confrontational rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Confrontational Rhetoric
"Confrontational rhetoric," says Jason Del Gandio, " is about speaking truth to power and confronting and eradicating all forms of oppression" (Rhetoric for Radicals, 2013). (Cultura RM Exclusive/Seb Oliver/Getty Images)


Confrontational rhetoric is a broad term for strategies of persuasion and forms of communication that directly challenge the authority of an opponent. Contrast with identification.

Confrontational rhetoric is typically characterized by agonistic discourse. In addition to speeches and debates, confrontational rhetoric may take the form of demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, and other forms of social action and civil disobedience.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations:

  • "Rhetoric scholar Herbert W. Simmons explains that the very threat of mass action is a key feature of a rhetoric of confrontation: participants 'threaten, harass, cajole, disrupt, provoke, intimidate, coerce. But they do so rhetorically. . . . It is not a strategy of aggression; it is a strategy of persuasion from a position of power in the form of a threat of mass action.' In other words, a confrontational rhetoric applies pressure by creating a perception that a mass action is not only possible, but avoidable. Whereas some rhetorical acts are persuasive simply for their potential to disrupt, others, like the rhetoric of dissent, send messages through the disturbance itself, but these too are symbolic acts."
    (Brad Lucas, Radicals, Rhetoric, and the War. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)
  • The Confrontational Rhetoric of Social Movements
    "Our confrontational rhetoric often involves yelling, screaming, shouting, stomping, clapping, drumming, fists in the air, Black Blocs, loud slogans, passionate manifestos and declamatory speeches. . . . While this passionate and unapologetic attitude permeates our rhetoric, it should not be reduced to negativity or militancy. We might be loud and angry at times, but we are also quiet, solemn, cheerful, romantic, happy, celebratory and even festive. Many activists use silent die-ins, peace vigils, pacifism, meditation and humorous antics. Many activists are also approachable and inviting, preferring dialogue over verbal duel. These subtler attitudes are also confrontational, just in different ways. Confrontational rhetoric is about speaking truth to power and confronting and eradicating all forms of oppression. How we do that is relative to each activist and situation."
    (Jason Del Gandio, Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists. New Society Publishers, 2008)
    - "Social movements typically employ confrontational rhetoric that falls within the tradition of normal discursive behavior. On the other hand, some elements within a social movement may employ an agitative style of rhetoric, which may involve physical actions, nonverbal messages, and other nondiscursive forms of persuasion."
    (Brant Short, "Earth First! and the Rhetoric of Moral Confrontation." Landmark Essays on Rhetoric and the Environment, ed. by Craig Waddell. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998)
  • Managerial vs. Confrontational Rhetoric
    "As Scott, Bevilacqua and others have pointed out, almost all Aristotelian rhetorics are managerial in form. They are designed to keep the existing system viable: they do not question underlying epistemology and group ethic. On the other hand, confrontational rhetoric occurs only in special and limited circumstances, such as periods of societal breakdown or when moral underpinnings are called into question.
    "It is this confrontational aspect--the questioning of the basic values and societal norms--that makes true movements a real threat that cannot be explained away as a temporary malfunction of the system or as the conspiratorial work of a handful of fanatics. . . .
    "Using this notion of confrontational rhetoric as the counterpart of managerial rhetoric, I find that many of the so-called 'types' of movements described in recent literature do not appear to be movements at all, but rather adjustments to the existing order. A closer look at those activities labeled 'reform' movements reveals a rhetorical form which is managerial rather than confrontational. Their rhetoric is primarily concerned with adjusting the existing order, not rejecting it. The reformist campaign stays inside the value structures of its existing order and speaks with the same vocabularies of motive as do the conservation elements in the order."
    (Robert S. Cathcart, "Movements: Confrontation as Rhetorical Form," 1978. Methods of Rhetorical Criticism: A Twentieth-Century Perspective, 3rd ed., ed. by Bernard L. Brock, Robert L. Scott, and James W. Chesebro. Wayne State Univ. Press, 1990)
  • Confrontational Rhetoric in the Environmental Movement
    "Although both the Just Sustainability advocates and the Foundation for Deep Ecology stated their criticisms of society in polite language, critical rhetorics also have gained attention as a result of sharp denunciation and not-so-decorous challenges to existing norms. Sometimes this has taken the form of what communication scholars Robert Scott and Donald Smith (1969) originally termed confrontational rhetoric, the use of strident language and actions such as sit-ins and the occupation of buildings to critique racism, war, or exploitation of the environment. Despite the controversy often surrounding such actions, Scott and Smith urge us to take seriously the criticisms they raise. They explain that sometimes the calls for 'civility and decorum serve as masks for the preservation of injustice.'"
    (Robert Cox, Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere, 2nd ed. SAGE, 2010)