thought and decision-making
(especially in the Church and in academia), restricting the definition of rhetoric to style
alone, apart from logic, was a disempowering move on the part of Ramus and his
Rhetoric in the Eighteenth Century
We often think of the eighteenth century as the Age of Reason, as a time when
nondemocratic forms of social control were rejected. It was during that century that the
American and French Revolutions both took place, for instance. Significantly, the
eighteenth century also saw renewed interest in rhetorical theory, especially in Great
Britain. Many thinkers returned to the ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians and
reestablished that legacy. Richard Whately, for instance, extended Greek and Roman ideas
of argument to include the concepts of presumption and burden of proof. In argument,
presumption means you do not have the primary responsibility to develop a detailed
argument, since it is presumed that your position is correct. Tradition, custom, and power
usually create a sense of presumption. If a parent tells a child to go to bed, the parent enjoys
presumption. The parent does not have to give reasons why the child should go. On the
contrary, it is the child who has what is called the burden of proof. If the child has an
argument for going to bed at a different time than usual, an argument for overturning
parental authority, it is the child who must devise the argument, not the parent.
But alternatives to the Greek legacy were also developed at this time. It would be inaccurate
to say that any eighteenth-century rhetorician proposed a theory of rhetoric in popular
culture, but a number of thinkers did propose ideas that suggest ways of going beyond the
Greek legacy, thereby planting the seeds of alternative ways of thinking. Let us briefly
review just a few of the people who proposed such alternatives.
© iStockphoto.com/duncan1890
Giambattista Vico was a professor in Italy during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth
centuries. Vico directly confronted the restrictive definitions of rhetoric that had limited it
to style and verbal embellishment while the more substantive areas of reason and logic were
assumed to be something other than rhetoric. Rhetoric, he proposed, should be seen as the
ways in which we think about probabilities and make decisions about issues that we cannot
be totally certain of. Contrary to the pretensions of philosophers such as René Descartes of
France, who thought that many if not most decisions could be made through formal reason
rather than rhetoric, Vico argued that most, if not all, decisions were based on thinking
about probabilities and thus had a rhetorical dimension. He claimed that for humans,
reality is a matter of what we perceive—that we create our own realities out of signs. Since
reality is human-made, it must be understood by using human faculties, and rhetoric is a
primary human faculty. By carefully defining both human reality and rhetoric, Vico created
a possibility for thinking about our experiences of reality (including public events as well as
everyday experiences) as places where rhetoric is at work, influencing us to create our
realities by seeing the world in one way or another. Vico’s perspective is very close to the
ideas that we will explore in Chapter 2 when we think about the world of culture as both
one that is made by humans and one that has a great deal of influence bound up in the
artifacts (signs) of which it is composed.
Another important departure from the Greek legacy during the eighteenth century had to
do with the development of the idea of taste as a basis for making decisions and for
constructing and judging communication. Rhetorical theorists such as Joseph Addison and
Hugh Blair began suggesting that taste, an aesthetic way of thinking and perceiving, is and
should be a factor in how people communicate and in how people make decisions on the
basis of that communication. Blair and other rhetoricians were primarily concerned with
taste as found in traditional texts, including oratory, letters, essays, and so forth. But
whereas a concern for argument, for instance, entails a restricted focus on traditional texts,
a concern for taste and aesthetics enables extension of those concepts beyond rhetorical
texts. If taste is acknowledged to be a reason why people might do certain things, why
decisions might be made, that acknowledgment sets up ways of thinking about how taste in
clothing, in grooming products, in interior decoration—in popular culture overall—might
be rhetorical. If you look for rhetoric only in terms of how evidence can be mustered in
support of a point, then you cannot see both a speech and a country-and-western star’s
cowboy hat as rhetorical. But if rhetoric can be defined to include aesthetic judgment, or
taste, then that hat, too, becomes rhetorical.
The development of interest in psychology, and the application of that new human science
to rhetoric, also created possibilities for envisioning the rhetoric of popular culture. British
theorists such as John Locke, David Hartley, Joseph Priestley, and George Campbell began
to probe into how people think, how the mind operates, during the full range of
experience. Campbell developed a rhetorical theory that explained how human
understanding and imagination were addressed by others. Although Campbell also
restricted his focus in practice to traditional texts, he and his colleagues opened up the
possibility of thinking about ways in which people might be influenced through things
other than verbal, expositional, and discrete texts. Because they were concerned with the
whole operation of the human mind, these rhetorical psychologists introduced the
possibility of thinking about how the mind might be influenced by signs and artifacts
found throughout everyday experience, not just during moments of reading essays or
listening to speeches.
One consequence of a concern for psychology was the development of methods of
criticism. By criticism, we mean critiquing or analyzing, not just being contentious.
Rhetorical thinkers had always been concerned with how audiences received messages and
thought about them. Plato urged rhetoricians to study the different “souls” that could be
found in an audience, for example, and Aristotle discussed the ways in which messages
would be received and understood. But their concern was largely with offering advice for
speakers, for those who would produce signs and texts, rather than for those who would see
or hear them. In the eighteenth century, rhetorical thinkers such as Lord Kames and Blair
began to expand their understanding of the different kinds of reactions that people might
have to signs and texts and to identify specific techniques for analyzing, or critiquing,
messages, audiences, and the connections between the two.
This concern for criticism also created a possibility for thinking about the rhetoric of
popular culture, because it is as critics, or as consumers, that most people confront the
artifacts of popular culture. We will see later how the rhetoric of popular culture is
concerned mainly with how people encounter and then use, rather than originally produce,
the texts of popular culture. To begin thinking about criticism is a step in that direction.
The eighteenth century was an age of powdered wigs, of candlelit salons, Mozart and
Haydn, and Voltaire. It was the dawn of modern science and industry. The eighteenth
century would not seem to have much to do with Toby Keith or Lady Gaga, but
developments in rhetorical theory during that period laid the groundwork for
understanding the rhetoric of popular culture. So far we have considered four specific
1. With Vico came an understanding that rhetoric runs throughout the experiences of
human reality.
2. With Blair came a concern for taste and aesthetics as a basis for decision-making.
3. With Campbell came a widening understanding of the human mind and how it
works in response to signs and symbols.
4. With several thinkers, including Blair, came a concern for refined methods of
criticism, particularly in relation to the reception of communication.
New Theories (and New Realities) Emerge in the Twentieth
During all these centuries in which rhetoric was defined primarily in terms of traditional
texts, people were still experiencing signs and texts that were not in that traditional form.
Informal conversation, architecture, clothing styles, common entertainments, food—in
short, the whole range of cultural artifacts other than traditional rhetorical texts—were
being experienced by people as influential and moving, while rhetorical theorists continued
to call only the traditional texts rhetoric. One purpose of this book is to demonstrate that
many of today’s rhetorical theorists now understand the rhetorical dimension of that wider
range of cultural artifacts. In other words, many theorists today would choose not to limit
rhetoric to those traditional texts (although some still would, however; see Leff and
Kauffeld for an excellent review of scholarship grounded in traditional texts). That shift in
understanding raises the question of what changed, rhetorically, between the eighteenth
century and the present. Are people being influenced by signs in different ways now, such
that we must now call the texts of everyday experience rhetorical but did not need to call
them that two hundred years ago? Have rhetorical theorists awakened to truths that were
always there but went unrecognized until recently? In other words, does a change in
thinking about what rhetoric is follow from a change in the world or a change in theory?
The answer to that final question is both. The world and our experience of the world have
changed. The main locus of that change was the twentieth century, although it continues
today at an even faster pace. People do things differently, new technologies alter the realities
of life, environmental and political changes occur, wars come and go, and so forth.
Theories, or our ways of understanding the world, also change. Often, theories change
because it is felt that the old theories no longer describe experience, which has changed,
accurately. But theories sometimes change for the reasons we discovered at the beginning of
this chapter. A theory is a complicated way of defining something as well as explaining it,
and so one important reason why rhetorical theories change is because people may have
reason to define and explain the world differently. In short, changes in theory may be part
of changes in power.
A sampling of just a few definitions of rhetoric from rhetorical theorists within the last
hundred years will show that the seeds of the eighteenth century have grown into
conceptions of rhetoric that are markedly different from that of the Greeks. In 1936, I. A.
Richards defined rhetoric as “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies” (3). Richards’s
concern is almost exclusively with verbal texts, but his definition is important in that it
places rhetoric within the contexts of everyday communication and interaction.
Misunderstanding is at least as likely to occur in the give-and-take of conversation as in the
more carefully prepared traditional texts of essays or speeches. A concern for
misunderstanding also emphasizes the role of audiences or receivers of communication and
the question of how they understand and interpret texts in their everyday experience.
Perhaps the most famous definition of rhetoric in the twentieth century was that of
Kenneth Burke, who defined it as “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing
cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (Rhetoric of Motives, 43). Like
Richards, Burke tends to restrict his focus to language, although he also finds rhetoric in art
forms such as music. But his definition is widely applicable. Many kinds of signs, in many
forms and contexts, can induce cooperation. Although it does not focus mainly on popular
culture, Burke’s definition tells us to look for how people are induced to cooperate with
others, potentially in any texts, whether that be to their benefit (their empowerment) or
not. Similarly, Donald C. Bryant sees rhetoric’s function as “adjusting ideas to people and
people to ideas” (413). Although Bryant restricts his focus to “the rationale of informative
and suasory discourse” (404), the wider idea of adjusting ideas and people to one another is
descriptive of a process that can and does occur outside traditional texts.
Although James L. Kinneavy objects to those who would define rhetoric too broadly, he
himself prefers anchoring its definition in “persuasion,” which encourages us to consider
the ways in which many kinds of texts persuade. Kinneavy’s definition is geared to the
function of rhetoric rather than to a particular kind of manifestation (216–18). Similarly,
in his definition of rhetoric, Stephen Toulmin proposes a model of argument, which would
seem to be largely an expositional type of text (Uses of Argument). But he develops his
definition from actual arguments used in court decisions and other “real-life” situations.
Toulmin’s model has been widely used to explore the ways in which the arguments of
everyday life are persuasive.
What Changed in the Twentieth Century and Beyond
What prompted these changes in theory and definitions of rhetoric in the twentieth
century? What has led to today’s explosion of rhetoric in popular culture? To begin to
answer these questions, let us examine some important ways in which the world changed in
the twentieth century. That century was, of course, significantly different from the past in a
number of ways that continue to be true in the twenty-first century. Our concern here is
with differences in how signs influence people. Some of these differences are radical, or
extreme. Most, however, are relative, or matters of degree (though still significant). In each
instance, the difference has to do with a change that the Greek rhetorical legacy and its
assumptions cannot fully account for; thus, these are “real-life” changes that have prompted
changes in theory. Furthermore, these are changes that situate rhetoric squarely within
popular culture. We will review changes in these interrelated areas: population, technology,
pluralism, and knowledge.
Little argument should be needed to establish that in the twentieth century and beyond, the
world’s population exploded. Populations grew at the greatest rate in the poorer countries
of the Third World, but nearly every industrialized nation experienced the same
phenomenon. Of particular interest in industrialized countries was the pattern of
population growth: populations first became more urbanized, then suburbanized and
exurbanized as the century progressed. That is to say, the experience of living with only
limited contact with others, or even of living on farms or in rural areas, became increasingly
rare. Farm populations shifted to the cities during the first half of the century. During the
second half, city populations began spreading out into suburbs and smaller towns on the
outskirts of larger cities. The main result of these developments has been that today, in the
twenty-first century, more people are being exposed to more people, and more different
kinds of people, than ever before.
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This difference in population patterns is to some extent a matter of degree. It was rare for
people to be completely isolated or in touch with only a few others centuries ago. Nor is it
the case that no one is ever alone today. But, relatively speaking, more people are living and
working near more other people today than ever before. That is an important difference,
because it means that more people are exposed to a wider variety of cultural artifacts than
before. We must note that the issue is one of greater exposure to cultural artifacts, a concept
we will study in the next chapter; briefly, a cultural artifact is some kind of action, object,
or event that particularly represents a group of people. Artifacts are highly charged with
meanings of people. Certainly, people are no more conscious today than they ever were, nor
do people have more things to perceive today than they did in the past. A person’s
experience is no fuller today than it was three thousand years ago. But today, a person’s day
is relatively more full of signs that are artifacts, signs that are charged with meaning and
that bespeak the presence of others. This is especially true of those who live in the
population- and message-dense urban areas. Ian Chambers pictures the city dweller as
“caught up in the communication membrane of the metropolis, with your head in front of
a cinema, TV, video or computer screen, between the headphones by the radio, among the
record releases and magazines” (11).
Two hypothetical cases might help to make this relative difference clear. Imagine a farm
family living on the Great Plains 125 years ago. What would they see and hear during the
course of the day? Many of their experiences would be of nature, of signs that were not
necessarily produced by humans and that did not bespeak human groups. That is not to say
that their culture was impoverished but rather that, relatively speaking, their exposure to
cultural artifacts that represented others was limited. Compare that family with a family
living in a city today. Certainly, the urban family encounters natural signs, but many of
those might take on the status of artifacts to the extent that they were put in place by other
people, such as urban landscape architects. Of more importance is that as this family goes
about its business during the day, it is bombarded by artifacts of every sort, by a pressure
cooker of signs that bespeak other people, certainly to a greater extent than was the farm
family. Most of us live somewhere in between these two extremes, but the point to
remember is that, in general, people today are exposed to more artifacts.
As an expanding population puts more of us in touch with more people and with the
artifacts they have produced, more of us are influenced by more signs coming to us, not
only in our surroundings but also by way of new technologies. Some have described this
process as the development of a new kind of culture—mass culture—that is significantly
different from the more localized and physically centered cultures of earlier times. People
have, obviously, had their everyday experiences in all times and places, but today’s everyday
experiences are, relatively speaking, more filled with human voices than in the past. Those
voices call to us from the objects and events of everyday experience. What are they saying to
us? How are they influencing us? Such rhetorical questions about popular culture are more
pressing today.
Exercise 1.4
A quick exercise will illustrate the extent to which you are surrounded by other people and by their artifacts.
Consider, either on your own or in class discussion, the following questions:
1. From where you are right now, physically, how far would you have to go to be able to see or hear
any three things that were not designed, produced, or placed where they are by other people?
2. When was the last time that you were more than one minute away from the sight or sound of
another person?
3. Of all the sights and sounds you have experienced in the last twenty-four hours, what percentage
would you say took the form of verbal, expositional, discrete, and hierarchical texts?
Exposure to artifacts produced during daily living with many more people also means that
we are exposed to more artifacts and texts that are not verbal, expositional, discrete, or
hierarchical. When we are surrounded by more people and thus by more signs that they
have produced, artifacts come to us in a hodgepodge. We are exposed to signs that come
and go quickly, without time for expositional development; to signs that are nonverbal
rather than verbal; and to signs that are mixed in with other signs rather than discrete. And
the clear imposition of a hierarchical relationship that is present in the experience of public
speaking is much less apparent in today’s signs. Instead, we, as consumers of signs and
artifacts, become more instrumental in structuring how those signs and artifacts are
experienced and understood. How we do so, and how that influences the effects those signs
and artifacts have upon us, are also rhetorical questions that are relatively more important
A second development within real life in the last hundred years has been expanding
technology. This development has been both quantitative (we are exposed to more
technologies, more often, in more different experiences than people used to be) and
qualitative (we are exposed to technologies that are wholly different and unprecedented in
human history). Of particular interest for the rhetoric of popular culture are the
technologies of communication.
In the centuries following the ancient Greeks, technologies for distributing the written
word were gradually developed, most notably the printing press. Although print
technologies can certainly distribute other kinds of texts, think about how well suited these
technologies are for the distribution of traditional rhetorical texts (see Boggs). Clearly, print
is verbal; it presents words “as good as they can get,” so to speak, whereas nonverbal or
pictorial images in print are “still” and thus able to represent far less, proportionally, of the
visual dimension of experience than words in print can of the verbal dimension. The long
and careful development of arguments is very well suited to print, for print allows readers
to go over difficult proofs and arguments repeatedly if they need to. Most printed texts
(such as this book, for instance) are perceived as discrete texts. And printed texts establish a
clear, one-way hierarchy of communication; readers cannot talk back while using that
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But radical differences in communication began in the twentieth century. These differences
are the products of developments of technology for the distribution and transfer of other
kinds of signs and texts. As we progress through the twenty-first century, the pace of these
changes increases continually.
Today, the individual with an iPod and headphones can go through the entire day literally
attached to a technology of communication. There is not a single moment of that person’s
day, no place of retreat at all, where technology cannot carry a message. If the person is
listening to SiriusXM satellite radio, that person can be reached by messages and other texts
generated only an instant before anywhere in the world. Smartphones in the home, office,
car, or in the mall allow a person to be in visual or voice communication with others at all
Elaborate messages for distribution to others can be prepared on tiny computers that can be
carried anywhere. The Internet is accessible now through devices combining many
functions into instruments that used to be only telephones, and through the Internet one
can be in touch with anybody anywhere instantly. Television has given people easy access to
a wide range of sights and sounds that they used to have to travel to theaters to experience,
and tiny portable televisions now also allow battery-powered mobility. Cable and video
recording technologies have expanded this particular form of access to messages even more;
a person in possession of cable television and a digital recorder has access every hour to
more information and entertainment, to a greater volume of artifacts tumbling across the
screen, than someone living a hundred years ago could have experienced in a year. Could a
person one hundred years ago have sat surrounded by more books than he or she could
read in a lifetime? Of course, but today a person has instant access, by way of computer
networks, to an exponentially larger number of artifacts even than that.
Not only does technology expose the individual to more messages; it also exposes more of
us to the same global or mass culture of messages. Hip-hop, for instance, is now heard all
over the world. People in distant parts of the world see recycled American television shows.
People are connected technologically at a cultural level in ways we were not before.
One important result of a vastly increased number of advanced technologies in everyday life
has been a vastly increased exposure to artifacts. Technologies like satellite radio or
smartphones with ever-expanding networks allow us to fill our every moment with artifacts
should we choose to do so. More exposure to information technologies means exposure to
more artifacts and thus to more rhetorical influences in our everyday lives.
Exercise 1.5
To understand the extent to which new information technologies are a fact of everyday life, consider the
following questions on your own or in class discussion:
1. Name at least four information or communication technologies that you could have access to within
a two-minute walk from where you are now (extra points for naming three such technologies that
you can see or hear without moving from your chair).
2. Name the last complete public speech, or similar traditional text, that you gained access to by using
one of the electronic information technologies of information (the Internet, television, radio, and so
on). If you are not able to think of many, draw some conclusions about the sorts of texts that
today’s technologies seem best suited for.
3. Draw up a list of important activities in your personal or work life that you simply could not do
without some of the technologies of communication that we have discussed here. Now draw up a
list of such activities that do not need such technologies at all. What picture surfaces of how your
life is shaped by technologies of communication?
A less obvious result of the increase in information technologies has been an increase in
people’s reception of texts that are not verbal, expositional, discrete, and hierarchical. Much
of our communication today is visual. Other messages are verbal but in different forms.
The lyrics of the latest country-and-western hit coming to us through our headphones may
be verbal, but they are not likely to be expositional. The quick scrolling of numbers across a
personal computer screen is not verbal, nor is much of the content of the videos on
YouTube. A person who switches constantly from one station to another while watching
television is paying little attention to discrete texts. Instead of merely facilitating the more
hierarchical relationship of public speaking, today’s information technologies can place
receivers of communications in a much more coequal relationship with the producers of
communications. For example, when using instant messaging on a computer, a person can
respond instantly online to the author of a message that appears on his or her screen.
Bloggers can post their thoughts about what is happening where they are and receive very
fast responses from readers all around the world.
When people have more exposure to and control over a wide range of technologies in their
everyday experiences, they acquire more control over how and when they experience signs
and artifacts. Ultimately, the Greek rhetorical tradition is inadequate when it comes to
understanding how people use and understand the wide range of signs and artifacts
available to them through contemporary technologies.
A third significant development in the twentieth century and beyond is the growth of
pluralism. This term can mean many things. Here, by pluralism, we mean the awareness of
many perspectives, philosophies, points of view, codes of ethics, aesthetic sensibilities, and
so forth, and the awareness of a legitimate grounding for all of these.
© iStockphoto.com/andipantz
The growth of pluralism is directly related to the growth of population and to the spread of
information technologies. If you are not directly exposed to very many people during the
day, chances are the people to whom you are exposed are people who are just like you. The
Great Plains farm family used as an example before would probably have experienced other
people who were largely like them—of similar values, religion, ethnic background, and so
on. They would surely have been aware of Indian people living near them, but they would
probably not have had much accurate information about them. Limited contact with
people who are different limits people’s awareness of the beliefs, values, practices, and
experiences of those different others.
However, increased contact with different groups of people will not necessarily increase
understanding, particularly if people remain ethnocentric, judging different others only by
the standards and perspectives of their own group. Thus, the Great Plains family might
have known people who traded frequently with the Indians, traders who were aware of
what these people thought and felt and did yet nevertheless dismissed their whole way of
life as second-rate and degraded. This Great Plains family was not likely to be pluralistic, in
the first case because they were not aware of a wide range of different points of view; they
were not exposed to the variety of human thought and experience that there is in the world.
In the second case, neither the Great Plains family nor their trader friends were pluralistic
because, whatever the differences of which they were aware, they probably would have seen
no legitimacy for those different ideas and experiences.
But expanding population and information technologies have made for a change. As more
and more people come to live in proximity to one another, they become more aware of
their differences. The experience of immigrants clustering in American cities in the first
part of the twentieth century is a good example. In this case, people from Ireland, Italy,
Germany, and other countries were suddenly forced to live in relatively close proximity to
each other, and thus to learn about each other. Information technologies serve the same
function, allowing us to find out more about people who live even on the other side of the
world, as if we were neighbors, through things like the National Geographic Channel on
television. Today, it is hard not to be aware of many other groups of people—of their
habits, customs, and beliefs. (See Klotz for a discussion of the extent to which technologies
of communication, especially on the Internet, are responsible for revealing and connecting
groups of people to each other today.)
An even more important dimension of pluralism, however, is a growing recognition that
the beliefs and customs of other, different people have some sort of legitimacy or
grounding. This is not to say that we must agree with those who are different (nor that
people often do so), but rather that we are aware that others feel that they have good
reasons for thinking and doing the things they do. People are becoming increasingly aware
that other people have philosophical, social, religious, or other reasons for their thoughts
and behavior, just as “we” do.
In the nineteenth century, for instance, people might have marveled at stories, brought
back by explorers of faraway societies, of people who put their elderly onto ice floes and cast
them off into the sea; “civilized” people might have shuddered and condemned the
members of such societies as hopeless “savages.” Today, however, although we might
consider such a practice wrong, we would be relatively more willing to seek to understand
the reason for it; we would expect such a practice to have legitimacy for that particular
society, even if we would be appalled at the thought of doing anything of the sort ourselves.
This sort of understanding of difference is relatively new; such understanding has always
been held by some but is held more widely today. There is no doubt that prejudice and
ethnocentrism still exist, but they exist in a curious mixture with increased knowledge of
other people and of why others are different.
One important result of pluralism—that is, of an awareness and acknowledgment of the
legitimacy of others who are different—has been a democratization of status. Prejudice,
bigotry, racism, classism, and sexism do still exist, of course. Nevertheless, there has been a
relative increase in such plural…
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