Fable: Why rhetoric gets a bad name

Modified detail of Henri Rousseau's Snake Charmer painting

Look at those two down there on the ground. Humans, they’re called. Not a brain between the two of them. They spend the entire day running about, giggling, or wrapped in each other’s arms. What nonsense! I’m going to s-s-shake things up.

If you were me, you’d be bored, too. I’m the s-s-smartest one around here. Everyone else has about as much curiosity as a lump of granite. Oh yes, this garden is beautiful. And without doubt the tree I’m sitting in is comfortable. The apples taste good. I’ve heard tell that no one is allowed to eat them, but I find they help me think.

Look at that. Both humans have gone to sleep at the bottom of the tree. I’ll s-s-s-slither down the trunk and have a word in her ear.

I hissed gently and she slowly opened her eyes.

She looked startled. “Oh! A snake!” she said.

The other human didn’t wake up, so I s-s-slid closer. We vipers get a bad reputation. It’s probably jealousy because we’re so brainy. After all, in the beginning was the word; and we have the gift of the gab.

“Be not afraid,” I said,

“Wow! A talking snake,” she said.

Humans can be surprised at the obvious. “Have you ever wondered about this tree?”

“We’re, like, not allowed to eat from that tree.”

“Why do you think that is?” She looked puzzled by my question, so I continued. “We’re not so different, you and me. I’ve been eating those apples and they haven’t done me any harm.”

“Yes, but you’re a snake, and I’m, I’m a …”

“Human,” I said. Poor thing could hardly express herself. “And I’ve learned a lot. For one thing, I can speak your language. Wouldn’t you like to be able to speak mine? One bite of an apple is all you need.”

She thought about it for a moment and then nodded.

“You’re missing a lot. Eat one of these apples and you’ll never be the same again,” I said. “Or better still, get your human companion there to try one. If there is any risk, why take one yourself?”

I could see that she was considering my wise words. So I let her mull things over. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s to let others come to their own conclusions.

I hissed a courteous goodbye and went back up the tree, wrapped myself around a branch, and waited to see what would happen next.


From that day to this, people who’ve mastered the art of rhetoric are looked upon with awe, fear, and often distrust. According to the Rolling Stones,[i] the devil is practiced in the art of deception. And as you know, the devil is always in the details.

Snake Oil SalesmanAttorneys, politicians, and high-pressure salespeople get a bad name as manipulators.

Beware: What the headline promises, the small print takes away

Bob Dylan once wrote that people rob you with a fountain pen. The big type promises: Sign up is easy! It only takes just a few seconds —as long as you don’t want to know the details. We’re told to read everything before signing it. But if you’ve dragged yourself to the front of a rental car counter after a long flight and insist on going line-by-line through the small print, you won’t be popular.

Complexity is an intentional manipulative technique. Get a great rate on insurance (as long as you agree to the never-claim clause). Does every member of Congress read the thousands of pages of a bill? That is a rhetorical question. Of course they don’t. Do you read the terms and conditions of your new software update? No, you don’t.

Rhetoric’s antidote: critical thinking

The simplest defense is to look at how language conveys meaning. When we want to paint something in a positive light, we use a euphemism. In realestatespeak “cute” and “cozy” mean not enough room to swing a cat.

A “challenge” is a euphemism for a problem. It attempts to put lipstick on the proverbial pig.  When we want go negative, we use what’s technically known as a dysphemism. The same problem can be described as a challenge or a catastrophe. It depends on what you want to communicate.  One group’s freedom fighter is another group’s terrorist. Language colors meaning.

Aristotle had a lot to say about rhetoric. He wrote that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names. How you speak or write about a subject is almost as important as what you write about.

Rhetoric is power

Rhetoric can be used for good or ill, so persuasion’s purpose becomes an ethical question. What’s your intention? Are you persuading people for or against their own interest?


[i] You can’t always get what you want,  Rolling Stones, 1969 Decca Records/ABKCO
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