It's Called Rhetoric

A listener letter on NPR's "Day to Day" program just said of Barack Obama, that he "sounds like somebody who has studied how to manipulate people with words." As somebody who has studied how to manipulate people with words I take umbrage at the tone of that comment. It's called rhetoric, and it's about communicating information to people in the way that they will accept most readily. It's frequently misused with a negative connotation, as shorthand for "empty rhetoric". It's often used for persuasion, but it's also used for education.

Politicians use it all the time, of course, in the course of their work. It's a politician's job to attempt to convince people to vote the way that politician wants them to, whether that vote is in the voting booth, or in their behavior. If we were never manipulated by words we'd never learn anything from teachers, believe in any relgions or philosophies, or understand what was going on in from the news.

Dear NPR Listener, I think criticising Obama because he's pretty good at it is missing the forest for the trees. The fact that you resist manipulation is good, don't get me wrong, but though you think your your negative reaction is to the method, it is really to the message. Disagreeing with his message is your business, and you're welcome to share your opinion, but attacking his method avoids admitting that you disagree.

Yes, Senator Obama was trying to manipulate you; he was trying to make you understand something. You don't have to believe it, but try to understand it. At least he's trying to help you understand, not forcing you to accept without understanding, the way too many politicians do these days.

2008.03.21 at 2:00pm EDT