|The Rhetoricians, circa 1655, by Jan Steen (1625-1679), in the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. The museum permits photography and does not restrict usage of the photographs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Feeling sick? Go see the physician.
Toothache? The dentist will see you for that.
But where do we go when we are having trouble with our words?
Perhaps we should start thinking about rhetoric as a practice like a medical, dental, or mental health practice. A place where research is applied in practical, fluid situations where people need help from a professional trained in theory that can be applied in particular situations to generate assistance.
The rhetorician practice would be where people come when their words are giving them trouble. They aren't sure how to say something right, or well, or maybe they don't know if they should say anything at all. They might want to get involved in a political issue, or something is happening that they don't think is good or right, and they want to engage others with words about it. Maybe they have a sales presentation, or want to persuade someone that they are right about something. The rhetoric practice is where they could go for help with their issue.
We have places like this on university campuses, and they are very good. Writing centers, speaking labs or "across the curriculum" programs are excellent. I believe these would be good models to extend into the public, as a business.
There are a lot of hurdles of course. The first is that the issue of words, communication, and meaning have been placed squarely by most people in the realms of psychology and English literature. The issues of controversy in politics or in policy making has been given totally over to political science. Journalism reinforces these barriers all the time as they continue to go to these experts for their opinions on national debates. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as they start to go to rhetoricians as well for input on persuasion, communication effectiveness, and other such questions. That they don't do this is partially the low public profile most rhetoricians keep, but mostly has to do with the lack of public awareness that such a field exists.
Another hurdle is the public's recalcitrance about rhetoric and persuasion. Most people feel it is akin to manipulation, and unethical. This is a challenge - how to disconnect the general public's idea that truth is the prerequisite to having a debate. Perhaps the practice could engage this issue with free public debates on issues to show how valuable rhetoric training can be on these issues.
As a business, it sounds risky. But I would bet any former debaters could make this work. The questions and challenges are not outside the normal business risks. And the rewards would not be just financial, but a redemption of rhetoric as a professional practice that benefits everyone.