Rhetorical Triangles in Today’s Discussions

November 26, 2018 | Abeeha Shamshad, 2018 AAPD Summer Intern

“The civility which money will purchase, is rarely extended to those who have none.”
– Charles Dickens

Many societal issues present as standoffs — proud, traditional defenders of homegrown values towering in the face of defiant, modern progressives, both wondering who’ll draw first. In this battle of wits and woes, fact and feelings are delicately and strategically interwoven to present impeccable messaging that is logical, yet empathetic. Ever-changing lines are constantly crossed, often drawing ire for no more than a moment or two before disappearing into the void, erased from the memory of the public.

A line was crossed in July, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave Red Hen, a restaurant in Virginia. Media news services lit up with coverage of the incident — cycle after cycle. Two weeks had passed, and the restaurant was still closed, with Sanders the newly crowned-monarch of a movement demanding kindness towards all.

Civility is by and large a function of visibility. It is a purposefully public mechanism, performed for the enjoyment of those who insist that kindness cures all. Civility is consumed eagerly by those who believe that joining hands and sharing warm smiles will truly conquer the issues of the here and now. So when those issues aren’t as cutesy — let’s say, pretrial detention as opposed to high school dress codes — they’re kicked under the rug. When and where civility can enter the picture is dependent upon a sort of modified rhetorical triangle, like the one below:

Triangular representation of the connections between ethos (speaker), pathos (audience), and logos (message)

Image via the University of Oklahoma

When deciding how to address a situation, an individual should be aware of who they are, what they’re trying to say, and who they’re saying it to. The way a person of color may speak about liberation to a Nazi will be different than how a white person discusses sunshine with another white person. Optics are, unfortunately, everything. A prominent politician or a rising social media star with an admiring audience can get across certain messages better than a bail bondsman or nagging father.

I write this with a sincere hope of encouraging self awareness. I’ve compiled a simple self-evaluation guide to help determine how to approach a situation of communication, which can be applied to issues across the board.

  • Who am I?
    • Does this issue personally impact me?
    • Do people impacted by this issue have a seat at the table?
    • Do I have anything to lose?
    • How will the way I communicate, and what I communicate, positively or negatively impact those closest to the issue?
  • Who am I speaking to?
    • Does this person care about me or the issue? Why?
    • Can this person care about me or the issue? How?
    • How much does this person care, relevant to other issues/people?
    • Is this the right place or time to have this discussion?
  • What am I speaking about?
    • Is this idea/issue celebrated or rejected?
    • Is it relevant, popular, or obscure?
    • Who else is talking about this? What are they saying?


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Abeeha Shamshad is a 2018 AAPD Summer Intern. She interned with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

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