The impossible task

One of the more interesting things that I noticed when I first started studying rhetorical theory is that some rhetorical situations are impossible tasks. Everyone, I think, at one time or another, has encountered an audience that cannot,  or, rather, would not, be moved.

The distinction between ‘cannot’ and ‘would not’ is important; if an audience cannot be moved – if there is some gulf of values that somehow cannot be crossed by any conceivable method  – then that is one thing, to say that rhetorical power has limits.  But if an audience refuses motion – if it chooses not to move when it could have – that implies something else, that namely, the audience has all the real power, and we should speak less of rhetorical power and more about audience power. Rhetoric becomes more of a curious byproduct – a residue of an interaction – than a means to an end.

So if audiences can choose not to be moved, all rhetorical situations are impossible tasks. People cannot be persuaded – rather they choose to persuade themselves in the light of certain situations or stimuli.

Where does this place the so-called persuasive speaker, the charismatic, the leader? Obviously some people can move others and are demonstrably better at it than others, right? So I think that the power to refuse movement is present but not always used, comparatively. It would require a mechanism that is the reverse of cognitive dissonance; that is to say, instead of rationalization in the face of dissonant input, there is an resistance to information that does make sense to the listener – an unwillingness to move, to listen, to process. I may be equivocating between “dissonant input” and “makes sense”

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