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Rhetoric is an audience-centric art, or is it?
Susan Heller
Professor Mark Watman
Professional Writing and Rhetoric
October 19, 2010
Rhetoric is an audience-centric art, or is it?

         My initial reaction to this simple declarative statement was acceptance. After ruminating for a few moments, I began feeling conflicted and wondered what, specifically, about this eight-word sentence causes me such consternation.
         Before I reveal my precise issue with this sentence, I need to frame my concerns in a broader perspective. This innocuous-appearing statement sounds like a tenet, because that is how the experts intended it to be taken. The problem is that a tenet should be a universal truth. A tenet should state something that can be observed as true in every instance. This sentence does not pass this test because we can observe many instances where it is untrue.
To understand how this statement can be untrue we must share a common definition of “audience-centric.” Audience centricity can be defined two ways: message content and delivery, and messenger intention. The messenger achieves audience-centric content and delivery when the style, language, and communications medium enable the audience to understand what the messenger intended to convey. In most cases, when the rhetorician attains this type of audience-centricity, the audience responds as the rhetorician wished them to. A rhetorician has audience-centric intentions when the messenger’s purpose is in the audience’s best interest, and when most people would agree that these intentions are morally sound. From this dual perspective, we can state that when the audience connects with message content and delivery and the rhetorician’s intentions were to benefit the recipients, society is thus improved. We understand that when both of these perspectives are satisfied, the statement “rhetoric is an audience-centric art” is true.
         As a tenet, the statement is invalid, because too many examples dominate to prove that these perspectives are not always satisfied. A rhetorician has many opportunities to construct content and deliver a message that does not connect with the audience. Word misusage, poor integration of text and images, incorrect information, distracting text attributes (like font and color), poor media choices (like a message delivered via email that should have been delivered in person) are but a few examples of decisions that can cause misalignment between message and receiver. Most instructions packed with assembly-required products prove this.
         Unfortunately, we can also cite examples where someone’s goals are achieved through rhetoric, but the outcome was never intended to improve a societal condition. Cult leaders’, dictators’, and gang leaders’ propaganda and the results attest to the fact that rhetoric is often successful despite the messenger never having intended any benefit to society.
         My discomfiture with this sentence is caused by the use of the copulative verb ‘is” without any qualifiers. To alleviate my concerns and formulate a valid tenet I propose this version, “Rhetoric should be an audience-, reader-, user-centric art.” This version is a universally true; rhetoric should always align content and delivery, and the messenger’s intentions with the audience. However, I prefer this longer, more comprehensive version, “Rhetoric is an audience-, reader-, user–centric art when the rhetorician’s intentions align with society’s morals and the rhetoric is delivered in a manner that enables audience comprehension.” Do you suppose my rhetoric would persuade the author’s of the original sentence to adopt my version instead?
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