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  • Brianne Sorensen, Blog Editor

Defining Reality Through Rhetoric

When I write a poem, a short story, or even a piece of creative nonfiction, every person who reads it will have a different interpretation of what it means. They will understand symbols, words, and spacing in a way that suits them personally. Their past experiences will influence what meanings they find in my words. Therefore, it is important to understand the concept of rhetoric as a writer. Understanding how people interpret your writing can help you write for yourself, and your audience, while becoming a better communicator in general.

I define rhetoric as conscious communication that utilizes symbols in ways unique to each and every person. Historically, texts defined rhetoric as the use of symbols by human beings for the purposes of communication within three primary dimensions: rhetors, symbols, and purposeful communication. Both definitions emphasize the requirements for symbols and creators of rhetoric in effective communication.

According to Sonja K. Foss, “How we perceive, what we know, what we experience, and how we act is the result of symbols we create and encounter.” We perceive, understand, and experience things based on our past experience with the world. This means each individual has a different rhetorical history and experiences.

The process of employing rhetoric to define reality is deceptively simple. Rhetoric gives us a way to understand and categorize the world to further define our reality. This categorization is important because it provides a springboard for how to deal with an experience. Once an experience has been categorized, our rhetoric provides us with words to define our personal accounts; this information gives us tools to develop strategies for dealing with our experiences.

This process is similar to ordering a pizza. First, you must categorize what type of pizza you want to order--thin crust, Chicago deep dish, or New York style. Once you have categorized what type of pizza you want, you should provide defining characteristics in the form of toppings. Now that you have your pizza, you must decide on a strategy to make the most of it, or, in this case, eat it. Would you rather stay at the restaurant? Take it home and eat it in front of the TV? Or eat it in the car before your roommates get a chance to gobble it up?

When defining our reality through rhetoric, what we see as true or real depends on how we label and talk about things. How we see and understand a pizza may be different based on how we label it. Some people may perceive a calzone to be a type of pizza, whereas those of us with knowledge recognize that a calzone is a glorified pita pocket. These definitions are all based on our rhetorical pasts that influence our present realities. According to Foss, every rhetorical choice results in seeing the world in one way instead of another.

It’s important to note that rhetoric includes more than spoken and written language. Rhetoric can mean a variety of different things and is not limited to language or representation. For example, rhetoric can be employed when choosing to leave a topping off a pizza. A margherita pizza has three toppings: tomato, mozzarella, and basil because they represent the colors of Italy’s flag. Any other ingredients would sully the effect, so the choice to omit other toppings, such as pineapple, is a form of symbolism and communication; this makes it a rhetorical choice.

Don’t be afraid to utilize bold rhetorical choices in your writing. Just like a good pizza, people enjoy diverse and interesting writing that speaks to both the audience and the author.

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