Identifying Contemporary Rhetoric

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will familiarize you with the concept of rhetoric and identify its application in the language of President Bush's 'Homeland Security' speech of 2002.

What's in a Name?

Suppose you went to a nearby restaurant every Friday to order your favorite menu item, which is 'mashed potatoes.' Then, one Friday, a friend invites you to come to her favorite restaurant, and you see 'homestyle mashed potatoes' on the menu. When you get them and take a bite, they seem to taste just a bit better than the ones they call 'mashed potatoes' at your regular place. You ask the server what they put in the potatoes, and he says butter, milk, salt and potatoes. These are precisely the same ingredients that your usual restaurant uses, though the homestyle mashed potatoes cost $1.50 more than your usual order. You could have sworn they were better, but now you're not so sure.

Rhetoric Defined

Why did you think the potatoes actually tasted better? The answer is that language can be very powerful. It has the power to influence our thoughts and attitudes, and this power is sometimes referred to as rhetoric. Simply put, rhetoric is choosing and arranging words to persuade someone of something. While it may not matter much if one restaurant persuades you that their mashed potatoes are better than another restaurant's, the rhetoric of public figures can convince people that some ideas are better than others, that some actions are more necessary than others, and that public resources are better spent on one thing over another. A contemporary example of this is the 'Homeland Security' speech given by President Bush in 2002.

Rhetoric of the 'Homeland': Context and Purpose

Although it was several months after 9/11, many Americans were still understandably shaken, and President Bush (and his speechwriters) understood this. The purpose of his speech was to convince Americans to support his proposal for a Department of Homeland Security, a major and costly reorganization of government with extensive and unprecedented powers. Bush began using the term 'homeland' to refer to the United States almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks. This was not a common way to refer to the country before 9/11, but after 9/11 he frequently used the term 'homeland' as a rhetorical device to gain support for his policies.

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