Definition and Examples of Anti-Rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In argumentative speech and writing, anti-rhetoric is the act of disparaging an opponent's use of language by characterizing it as rhetoric or oratory, with the implication that eloquent language is inherently meaningless ("mere words") or deceitful. Also called straight talk.

As Sam Leith has observed, "Being anti-rhetoric is, finally, just another rhetorical strategy. Rhetoric is what the other guy is doing—whereas you, you're just speaking the plain truth as you see it" (Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric From Aristotle to Obama; Basic Books, 2012).

Examples and Observations

"My opponent gives speeches. I offer solutions." (Hillary Rodham Clinton in a speech to General Motors employees in Warren, Ohio, Feb. 14, 2008)

"We think this journal may at least be justly commended for its comparative freedom from high-flown rhetoric. We recently rejected a somewhat elaborate paper on an important topic chiefly on account of its stilted and turgid style, and our pen often makes sad work with the 'fine passages' which adorn (?) the contributions sent us by young writers." (E.E. White, editorial in The National Teacher, Volume 1, 1871)

"Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical; these summer-flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation:
I do forswear them; and I here protest,
By this white glove—how white the hand, God knows!—
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express'd
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes."
(Lord Berowne in William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, Act 5, scene 2)

Palin vs. Obama: "Cravin' That Straight Talk"
"Barack Obama has been denounced again and again as a privileged wordsmith, a man of mere words who has 'authored' two books (to use Sarah Palin’s verb), and done little else. The leathery extremist Phyllis Schlafly had this to say, at the Republican Convention, about Palin: 'I like her because she’s a woman who’s worked with her hands, which Barack Obama never did, he was just an élitist who worked with words.' The fresher-faced extremist Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator, called Obama 'just a person of words,' adding, 'Words are everything to him.' . . .

”Sarah Palin . . . may claim, as she did in last Thursday’s Vice-Presidential debate, that 'Americans are cravin’ that straight talk,' but they are sure not going to get it from the Governor—not with her peculiar habit of speaking only half a sentence and then moving on to another for spoliation, that strange, ghostly drifting through the haziest phrases." (James Wood, "Verbage." The New Yorker, October 13, 2008)

The Anti-Rhetoric of Presidents and Prime Ministers

 "It is in their trenchant opposition to 'rhetoric,' 'oratory,' and their corresponding celebration of rhetorical simplicity that presidents have been most explicitly anti-intellectual. Here, the link between rhetorical simplicity and anti-intellectualism . . . is manifest. President Eisenhower's definition of an intellectual displays this link: 'the intellectual . . . [is] a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows,' he once proposed. A Nixon speechwriter echoes this statement when he observes: 'the people who are most eloquent are often the least wise.' As a Regan speechwriter observes, 'One of the great myths of the modern age in particular is that great speeches and effective leadership [are] about speaking cleverly.'" (Elvin T. Lim, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush. Oxford University Press, 2008)

"In October 1966, knowing that the Labour Minister (and one-time Fellow of New College, Oxford) Richard Crossman would be winding up a debate on prices and incomes, [Margaret Thatcher] took the opportunity to discredit her opponent's eloquence in advance. 'We are all used to the right hon. Gentleman's ebullient, effervescent style,' she said. 'It is always extremely attractive. It is often something of an Oxford Union style.' Responding to some laughter in the Chamber, she went on: 'I assure hon. Members that I am making no blandishments. The right hon. Gentleman has the kind of style which sounds tremendously impressive and which is most agreeable to listen to, but I find that one never believes a word of what he says because one knows that he is quite capable of making just as attractive an ebullient and effervescent speech tomorrow entirely contradicting all he has said today.' . . .

"Of course, her own plain speaking is as much a rhetorical construction as the grandest of styles, and it is a relatively simple task to show that, knowingly or not, many of her assertions of plain political sincerity are figuratively produced. 'We say what we mean and mean what we say,' is one of many examples of her use of antimetabole, where, ironically, the circular and self-validating structure of the figure is asked to create an impression of straight talking." (Christopher Reid, "Margaret Thatcher and the Gendering of Political Oratory." Oratory in Action, ed. by Michael Edwards and Christopher Reid. Manchester University Press, 2004)

Anti-Rhetoric As a Strategic Act: Mark Antony, Silvio Berlusconi, and Donald Trump

"[T]he 'I just want to tell it like it is' maneuver is a familiar one in the annals of rhetoric. It’s what Mark Antony is up to when he says to the Roman crowd in Julius Caesar, 'I am no orator, as Brutus is; / But, as you know me all, a plain, blunt man,” in the midst of his “Friends, Romans and countrymen” speech, one of the most cunning displays of technical rhetoric, not only in Shakespeare, but in the English language.

"Rhetoric is the language Rome’s elite used to debate; by denying that he knows the first thing about it, Mark Antony is in effect tearing up his gold membership card and reassuring his plebeian audience that, though he may look rich and powerful, he is really one of them.

"Nearly four centuries after Shakespeare wrote those words, Silvio Berlusconi successfully struck the same pose in modern Italy. 'If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s rhetoric,' he told the Italian public. 'All I’m interested in is what needs to get done.'

"But for all its protests, anti-rhetoric is just another form of rhetoric and, whether Mr. [Donald] Trump is conscious of it or not, it has its own rhetorical markers. Short sentences ('We have to build a wall, folks!') that pummel the listener in a series of sharp jabs. . . .

"Anti-rhetoric also uses 'I' and 'you' constantly, because its central goal is not to lay out an argument but to assert a relationship, and a story about 'us' and our struggle against 'them.' It says the things society has deemed unsayable, at least in part to demonstrate contempt for the rhetorical conventions imposed by the elite—and if that elite then cries out in horror, so much the better."
(Mark Thompson, "Trump and the Dark History of Straight Talk." The New York Times, August 27, 2016)

"The term 'rhetoric of anti-rhetoric' refers to the fact that many public speakers, in politics and law courts, self-consciously distance themselves from perverse uses of deceitful rhetoric, while presenting themselves as courageous truth-tellers. They use this topos in their self-presentation to align themselves squarely with public interest, and that would obviously give them an edge in a competitive environment. Speakers demonstrate in this way that they are aware of the importance of speeches as a vehicle for deliberation and of the dangers posed by deceptive communication [Jon Hesk, 2000:pp. 4-5]. The topos not only functions as a 'strategic act of self-authorisation,' it is also inherently antagonistic in that one distances oneself from one's adversaries, who are, it is implied, likely to engage in illicit rhetorical maneuvering (ibid. pp. 169, 208)." (Ineke Sluiter, "Deliberation, Free Speech and the Marketplace of Ideas." Bending Opinion: Essays on Persuasion in the Public Domain, ed. by Ton Van Haaften, Henrike Jansen, Jaap De Jong, and Willem De Koetsenruijter. Leiden University Press, 2011)

Anti-Rhetoric in the Human Sciences

"Where is rhetoric to be found in the development of the human sciences? Boeckh's Enzklopadie includes rhetoric in the chapter on the empirical human sciences and understands it as a theory of stylistic speech form . . .. According to Boeckh, . . . [rhetoric] finally relapsed into insubstantial and affected verbosity. In the modern period, however, the theory of rhetoric made no progress, indeed it had been neglected and almost forgotten 'because attention is directed more towards intellectual substance than to form.'

"Boeckh's statement indicates the three-fold aspects of 'anti-rhetoric' apparent in the human sciences. First, form is considered as external, as something imposed upon the intellectual content; second, rhetoric is devalued as an unphilosophical artistic skill; and third, as a persuasive art it is subordinated to the dialectical theory of knowledge."
(Walter Rüegg, "Rhetoric and Anti-Rhetoric in the 19th and 20th Century Human Sciences in Germany." The Recovery of Rhetoric: Persuasive Discourse and Disciplinarity in the Human Sciences, ed. by R.H. Roberts and J.M.M. Good. University Press of Virginia, 1993)


"The invitation to rhetoric is not, I emphasize, an invitation to 'replace careful analysis with rhetoric,' or to abandon mathematics in favor of name-calling or flowery language. The good rhetorician loves care, precision, explicitness, and economy in argument as much as the next person. . . .

"The suspicion of rhetoric is as old as philosophy itself: we cannot use mere plausibility because an eloquent speaker could fool us:

Socrates: And he who possesses the art [of rhetoric] can make the same thing appear to the same people just, now unjust, at will?
Phaedrus: To be sure.
( Phaedrus 261d)

We need something, it has been said, besides the mere social fact that an argument proved persuasive.

"To such an objection the answers, then, are two. Science and other epistemologically pure methods can also be used to lie. Our defense must be to discourage lying, not to discourage a certain class of talk. Secondly, talk against talk is self-refuting. The person making it appeals to Anti-Anti-Rhetoric a social, nonepistemological standard of persuasiveness by the very act of trying to persuade someone that mere persuasion is not enough." (Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics, 2nd ed. University of Wisconsin Press, 1998)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Anti-Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Definition and Examples of Anti-Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Anti-Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).