I found Ratcliffe’s book refreshing. As an undergraduate communications major, I was engaged in many a classroom discussion on “listening” as being just as important to communication as speaking (which I am using metonymically for all ways of initiating communication). That is, rhetoric/communication isn’t just the study of how to present your message to others via speaking, writing, symbolizing, etc. There is a flip side that carries just as much weight – listening, reading, seeing, etc. Without both equally, rhetoric/communication is crippled. It is ineffective. What is a rhetor without an audience, and vice versa?
In rhetoric we must remember not to see our audience as the other that we are speaking/writing to. The rhetor is also the audience. The audience isn’t the only one listening in communication. The speaker is also listening to her/his audience. The process of communication is circular. This is a truth that I see as central to the idea that rhetoric is epistemic, an idea that greatly appeals to me.
Robert L. Scott first introduced the idea that rhetoric is epistemic in 1967. In short, it posits that rhetoric helps to formulate our perceptions of reality. (Some argue the theory says rhetoric creates reality, but I will not address this debate here. Personally, I think the debate is pointless, but I’ll save that for another time.) And by giving us perceptions of reality, rhetoric becomes epistemic as it becomes a path towards knowing.
What comes to mind first are the most obvious ways that this can be true, such as in the symbolic construction of abstract entities like “community”, “culture”, “society.” One might even go so far as to add “gender” or “race.” (Yes, there are scientific definitions for “gender” and “race.” But it’s important to note that these are scientific opinions which are not without some dissent.) Gender is not to be confused with “sex.” The latter denotes having male or female sexual organs. Gender, on the other hand, does not correspond to something we can concretely experience in reality. “Gender” can refer to something as abstract as “gender roles,” which are concepts formed through communication and mutual understanding. Like “community”, “gender” is rhetorically constructed. I’m inclined to refer to our standard definitions of such concepts as having only rhetorical truths.
Ratcliffe’s “rhetorical listening” idea is central to our strive for the intersubjectivity necessary for many “truths” to exist. For example, I am studying the domains of American political discourse which have constructed the rhetorical truth of the American two-party system. Interestingly, the only way the United States could legally and concretely have a two-party system would be if the United States Constitution stipulated such. It does not. What we have in the U.S. are state laws, put in place by the two major parties, that place restrictions to ballot access for all other parties, which gives us a two-party system only in effect, not officially. Still, it is generally accepted that the U.S. is a two-party system because we have agreed to conceptualize it as such because of the control the two major parties have over ballot access. It is a rhetorically constructed truth, albeit a very practical one.
I’m using this example obviously for my own rhetorical purposes, but if you listen to my text rhetorically, I hope what you will hear is that Ratcliffe’s message can be expanded far beyond the domains of race and gender. We must remember that there are great implications for the social construction of truths that include the marginalization of groups other than those of the most popular topics. Race and gender “othering” is a popular topic (but not any less important) compared to my familiar domain of minor political party othering. Those who don’t have a voice in America’s democratic process are simply scoffed at and made the brunt of jokes. It’s too bad. These groups and the many “others” who feel voiceless also deserve to be heard. We must rhetorically listen to that little voice inside telling us to rhetorically listen for the faint sounds of all “others.”