Aaron Eckhart and Gorgias on (The Art of Persuasion through Manipulation) Rhetoric

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            In class and online, we discussed the nature of Gorgias' rhetoric, and whether or not it is oriented toward the "good." The conversation then moved off of rhetoric and on to the idea of Justice. However, let's go back to the idea of rhetoric for a moment. We were unfortunate in the reading to not be able to read Gorgias' speech, which was an example of rhetoric in action (and all because of tardy Chaerephon, wasting too much time at the agora). The result is that we hear about the nature of rhetoric, but never see it actually used by the master Rhetorician Gorgias himself.

            The closest I think we can get to Gorgias is by looking at actor Aaron Eckhart's character in the movie Thank You For Smoking Nick Naylor. For those unfamiliar, this is a comedy starring Eckhart as a Tobacco lobbyist who is very skilled at manipulation and persuasion. Naylor in the movie has no morals or ethics in conducting his job. His job requires him to manipulate facts about smoking in order to get more people hooked. His manipulation knows no bounds, and he's very good at it. How is he so good? He explains the reasons to his son in this dialogue exchange:

 

Joey Naylor: ...so what happens when you're wrong?
Nick Naylor: Whoa, Joey I'm never wrong.
Joey Naylor: But you can't always be right...
Nick Naylor: Well, if it's your job to be right, then you're never wrong.
Joey Naylor: But what if you are wrong?
Nick Naylor: OK, let's say that you're defending chocolate, and I'm defending vanilla.

Now if I were to say to you: 'Vanilla is the best flavor ice-cream', you'd  

say...

Joey Naylor: No, chocolate is.
Nick Naylor: Exactly, but you can't win that argument... so, I'll ask you: so you think

chocolate is the end all and the all of ice-cream, do you?

Joey Naylor: It's the best ice-cream, I wouldn't order any other.
Nick Naylor: Oh! So it's all chocolate for you is it?
Joey Naylor: Yes, chocolate is all I need.
Nick Naylor: Well, I need more than chocolate, and for that matter I need more than

vanilla. I believe that we need freedom. And choice when it comes to our ice-cream, and that Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.

Joey Naylor: But that's not what we're talking about
Nick Naylor: Ah! But that's what I'm talking about.
Joey Naylor: ...but you didn't prove that vanilla was the best...
Nick Naylor: I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong I'm right.
Joey Naylor: But you still didn't convince me
Nick Naylor: It's that I'm not after you.... I'm after them.
[points into the crowd]

 

            The scene is played for comedic laughs, but this is a really accurate portrayal of the art of rhetoric. Nick Naylor's goal is to persuade the audience listening to him by any means necessary, even reframing the original question. Naylor preys upon people's ignorance and gullibility; if it sounds good and affirms what they already know, they're going to agree. He also points out that in a debate, his goal is still the minds of the audience, not the other debater. The truth here is blurred; we are unsure as to what the truth is, so we're going to agree with whoever is the most persuasive. Naylor doesn't have to be right; he just needs to prove the other debater wrong to the audience and by doing that, the audience will automatically assume that Naylor is therefore correct.

            This and other dialogue exchanges are a good contemporary example of Gorgias' use of rhetoric for "unjust" purposes. This is the problem Socrates has with Gorgias' rhetoric. Persuasion, by its very nature, has a certain amount of manipulation to it, no matter if you're arguing for the tobacco industry or for Justice. Socrates wants the truth; Gorgias merely wants to persuade you to his point of view, whether it's the truth or not. I argue that in order to be truly persuasive in anything, you need to employ a little bit of manipulation in order to convince the other person you are correct. Manipulation is surely not part of the good, so that would mean that persuasion, fundamentally, is also not part of the good. I can see why Socrates may have a problem with this, although he himself may have engaged in a certain amount of persuasion in his dialogues; manipulation he would've called the "truth."

So the question is: Can persuasion ever be done without manipulation? Or is manipulation necessary in order to change a person's mind? Should persuasion be part of the "good"? And where can I be taught this art of rhetoric...?

 

Source: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0427944/

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