Decorum on the Web

You are here now : » Rhetoric Ring > Decorum on the Web

Rhetoric and Decorum on the Web


The aim of this page is to raise the tone of discourse on the internet from a brutish sort of postmodern slam dance to a civilized affair. The marketplace of ideas need not be a theives’ den. Of course, not all posters to discussion threads are nasty and brutish, but I suspect that the majority of citizens today have never been exposed to classical rhetoric (even though it was commonly taught to junior high age children for two millenia). What has classical rhetoric to offer?

Learning rhetoric was, according to Aristotle and Plato, learning to speak the truth to one’s fellows in a way that respects their freedom and helps them excel as human beings. Rhetoric is defined by Aristotle as, “The faculty of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Rhetoric is a study of persuasion that includes logical, ethical and artistic components (pursuit of truth, and its artful presentation to real people with whom one wishes to cultivate and maintain a social bond). Rhetoric was, for much of western history, considered the cornerstone of a liberal arts education.

The Greeks had three divisions of education:

  • the productive arts
  • the industrial arts
  • the liberal arts

The first two were education for slaves, where slaves were taught to make things; to use and maintain their tools. Liberal education was designed for free persons (hence, “liberal,” as in “liberated”). This was education for citizens, in which they learned to be good judges, make good laws, exercise leadership, to be at home in the realm of ideas. They were equipped to exercise their freedom, and it was felt that, in exercising freedom, they would achieve excellence. For the Greeks, excellence went something like this: Every creature has something it does uniquely and better than any other creature. So, the excellence of the cheetah is its speed, and it realizes its excellence in running. They identified an excellence for each creature: the excellence of the ant is its organization, the excellence of the elephant is its size, and so on. What do you suppose the excellence of the “rational animal” would be? Right! To think, to reason, to analyze and to persuade. In short, to be at home in the realm of ideas. Rhetoric is traditionally conceived as the study by which human beings realize their excellence and become fully free. Web forums, discussion lists and chat sites are the new marketplace of ideas. A marketplace of ideas is a rhetorical enterprise. But, the enterprise must be approached as an art in order to fully appropriate its benefits. Why?

Intuition vs. Art

Because everyone already thinks, argues and communicates. We do these things intuitively! We can’t help it; we’re human beings, and that’s how humans are designed. However, there’s a big difference between intuition and art. In order to master any body of knowledge as an art, one must:

  1. Define it
  2. Break it into parts
  3. Study the parts
  4. Practice

Steps 1-3 entail laying a theoretical foundation. This is the process of systematically acquiring a theoretical account of the making process (hence, “discipline”). There is no substitute for theory when one aims to acquire an art. According to Joseph Dunne, art (or, techne) is: “The kind of knowledge possessed by an expert maker; it gives him a clear conception of the why and wherefore, the how and the with what of the making process and enables him, through the capacity to offer a rational account of it, to preside over his activity with secure mastery” (Back to the Rough Ground, University of Notre Dame Press, 1993, p. 9). We all practice our rhetoric on discussion threads; some operate on an intuitive level, others consciously reflect on our persuasive practices because we view that as a road to personal excellence.


One final consideration: Online forums are like communities. Some discourse practices build community better than others. Flame wars do not exactly build community, therefore, if we can “preside over our online rhetoric with secure mastery” we should be able to discover more productive ways of arguing than engaging in flame wars. Consider the following quotations from our Forebears: Oliver Wendell Holmes: “We believed that it was most desirable that the North should win [the Civil War]; we believed in the principle that the Union is indisoluble; we, or many of us at least, also believed that the conflict was inevitable, and that slavery had lasted long enough. But we equally believed that those who stood against us held, just as sacred, convictions that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them, as every man with a heart must respect those who give all for their beliefs.”

George Washington (relevant items from his “Rules of Civility”):

“Let your countenance be pleasant, but in serious matters somewhat grave.”

“Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy.”

“In writing or speaking give to every person his due title according to his degree and the custom of the place.”

“Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.”

“Use no reproachful language against anyone, neither curses nor revilings.”

“Let your coversation be without malice or envy, for it is a sign of tractable and commendable nature; and in all causes of passion admit reason to govern.”

“Speak not injurious words, neither in jest or earnest.”

“Scoff at none, although they give occasion.”

“Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.”

Benjamin Franklin:

In the Conduct of my Newspaper I carefully excluded all Libelling and Personal Abuse, which is of late Years become so disgraceful to our Country. Whenever I was solicited to insert any thing of that kind, and the Writers pleaded as they generally did, the Liberty of the Press, and that a Newspaper was like a Stage Coach in which any one who would pay had a Right to a Place, my Answer was, that I would print the Piece separately if desired, and the Author might have as many Copies as he pleased to distribute himself, but that I would not take upon me to spread his Detraction, and that having contracted with my Subscribers to furnish them with what might be either useful or entertaining, I could not fill their Papers with private Altercation in which they had no Concern without doing them manifest Injustice. . . .These Things I mention as a Caution to young Printers, & that they may be encouraged not to pollute their Presses and disgrace their Profession by such infamous Practices, but refuse steadily; as they may see by my Example; that such a Course of Conduct will not on the whole be injurious to their Interests.

Classical rhetoric, in its most ethical and ancient manifestation, was a way of discussing the truth with one’s fellows in a manner that respects their freedom and dignity, and attempts to move them toward the Good.

Crafting good, civil, arguments involves (click on any topic for further treatment):

  • Knowledge of the Fundamentals of Rhetoric (Why? Intuition vs. Art!)
  • An appreciation of the Ethics of Rhetoric (one ought persuade one’s audience toward the good).
  • A grasp of Basic Logic (two reasons: the quality of one’s arguments will be improved, and the sound one’s reasoning processes, the less threatened one is by other points of view. Hence, the less need for flaming one’s interlocutor.)
  • Getting informed. (Nobody likes to argue with persons who are ignorant of the facts about that which they speak.)

Related links: