Rhetoric Devises and The Art of Persuasion


Rhetoric, broadly described, is persuasive writing (or speaking). In critical thinking we tend to use rhetoric in a negative sense.  It is an attempt to persuade you to accept a claim not based upon good evidence and argument, but by some form of trickery usually some sort of psychological or emotional ploy.  As critical thinkers we want to make sure that we don’t fall   for such tricks. In this module we will be identifying several of these rhetorical devices. Since these devices are typically attempts to “slant” an audience to have a positive or negative attitude toward a topic, they are often called “slanters.”


Rhetorical Force


Rhetoric is the art of persuasive writing and speaking.  At least since the days of the Sophists and Aristotle, rhetoric has been considered and essential part of Western education along with, and distinct from, logic.  One uses rhetoric to hold the attention pf one’s audience and win them to one’s point of view.  Logic is used to demonstrate the theses is supported by reasons.  But presenting cogent reasons for one’s position and holding one's audience attention in an appealing way are separate enterprises.  Keep in mind that, in the “real world,” people are often persuaded by poor logic and unmoved by good logic.  This is the very reason to promote critical thinking, that is, to help people improve one’s grasp of logic and to help distinguish between logical proof from rhetorical persuasion.


In this module we will:


1.      Introduce the concept of “rhetorical force.”

2.      Explain several common rhetorical devices, none of which have logical force or probative weight ("probative" means tending to prove).

3.      Examine four principal techniques of demagoguery. Or the use inflammatory rhetoric to win acceptance for false and misleading ideas. This often involves appeal to the fears and prejudices of an audience. 


Words and expressions have a literal or "dictionary" meaning, but they have what is known as emotive meaning or rhetorical force.  They have the power to express and elicit various psychological and emotional responses in the minds of the audience.  For example, I might refer to the same person as an "elderly gentleman" and an "old codger."  These two descriptions both refer to a senior man, but they evoke significantly different emotions.  I might say “She took the paper from me.” Or “She snatched the paper out of my hand.” I might tell you that the roll out of the new website “had problems” or “presents us with opportunities for improvement.”  In each case, the two expressions have more or less the same literal meaning, but different rhetorical affects.


Now, there is nothing wrong with someone's trying to make his or her case as persuasive as possible. Indeed, a solid logical argument will fail to persuade if the audience is so bored, they are not paying attention.  Good writers use well-chosen, rhetorically effective words and phrases.  Nevertheless, as critical thinkers we must be able to distinguish the argument (if any) contained in a passage from the rhetoric.  We must distinguish between the logical force of a set of remarks and its psychological force.


Rhetorical Devices I


The first group of rhetorical devices are usually single words or short phrases designed to give a statement a positive or negative slant.  For this reason, they are sometimes called slanters.





Euphemism literally means a happy sounding word (From the Greek: eu- "good, well" + phēmē "speech") Sometimes people will try to give a positive spin to a subject matter by using a term to describe something which makes that thing seem better than it really is.  A classic version of this is calling a used car a “pre-owned” car. When the federal government feels the need to lay employees off they don’t use the term “layoff” but instead the government engages in a “reduction in force.”  Reduction in force sounds a lot nicer than a layoff, but either way people are out of work.  The military will refer to “collateral damage” as a euphemism for civilian casualties.  We might inform a loved one that Aunt Mae “has passed on” rather then “she died.”  (“Gone to join the choir invisible.”)




A dysphemism is used to produce a negative effect on someone's attitude about something, or to tone down the positive associations it may have. It sounds worse to be “obscenely rich” than to be “very wealthy.”  Eating animal flesh sounds worse than eating meat.  The tax imposed on an inheritance is sometimes called a death tax, which leaves a bad taste because it suggests the deceased rather than the inheritors is being penalized.  Dismissing a legislative proposal as a "scheme" also qualifies as a dysphemism. 


You naturally expect to find a generous sprinkling of dysphemisms when a speaker or writer tries to get us to dislike someone or something. (During political campaigns, they crop up everywhere.)  Of course, what counts as a euphemism or a dysphemism is, to some extent, in the eyes of the beholder.  One person's junkyard is another person's automotive recycling business; one person's sanitary land fill is another person's garbage dump.  Finally, there is this: Some facts are just plain repellent, and for that reason, even neutral reports of them sound appalling.  "Lizzie Bordan killed her father with an ax." is not a dysphemism; it simply reports a horrible fact about Lizzie.


Whether a euphemisms or dysphemisms are being used as an illegitimate slanter depends on our purpose for using them.  The ones above are intended to incline you to a positive or negative attitude toward a subject matter.  But sometimes euphemisms or dysphemisms are used for more innocent purposes. To spare someone’s feelings you may refer to them as “overweight” instead of fat.




Weaselers” are rhetorical devises that help protect a claim from objective criticism by watering down the claim, weakening it to such a degree that it difficult to challenge.  For instance, were I to say that you could save “up to 50%” if you buy the product on sale today, what have I really told you?  Did I really guarantee that you would save 50%?  Or that you would save anything at all for that matter?




In fact, all I have committed myself to is that you will save at most 50%, but you could save considerably less, or perhaps nothing at all. In this case “up to” is acting as a rhetorical weaseler on the claim “You can save 50%.”  So “up to” is acting as a weasler on the claim “You can save 50%.”  Think how much stronger the claim is if you leave out those words.  Likewise, if I told you that once you complete my online reading program you will virtually read three, to four to even ten times faster than you do now, that might initially sound quite impressive.  But we must step back and ask ourselves, what is “virtual reading?”  Here the word “virtual” is acting as a weaseler on the claim “You will ready faster.” 


Remember, a claim does not have to be false in order to be misleading.  Imagine I said, “Scientists remain unconvinced that human activity is the cause for global climate change.”  Be careful here.  I have left of the quantifier.  Am is saying “all,” “most,” “many,” “some,”  “few” or “two?”  You don’t know and since I did not say, you cannot accuse me of saying something false if at least two scientists remain unconvinced.  Further, you are not being a critical thinker if you believe that “All” or “Most” remain unconvinced merely by being told that what I have said is true.  Leaving out the quantifier is often employed as a weaseler.  Likewise, be on guard for words such as "perhaps," "possibly," "maybe," etc.  These too can be used to plant a suggestions without actually making a claim.  Consider: “Perhaps he is not qualified for that position.”  Have I made a claim here? … What if I removed the word “perhaps.”


Now, to be sure, not every use of these words constitutes a weaseler.  In one context may be a weasel but not in another.  Appropriate uses of weaseling words are when the claim needs to be qualified and the person is just being upfront about it.   The trouble comes when the weaseler is being used to create the innuendo of a claim without actually making one.  (More on this in a bit).




These are rhetorical devises used to downplay the significance of something or a person opinion.  Were I to point out the Sam Harris, the popular public speaker on philosophical matters and ethics “only has a baccalaureate degree in philosophy,” and I use this fact to downplay the significance of his philosophical claims, this is a rhetorical devise.  While it is true, it would appear that the only reason I bring it to your attention is to downplay.  I have not actually addressed directly what may be wrong with his philosophical position nor addressing his actual views at all.  . A faculty member in  my  department  who  was  unhappy  with  recent  departmental  policies  spoke  disparagingly  of our “so-called” department. You might say that Jim has a mere master’s degree in Physics - suggesting that it’s not very impressive.


“Air quotes” can be used to the same effect:


·         She got her "degree" from a correspondence school.

·         He was a “doctor” in his former country.


One might also conjoin two actually unrelated claims in hope that attention to one will divert the significance and attention paid to the other.




(1) Yes, he won the election, but it was very close, and he only won by a little over 1000 votes.


(2) While we anticipated that the election would be very close, nevertheless he won by over 1000 votes.


The first statement downplays the win; the second statement downplays the narrow margin of victory.




(1) The leak at the plant was terrible, but the plant provides good high-paying jobs to thousands of people in this community.


(2) Although the plant provides good jobs to thousands of people in this community, the leak there was terrible.


The first statement downplays the leak; the second statement downplays the good the plant produces.




A general statement is something like “Generally speaking Pit Bulls are mean.”  A universal statement would be “All Pit Bulls, without exception are mean.” Now, typically when we claim that Pit Bulls are mean, we are making a general claim.   This may or may not be a stereotype depending on whether it is true or not. If we have evidence that Pit Bulls are involved in many more attacks (per capita) than most other breeds, then I would not regard that general claim as a stereotype.


A stereotype is a cultural belief or idea about a social group's attributes, usually simplified or exaggerated.  It can be positive or negative.  Americans are sometimes stereotyped as friendly and generous, other times as boorish and insensitive. But of course, to assume just because one is an American one has certain characteristics is unwarranted.  Likewise, were I to say “she is a typical American” and you came to some/any conclusion on the basis of that remark, I would have convinced you of a point without proving it.  I would have employed some stereotype, perhaps one you are guilty of as well, to persuade you without evidence.


Stereotypes have their sources in literature and entertainment, music etc.  Some stereotypes carry much rhetorical force, but they have no evidentiary or probative (tendency to prove) force.  Rhetoric that contains them may be persuasive psychologically, but it is neither strengthened nor weakened logically.




Innuendo is using the power of suggestion to disparage someone or something or suggest rather than claim something positive.  We have already look at this a bit.  Innuendo sometimes uses the power of suggestion to disparage (say something bad about) someone or something without out-and-out claiming it.  Alternatively, one can use inuendo to imply something positive about a person or something without explicitly claim it of offering support.  However, unlike euphemisms and dysphemisms, these need not be overtly positive or negative.  Indeed, they might be completely neutral on the face of it. 


·                     Have you noticed many unaccompanied young boys coming to your next-door neighbor recently?


Here I have not made a claim about your next-door neighbor.  Rather I have simply asked a question.  But what seems to be implied here?


·                     Jim: Is Ralph is telling the truth?

·                     Joe: Yes, this time.


Here the innuendo is that this is a new unusual occurrence for Ralph.


·                     She's just his aerobics instructor, at least that's what he tells his wife.


Here the new window is that the relationship may in fact be unsavory. But again the suggestion is made without there being a direct claim.  So an innuendo is when you imply something without actually stating it.


Damning with Faint Praise


Here is another means for achieving an inuendo.  If Jane asks me how I like her fashionable new shoes and I say, “Well, I suppose they’re comfortable.”  What is implied is that I think that they’re not attractive.  Also, were I writing a letter of recommendation for a student applying to law school and said, “She did fine in my class and is probably fine for law school too.” this is so faint that the innuendo is that I do not think much of her as a student, though I have not said so explicitly. 


Loaded Questions


Classic example:  Have you stopped beating your wife?


Here is how this works.


Every question rests on assumptions. Even an innocent question like "What time is it?" depends on the assumptions that the hearer speaks English and probably has means of finding out the time.  A loaded question, however, rests on one or more unwarranted (unjustified) assumptions.  The classic example, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" rests on the assumption that the person asked has beaten his wife in the past.  It presumes that a previous question has been asked and answered in the affirmative, specifically: “Have you ever beaten your wife?”  If there is no reason to think that this assumption is true, then the question is loaded.  "Why does the president hate poor people?" implies without quite asserting that the president hates poor people. Can this candidate save his floundering campaign?  When will the President stop lying to the American people?


Loaded questions thus count as a form of innuendo, as they imply something negative about someone/ something with actually claiming it.  However, they can be used to carry a positive message as well, as in the example: "How did Melanie acquire such a wonderful voice?"




Humor and a bit of exaggeration are part of our everyday speech. But they can also be used to sway opinions, if the listener is not being careful.  Also known as the horse laugh, this device includes ridicule and vicious humor of all kinds. Ridicule is a powerful rhetorical tool-most of us hate being laughed at.  So, it's important to remember that somebody who simply gets a laugh at the expense of another person's position has, not raised any objection to that position.  One may simply laugh outright at a claim ("Send aid to Egypt? Har, har, har!"), tell an unrelated joke, use sarcastic language, or simply laugh at the person who is trying to make the point.


The next time you watch a debate, remember that the person who has the funniest lines and who gets the most laughs may be the person who seems to win the debate, but critical thinkers should be able to see the difference between argumentation on one hand and entertainment on the other.  Notice that we are not saying there's anything wrong with entertainment, nor with making a valid point in a humorous way.


Sometimes we try to make a point by making a joke about something. When considering the issue of animal rights, I might say “Sure, let’s give them the right to vote as well.” Here I am implying, without argument, that extended any rights to animal is a dumb idea.




Hyperbole is extravagant overstatement, or exaggeration.  "The Democrats want everyone to be on welfare." is hyperbole.  So is "Nobody in the Tea Party likes African Americans."  If I say of a politician that she is the most corrupt governmental official ever, this is doubtless an extravagant statement.  You might readily see that this is an exaggeration, at best.  However, note if you accept it, even as an exaggeration, without any further evidence, it has done its rhetorical work.  You are accepting (again without evidence) that there must be some truth to the corruption claim.


Describing your parents as "fascists" because they don't want you to major in art also counts.  People exaggerate-we all exaggerate-not only to express how strongly we feel about something but also, sometimes, to persuade our listeners of a lesser claim.  For example, to persuade I might say he was the most corrupt Vice President in the history of the country.  You might recognize that as a likely hyperbole, but you might nevertheless believe that there must be something corrupt about him for me to make such an extravagant claim.  If you do, my hyperbole has been rhetorically effective.




·         The salmon is the best you will ever eat.

·         Clara thinks of nobody but herself.

·         Nobody will vote for Jackson.


Rhetorical Definitions and Rhetorical Explanations


Definitions and explanations are supposed to be straightforward and factual; however, they can also be misused as slanters.


We have already seen the use of rhetorical or persuasive definitions. There is a big difference between calling a group terrorists or freedom fighters. A similar trick can be done with explanations. “Democrats want higher taxes for the rich because they hate people who work hard and make money.”


Rhetorical Analogies and Comparisons

Comparisons and Analogies can also be used as slanters. Consider that I want to remark on about Jane’s small hands. I might say that Jane has small hands like a monkey. I’m clearly implying that her small hands are not attractive.


To make comparisons make sure that the standard of comparison is the same. The standard for computing horsepower has changed over the years. As such, a 300 hp engine in a 60's car may not be the same as a 300 hp car today.


Also, we must be careful about comparisons expressed as an “average.”  For instance the average rainfall in Seattle, for instance, is about the same as that in Kansas City.  But that is only if by average you mean the average overall amount of rain in a year.  But you'll spend a lot more time in the rain in Seattle than is Kansas City because it rains there twice as often in Seattle as it does in Kansas City. If Central Valley Components, Inc. (CVC), reports that average salaries of a majority of its employees have more than doubled over the past ten years, it sounds good, but CVC still may not be a great place to work. Perhaps the increases were due to converting the majority of employees, who worked half-time, to fulltime and firing the rest. Comparisons that involve averages omit details that can be important, simply because they involve averages.


Average, Mean, Median and Mode (They are not all the same thing.)


I did cover something on this topic earlier. See: Obscurity and Clear Thinking 5- Mean, Median and Mode


Averages are measures of central tendency and the work can mean different things, this it is, or at least it can be, a source of ambiguity.  There are different kinds of measures or averages. Consider, for instance, the claim that “The average cost of a new house in your area is $210,000.” 


But what does that “the average cost” mean?  It might mean one of three distinct things: mean, median or mode.


·         If that is the mean cost, then it is the sum total of the sales prices of houses (presumably sold within a given period of time, say the last 24 months) divided by the number of houses sold.


·         If that is the median, that is the “halfway” price.  It indicates that half the houses sold cost more and half cost less.


·         If that is the mode, it is the most common sales price.


So imagine that ten homes were sold in the neighborhood with the last 24 month at these prices.

























The Mean is:               $476,400

The Median is:            $275,000

The Mode is:               $300,000


If there are likely to be large or dramatic variations in what is measured, one must be cautious of figures that represent an unspecific "average."  Without greater specificity as to what is being claimed by the “average home price,” you cannot know whether to accept the claim as true, reject it as false or suspend judgement because you literally do not know what is being asserted (and so what facts would be relevant).


Proof Surrogates and Repetition


As the name suggests a Proof Surrogate is something that substitutes for an actual proof. In particular someone is guilty of giving a Proof Surrogate if they make a claim and say that there is evidence for the claim but do not or cannot produce the evidence. “Studies show that coffee is bad for you.”    The person making such a claim must be prepared to cite the studies.

Much of political advertising consists in making the same unsubstantiated claims over and over hoping that we’ll finally accept them.


Persuasion Through Visual Imagery


Images can contain information and that information can be used to form true beliefs. However, often images are used to evoke emotions that are used to “persuade” us that something is true or false instead of information or an argument.


Proof Surrogates


A proof surrogate suggests there is evidence or authority for a claim without actually citing such evidence or authority.  When someone can't prove or support something, he or she may hint that proof or support is available without being specific as to what it is.  Using "informed sources say" is a favorite way of making a claim seem more authoritative.  "It's obvious that" sometimes precedes a claim that isn't obvious at all.  "It's clear to anyone who has thought the matter through carefully that blahblahblah" is another example, one that by its sheer length might silence push-back.


A more general strategy speakers and writers use to win acceptance for a claim without providing actual proof or evidence is to insinuate themselves into our confidence.  If a salesperson can establish common personal ground with a potential buyer, he or she may be more likely to make a sale.  The same strategy may be followed by someone trying to sell us an idea-we may be more inclined to accept claims made by people we feel bonded with.  It is a part of in-group bias to be more favorably disposed to a spokesperson who belongs to our own tribe; we naturally are inclined to assign him or her high marks for credibility.  And it might be hard to question someone who says "As we all know" because it might sound disrespectful, and nobody wants to show disrespect to a fellow member of the club.


Other proof surrogates are less subtle: "Studies show" crops up a lot in advertising.


Note that this phrase tells us nothing about how many studies are involved, how good they are, who did them, or any other important information. Here's another example, from The Wall Street Journal:


We hope politicians on this side of the border are paying close attention to Canada's referendum on Quebec . . . . Canadians turned out en masse to reject the referendum. There's every reason to believe that voters in the United States are just as fed up with the social engineering that lumps people together as groups rather than treating them as individuals. (Emphasis added.)


There may be "every reason to believe" that U.S. voters are fed up, but the article provides us with none of them.


Bottom line: Proof surrogates are just that-surrogates. They are not proof or evidence. Such proof or evidence may exist, but until it has been presented, the claim at issue remains unsupported.


The Extreme Rhetoric of Demagoguery


Finally, your authors examine four techniques employed by demagogues: “otherizing,” “demonization,” “fostering xenophobia,” and “fear and hate mongering.”  These are used by demagogues to manipulate the opinion of an audience. They caution us that, when we feel ourselves enthralled by a speaker, with our blood pumping and our pulses rising-and, in particular, if we are being turned against some person or group of people, this is when we most need to think critically. The critical thinker will step back and analyze what is being said. Here is a good time to dial down the outrage and the rhetoric and look hard for arguments.


1.       Otherizing “othering,” (i.e. “They” are not “us” and indeed are inferior and/or threatening to “us.”)

2.       Demonization (i.e. “They” are not just wrong, but evil, intentionally opposing the forces of good.)

3.       Fostering xenophobia (Similar to “othering,” but simply emphasizing the “strangeness”)

4.       Fear and hate mongering (Playing into preexisting animosities, resentments and unresolved past conflicts)



Note that these are most often directed as individuals or groups of individuals rather than ideas or theories.  One might employ such devices against individuals in an attempt to discredit ther ideas these individuals support or are known to hold.


A student recently contacted me asking me for some explicit examples of “Extreme Demagoguery.”   Initially I did not think this was going to be very difficult.  However, this was more challenging than I anticipated.  I started researching it and discovered that there isn't widespread agreement on precisely what demagoguery is. Or perhaps more to the point, who demagogues are.  It has something to do with individuals who are very effective at using speech to persuade large audiences.  And their persuasive powers seemed to be based more on rhetorical appeal than on logic or well-reasoned arguments.  So, that's the nature of demagoguery in the most neutral sense I suppose.  But which individuals from history one can point to as examples of demagoguery or extreme rhetoric of demagoguery is more controversial.  Naturally, conservatives accuse effective speakers from the liberal side of the aisle of being demagogues.  And just as naturally, liberals accuse conservatives who are effective in moving audiences rhetorically as being demagogues.


Some have suggested that another element of a true demagogue is that they use their persuasive speech powers not in the pursuit of something they genuinely believe to be true or good ,but rather for their own personal benefit.  However, others suggest that the most dangerous demagogues are the ones who are fully committed to the views they are espousing.


I realize this doesn't exactly answer the question, but I enjoyed researching it.  In the end, I suppose the word demagogue is and inherently ambiguous word.  It has useful contexts, but it defies explicit definition of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions.  Labeling someone a demagogue is more an act of name-calling and less than enlightening.  Better to point to the specific rhetorical devices they are employing and the lack of logical reasoning their rhetoric provides. F I should have also mentioned that four of the most common rhetorical devices associated with demagoguery are “othering,” (i.e. “They” and not “us: and indeed inferior and/or threatening to “us.”) “demonizing,” (i.e. “They” are not just wrong, but evil, intentionally opposing the forces of good.) appealing to xenophobic tendencies (similar to othering, but simply emphasizing the “strangeness”) and fear and/or hate mongering.  Note that these are most often directed as individuals or groups of individuals rather than ideas or theories.  One might employ such devices against individuals in an attempt to discredit ideas these individuals espouse or are known to hold.