The crisis of rhetoric in Australia

No one would be surprised if I said that there has been a serious decline in the quality of public speech and debate in this country.

The vast majority of our political representatives are poor orators, clinging to repetitive catchphrases instead of logical arguments, punching out slogans and crude invective instead of engaging in reasoned debate, and tossing out cheap puns and wordplays instead of cultivating wit and wisdom. Who could blame the Australian public for tuning out?

The thinking public is right to disregard much of current public discourse as ‘mere rhetoric’, that is, language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content (Oxford English Dictionary).

Yet the very existence of the expression ‘mere rhetoric’ suggests that another type of rhetoric is possible: genuine, meaningful, persuasive and effective rhetoric. This is ‘real’ rhetoric in its original form as developed in classical Greece.

Up until the early twentieth century, the ancient art of ‘real’ rhetoric was widely taught in schools and universities as part of an education in classics. Since that time, the study of ancient rhetoric has declined and, arguably, this has resulted in a corresponding decline in the quality of our public discourse.

In the past, the study of ancient rhetoric involved learning how to construct different types of arguments, devising different forms of appeal based on logic, ethics or emotion and learning how to arrange material logically and persuasively. Students then went on to study the great speechwriters of the classical past such as Demosthenes and Cicero, as well as great speeches of the modern era. This practical training cultivated great speakers as well as attentive and discerning listeners.

A broad reintroduction of the ancient art of rhetoric into the school and university curriculum would have deep, long-lasting and positive effects. In the present political climate especially, we need to be finely attuned to faulty arguments, false premises and deceptions of all kinds.

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