Rhetorical Analysis in the Real World: A Useful Thinking Tool
As a citizen and a scholar, I use rhetorical analysis to sort out questions about politics and relationships. In everyday life, rhetorical analysis is a valuable tool for understanding and preparing to engage in the world.
I hadn’t thought much about the word “help” until the summer day I strolled along the beach with my boyfriend. A young man on the boardwalk struggled with something—tying a kite maybe? collapsing a stroller? I don’t remember what he was doing, only that it looked like one of those tasks that are easier to do with two people.
“Do you need a hand?” I asked as we passed.
The man looked up abruptly. He shook his head with a scowl. We walked on.
“Don’t do that,” my boyfriend instructed.
“Don’t ask people if they need help,” he said. “It’s demeaning.”
Perhaps because I am a woman, the youngest of four daughters, I had never considered helping or being helped as anything but good. I had been praised for anticipating which tool my dad might need at the workbench or helping my sister bring in more wood for the fire. But my boyfriend pointed out another side of the story: the masculine expectation that you are supposed do it alone and the accompanying narrative that “real men” are capable, strong, and independent. I had blundered with my casual offer, adding insult to the embarrassment the young man probably already felt. I might as well have said, “Let me rescue you, little one.”
The moment reminded me that the world in which I live is not the universal world but just one dimension of it. I started noticing attitudes about “help” everywhere: people (mostly men) soldiered through alone; other people (mostly women) looked around for help. I don’t mean to overgeneralize or to suggest that I now believe that accepting help is weak, but I do look for cues now about how an offer of help might be experienced. I decide more consciously whether and how to engage.
This kind of experience—a burst of insight about how language has shaped a moment—that’s the reason I do rhetorical analysis. That’s the reason lots of people do rhetorical analysis, even if they don’t call it by the same name. Rhetorical analysis is a tool for digging into language-infused moments to uncover the networks of values, assumptions, and expectations that shape how people experience such moments.
I’m afraid that many people don’t recognize the value of this tool because teachers in high school and college (including me) have jumped too quickly to talk about how to do rhetorical analysis instead of why. I want to invite people—citizens, students, communities, neighbors—to see the advantage of this way of exploring.
I begin by sharing some examples of rhetorical analysis to illustrate the different purposes that the method can serve and where we encounter it. Because I’m using examples from my life, I draw on the sources and issues with which I’ve been concerned, which happen to lean left, politically. However, the strategies I offer as I unpack these examples are equally useful for anyone who encounters an argument that seems puzzling or a situation in which they aren’t sure how to respond.
Two Starting Points: Puzzling Encounters and Tricky Situations
I find it helpful to categorize rhetorical analysis based on what initiates the desire to explore the world in this way. The first kind of rhetorical analysis begins from a puzzling encounter with language. We are surprised by something we heard or read or witnessed, and we wonder how to better understand what we just experienced. That’s the example from my opening story; the man’s scowl surprised me, and I learned something more about this idea of “help.”
A second category begins from the other side—not as a response to an encounter but rather the desire to have a certain encounter. We want to know how to successfully engage someone (or some group) about a particular topic, and we know that something about the encounter might be tricky. We study the situation before we blunder. We examine the rhetorical choices that people in similar situations have used: How did they make sure that their audience didn’t scowl after the first line?
I’ll share examples of both of these approaches.
Starting From a Puzzling Encounter.
In July 2016, Teju Cole, the photography critic for the New York Times Magazine, analyzed a photo of a calm, still woman standing in front of two police officers in full riot gear in Baton Rouge, Lousiana. The photo, called “Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge,” was taken by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters; it was later nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won first prize in the Contemporary Issues category in the 2017 World Press Photo Contest, so it’s not surprising that it stood out to Cole. Yet what struck Cole back in July was that the image had gone viral. He pondered why it had such power.
The strategies that Cole used to figure out why this image had such an impact are those of rhetorical analysis. First, he examined the construction of the photo—how the woman, Iesha Evans, “seems almost to be levitating” (Cole); how the two cops opposite her, with their “storm-trooper get-up—the shoulder pads, helmets and what look like rocket-booster backpacks” appear to be not two cops but “three or four.” The photo, Coles writes, taps into the cultural imagery of a superhero and “[tells] such an apparently clear story that when it hit social media, it went viral” (Cole) Next, Cole compared this photo to a series of other photos from a range of parallel contexts. He identified other moments within the Black Lives Matter movement where protesters were captured in superhero-like poses. He contrasted the images to photographs in other social movements, a strategy that allowed him to identify more precisely the tone of these images—not “dignity intruded on but outright victory” (Cole). Finally, he considered the image in the context of the photos usually seen in the media. Images of powerful, calm black women are rarely seen in American media. Moreover, the videos that anchor the BLM movement (the images caught on cell phone cameras of black men and women gunned down by cops) are devastating, moments of where black bodies are destroyed. From all this exploration, Cole concludes that “[t]he ‘superhero’ photographs of protesters, with their classic form and triumphal tone, are engaged in a labor of redress. They bring a counterweight to the archive. Against death and helplessness, they project power and agency” (Cole).
Cole’s analysis enables me to peek under the surface of that photo and see the visual, historical, and cultural allusions that the image invokes. He helps me recognize how I am programmed to respond, how I was persuaded to feel. That’s the power of rhetorical analysis.
Cole argues for the value of such work: “The things we think of as ‘intriguing but comparatively minor’ must also be attended to, in part because of how they illuminate what is not at all minor” (Cole). This is what rhetorical analysis offers—a way to slow down and pay attention to seemingly small choices that build to something bigger. It gives us a glimpse into how language—whether words or images—shapes our relationships to ideas and to each other.
Here’s a second example, from my own work—as a scholar and a citizen. Early in Donald Trump’s candidacy, I noticed how much he loved to bash “political correctness.” Coming as I do from the left (and academia, to boot), I had never been angered by the idea of “political correctness,” but I could see that crowds were (are) livid about it. I know some of these people so I wasn’t content simply to dismiss them as evil, ignorant, or useless. Instead, I wanted to understand what they were really mad about. I turned to rhetorical analysis.
My methods were similar to Cole’s: I looked carefully at the materials that caused such strong reactions, and I looked for patterns, allusions, and unstated values. Instead of a single photograph, I listened to many of Trump’s campaign speeches and read articles about political correctness in right and alt-right blogs and newspapers. After immersing myself in the material, I discovered that I could group the explicit and implicit arguments about the danger of political correctness into four categories: 1) “political correctness” is simply a way to promote liberalism because it relies on identity politics; 2) “political correctness” is inauthentic because it requires people to edit their language choices; 3) “political correctness” is a tool to stifle real debate; and 4) “political correctness” creates a dangerous security climate. Noticing these patterns and taking them seriously has allowed me to see how the debate about this term is a symptom of a bigger debate—namely, that regarding how citizens should interact in a pluralist democracy. I also learned that the usual responses to attacks about “political correctness” often don’t get at this underlying disagreement so they fail to move the conversation forward. This exercise has been very useful to me; I can choose my words more carefully and decide when and how to ask the deeper questions.
Both of these examples use the key techniques of rhetorical analysis: breaking down what makes the text—an image, a phrase, a poem, a speech, a meme, a joke, etc.—move people. Both pieces look for patterns in the material and connect those patterns with broader historical, cultural, social, or local moments.
When you start to rhetorically analyze something that puzzles you—something about which you’re genuinely curious—the discoveries you make can feel meaningful.
Starting From the Desire to have an Encounter
Another category of rhetorical analysis begins when we anticipate an encounter and want to set ourselves up for a positive experience. If we know that the circumstances are going to be particularly challenging, we analyze it to choose the best options, including looking at how other people have responded in similar moments.
The scene with which I opened—about offering to “help” a man on a boardwalk—provides an example. When I reflect on that day, I wish I had had a way to call attention to the gendered dynamics of what happened. This is what I notice now: both men assumed that receiving help is weak. In fact, my boyfriend instructed me to stop offering to help. Eventually, I came to understand how my actions clashed with their worldview, but they may not have noticed that I brought a different—and valid—perspective. So, how could I have responded?
To figure this out, I must identify several things—these are basic questions for all important rhetorical encounters:
- What do I want to say to whom?
- What parts of my message might be hardest for my audience to hear?
- What are my options about how to say the more difficult parts?
- Which of those options align best with my own values?
Say I’ve decided to tell my boyfriend that I think offering help is a sign of compassion and connection rather than power. If he thinks I’m trying to “help” him understand, he might feel defensive or dismissive, even a little threatened. What are my options for how to present my position? I could step fully into a deferential language by using lots of qualifiers, hedging, and tag questions, e.g., saying, “For some people,” “It might be” or “don’t you think?” Alternatively, I might feel truer to myself by being assertive and direct, even though that could create tension. I don’t have to figure out my options alone. I could look up “how-to” blogs (such as feministing.com’s “How to Talk to Your Boyfriend about Feminism”). Or I could read the work of feminist authors whose approaches I admire and figure out what to emulate.
All of this is rhetorical analysis—figuring out how to speak in a way that works for my audience and that reflects my own values.
These “how-to” types of rhetorical analysis are not published as often as the kinds of rhetorical analysis I described in the section “Starting from a Puzzling Encounter.” For example, as we listen to speeches, read blogs, and skim websites, we might get a warm feeling about a particular politician or organization. Most likely, communication teams behind the scenes have created handbooks to guide the person and/or organization staff in their communications. Political communications researchers study how people think and talk about specific public issues and then create guidelines about the most effective way to frame the discussion. (See the website of the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit that analyzes the ways people think about various social issues, for some current examples.)
There are times, however, when people start debating publicly about how to speak most effectively on a particular issue. These are the moments when pundits and activists show us how important rhetorical analysis is for the work they do.
Here’s another example that has been in the news a lot: How should media, politicians, and citizens talk about the relationship between the police and black communities in the United States? What does it mean to say “Black Lives Matter” in this context, and why persist with this slogan when so many people find it divisive? We can see these arguments worked out over and over again in newspapers, blogs, and magazines. The “All Lives Matter” group says that the right approach is to affirm the broader goal—that everyone should be treated equally—instead of singling out one group. (An archive of tweets explaining this position is analyzed on The Wrap.) However, Black Lives Matter founders Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza disagree; their guidelines assert “We are unapologetically Black in our positioning. In affirming that Black Lives Matter, we need not qualify our position. To love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a necessary prerequisite for wanting the same for others.” The Huffington Post’s John Halstead parses why white people are uncomfortable saying the word “black,” tracing out a history of assumptions about how race works. In the struggle over the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” Americans are arguing about how to do anti-racist work in the United States: How do we name racism, how do we define the nature of inequality, and who has the power to say where the conversation should begin? This is what’s at stake in rhetorical analysis—figuring out how to speak so that you accurately convey your deeper philosophies, even as you weigh how your choices will affect your audience.
As a scholar, I find these public debates about the right way to name and persuade people about issues to be fascinating, but they aren’t just “academic” debates. I am grateful to listen as activists and politicians explain their rhetorical choices because I learn so much about the deeper assumptions, values, and issues that are involved.
When you conduct a rhetorical analysis, you’re stepping into a world that has a set of deeper assumptions and values about language and its role in the world. I’ll spell these out explicitly here. If they make sense to you, you’ll be in good shape to develop either type of rhetorical analysis—a response to a puzzling encounter or an attempt to discover the right approach for an encounter. However, if find yourself resisting these assumptions, you might find it harder to rhetorically analyze a puzzling encounter because you probably don’t agree that doing so would be meaningful. The good news is that you might be able switch your focus and write more explicitly about which of these assumptions doesn’t hold up for you, using specific examples from public texts to illustrate your position.
What assumptions about rhetoric are given when we conduct rhetorical analysis?
Rhetoric means more than manipulation or empty words. Although often used in public discourse as a dismissive thing, the term “rhetoric” is neutral for those who study it. It means simply that language is more than it seems. Rhetoric scholars begin from a belief that language is not something we can step out of—we are shaped by words always. Furthermore, language is not just about words. What we say and what we hear are wrapped up in networks of assumptions about how to be in the world and how to communicate about it. Those assumptions prescribe a sort of structure that guides what we say and how we say it.
We can uncover these assumptions by looking closely at texts. Rhetorical analysis presumes that we can work backward from the texts to uncover the assumptions and name the values that are at work in them. Rhetorical analysis presumes that we learn by paying attention to all parts of an interaction: Who is speaking? To whom is the piece directed? Where is the interaction taking place? What is the broader context of the speaker’s or writer’s relationship or the history of the space? Do they agree about the facts, the definitions, the correct interpretation of the events, and/or the course of action? Do they have different experiences to bring to bear on the issue at hand? A close look at all of this helps us uncover the underlying assumptions and values each brings to the subject under discussion.
Texts don’t exist in isolation. We make discoveries by looking not only at one text, but at patterns across a broader context. We put texts in the context of a larger conversation. What other interactions are being borrowed, extended, or countered?
Rhetorical analysis is not always positive. It can be a strategy to engage or to deflect. Sometimes arguments about the proper way to speak or interact are diversions from another, more fundamental disagreement. Sometimes we argue about the right way to speak because we don’t want to talk about the difficult thing.
How to Conduct Rhetorical Analysis
- Figure out why the question matters.
- If you are writing to figure out a puzzling encounter, examine the rhetorical situation of the text at hand—the immediate context. Who is speaking to whom and why? Who may not be able to speak? What is the relationship among the speaker and the listener? How much does each know or care about the subject?
- Consider whether the speaker and audience are approaching this moment from the same starting point. Where is the locus of the disagreement?
- Compare this moment to others like it, where people write about similar issues for similar audiences. Look for patterns in the approach—not so much a repetition of particular words but the web of associations that come together to frame the way they approach the moments. The patterns might help you see an underlying logic in their approach that wasn’t apparent from just one text. A useful starting point for noticing such patterns might be the FrameWorks Institute’s website.
- Whether you are writing to figure out a puzzling encounter or to prepare yourself for a challenging situation, figure out who needs to hear what you have to say. It’s tempting to try to write for everyone at once, but if you do, you miss the opportunity to think more about why the question matters and why people might resist your view. Anticipate their concerns and dig into their reasons.
- Review your options for writing to this audience. What parts of your own identity do you want to share? What emotional appeals and strategies might you use to address their fears or tap into their values?
Rhetorical analysis seems like one of those types of writing that people do only in school. And while I concede that many assignments don’t have a counterpart outside of the classroom, I don’t think rhetorical analysis is “merely academic.”
People argue about how to argue all the time. People listen deeply all the time, trying to understand not just what is being said but also how, knowing that the how matters.
Rhetorical analysis can be empowering. It can help you develop a repertoire of strategies for engaging with the world on your terms, even as it helps you understand how to respond when others try to set up the encounter on their terms.
I hope that you, too, will find rhetorical analysis to be a valuable tool in everyday life.
This article was written by Phyllis Mentzell Ryder and carries an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).