Throughout the day, we encounter signs, symbols, and sounds that engage us and cause us take actions and communicate our thoughts and opinions on certain matters. Each time we participate in this process, we are participating in a skill that has all but gone extinct. It is the ancient skill of understanding and effectively communicating the symbols, signs, and sounds
around us. This skill is called rhetorical criticism. When the average person hears the word rhetoric, most automatically assume that it means, talking in pompous, bombastic, and seemingly irrelevant words to evade answering questions or just simply sound like a know it all. In reality, rhetoric is simply communication and has been used for centuries as a means of persuasion. In the philosophical world, rhetoric is a way of teaching through communicating. In politics, rhetoric is the persuasion of potential voters to a particular point of view. In religion,
rhetoric is the symbolic actions of believers as they profess their religious beliefs through sacraments, liturgies, and devotions. Every living human being is engaged in rhetoric and as a result, also engaged in rhetorical criticism.
We live in a world where information is transmitted so quickly through 60 second sound bites that there is little to no chance of fully understanding authentic knowledge as it presented. Symbols and signs that once meant something positive are being usurped and their meaning and message changed to convey new thoughts and messages that may directly or indirectly
counter the original meaning or message. The question then becomes why should we be aware of this rhetorical criticism thing and how can we use it to better communicate? The answer is because our world is more interconnected than before and understanding how and what is being communicated empowers the person to control the knowledge they receive and share. This is a much needed powerful skill to have because more individuals have access to the means of delivering and sharing rhetoric (blogs, twitter, social networks, news media, and cell phones) and it is almost impossible to control the content of that rhetoric (unless you live in China or other places where the government controls content). When we use rhetorical criticism, we become better at investigating, understanding, and explaining our responses to the symbols around us.
Rhetorical criticism isn’t a hard skill to learn and master. It involves two main processes: 1) asking a question, and 2) analyzing something that relates to the question we have asked. Each time we ask a question about anything, we have begun the process of rhetorical criticism. The
question does not have to be anything deep or fantastical, it can be something as simple as why did a band choose a particular logo design, or why a certain color of lipstick looks better than another color. This sets in motion the second process. It is the action (either actual or symbolic or a combination) that we do following the question we ask. It is here that we examine something related to the question we asked. We formulate hypotheses around it and attempt
to understand it better. There are several ways to accomplish this, but the most common is through the written form (email, text message, academic writing, blog, etc). Once we have completed this, we communicate it with those around us. This is done in several ways also. The entire act results in the full communication of our response to the initial symbol that led to the rhetorical criticism.
When practiced regularly, rhetorical criticism can be a way of empowering people to influence in their world. It can be a way of countering what a person believes to be the wrong messages sent out by the wrong people. It can be a way of helping others to be proactive and engaged in all the symbols, signs, and sounds around them.