A rhetorical device is a technique that a writer or speaker uses to create a literary effect, often without regard for the literal significance of the words. For example, a simile is when the writer makes a comparison, “He dances like a bull on crutches.” It’s a clever way to say that that guy is clumsy; no one really believes he has hoofs or hobbles around on crutches.
Writers, scholars and pedants have been compiling lists of rhetorical devices since at least Aristotle. For example, the Associated Press has a fairly extensive list of the core rhetorical devices for journalists.
Rhetorical devices are amoral, as virtually every rhetorical device can be used to illuminate or support any idea or belief. What the rhetorical device does is carry the meaning, and in many cases it carries two meanings: 1) what the author is ostensibly trying to say at that given moment in the narrative; and 2) a broader ideological message, which is hidden because it is not the ostensible topic of the story, speech or article.
A New York Times article previewing the 2013-2014 National Basketball Association by Tony Gervino contains an example of combining two rhetorical devices in a complicated but clever and funny way to make a simple statement, yet in the background advocate what I find to be a disgusting piece of ideology.
Here’s the statement about three players in their late 30’s for whom the Brooklyn Nets traded draft picks and younger players in the offseason:
“…for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, whose combined age is older than the hills. (For you Nate Silver fans, the number is actually 109).”
The first rhetorical device is hyper exaggeration, which is as old as the hills. When I think of hyper-exaggeration in literature, Rabelais comes first to mind. By making an exaggeration that is so impossible as to constitute a lie, the writer can express an irony that the reader is supposed to find clever (and often does). We know that these guys are not older than hills, but we also know they’re pretty old for professional basketball players. Because hyper-exaggeration is in essence a lie, it has traditionally had no place in serious journalism. Hyper exaggeration only entered the realm of newspapers over the past decade. It started first in “laddie” magazines, those slicks for young men and insecure older ones dedicated to soft porn and staying hip by buying stylish things.
Interestingly enough, in the same edition of the New York Times, another sports writer uses hyper exaggeration in the same way to describe these same players as old, when he writes, “Did they hoop with Jerry West?” (who we all know is older than the hills!)
You can find examples of the second rhetorical device throughout literature, back to The Epic of Gilgamesh. I call it “invoking a cultural icon,” in this case, Nate Silver, a statistician who has won acclaim calling the outcomes of multiple elections and sporting events. By referencing a famous person, the writer evokes an entire range of ideas, myths and beliefs. For example, “He’s no Einstein” means he’s not as smart as the smartest scientist. “He’s the Michael Jordan of real estate agent” means he always wins the “agent of the year” and “most sales” awards, year after year.
The reference to Nate Silver evokes brainy and complicated math and exotic computer models. And here’s where the ideology comes into play: What is the brainy, complicated math over which the fans of Nate Silver will slaver? Adding the ages of three players. Yes, the complicated combination of hyper exaggeration and evoking a cultural reference leads to the idea that adding three numbers together is hard. Adding three weeks—that’s something that is traditionally taught in elementary school, maybe 3rd or 4th grade.
As I have discussed numerous times in OpEdge, asserting that math is hard is part of anti-intellectualism, which is one of the great ideological principles underlying virtually everything seen and heard in the mass media since the end of the Second World War.
Of course, the writer is just trying to be clever. His task is to analyze every team’s roster and chances for the playoffs in one page of small type punctuated by inset photos. Most writers of sports previews try to inject as much cleverness into their brief descriptions as possible. As examples, look at analyses of who will win this weekend’s professional football games or position-by-positions analyses of World Series or play-off teams. This article in question mostly uses sarcasm to create the wit, and certainly a snide reference to Nat Silver qualifies as sarcasm.
But this rhetorical doubling over also qualifies as yet another instance of a writer assuming that math is hard, in this case, so hard that adding three numbers requires a statistician and sophisticated computer modeling.
It’s a throw-away line in a throw-a-way piece, but day by day we’re bombarded with anti-intellectual statements and ideological subtext such as “math is hard,” “smart people are bad athletes and socially inept,” “college is only about getting a job,” science isn’t fun,” “geniuses are usually mentally ill or extremely eccentric,” “the cool kids like to party” and “intelligent design is a valid theory,” just to name some of the more frequent variants of the anti-intellectual ideology. The accumulative effect is to create a culture that does not strive for or respect intellectual achievement.