The Art of Rhetoric: Riverdale Debate Team Uses Persuasion Techniques to Compete in Tournaments

The Art of Rhetoric: Riverdale Debate Team Uses Persuasion Techniques to Compete in Tournaments

Alyssa Zavattero/Riverdale Review
Cartoon of a Student Debate Framed as a Presidential Debate.

In an election that has not featured as much productive debate between the candidates as perhaps it should have, it is quickly becoming easy to forget how important and ubiquitous the art of rhetoric is. The word “rhetoric” is derived from the Greek “rhetor,” referring to a person who would speak to crowds about community concerns. In ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, rhetoric was the primary method of conducting politics.

Mr. Darius Weil, a Riverdale history teacher and the faculty advisor of the Riverdale’s debate team, broke the idea of rhetoric down into two components: The first is based on reasoning, carefully structured argumentation, and the ability to recognize and effectively respond to an opponent.

The second component relies on “theatrical techniques,” such as body language, tone, and appearance, as well as playing on the emotions of the audience. Senior Beni Shafer-Sull, co-captain of the debate team,  explained that when engaged in debate, generating a certain appearance can have major effects on the outcome. He went on to specify that “confidence is a large part of persuasion whether you are trying to convince someone that you should be chosen to do something or you are having a political discussion.”

In distinguishing rhetoric from the speech of everyday arguments, Mr. Weil said “you do a lot of the same things as when you’re in an argument with someone, but you do them much more deliberately and consciously, and you also have a more comprehensive understanding of ways of talking that we don’t really pause to practice.” He elaborated by saying that rhetoric can sometimes be much more technical than colloquial speaking, including rules or strategies that must be followed.

Various English and history classes at Riverdale teach students about the three basic argumentative strategies: ethos, pathos, and logos. However, Mr. Weil made clear that using all three methods in every argument is not always a wise decision. As an example, he said that when a student asks him for an extension on an assignment, he responds more positively to students who point out that they have been diligent workers in the past than students who attempt to appeal to his emotional side by complimenting him and his class.

Mr. Weil also highlighted a particular rhetorical skill that is often useful outside of formal debates: “impact calculus,” which is a systematic way of determining and comparing the consequences of two events. Mr. Weil says that he often hears people using this skill in everyday conversation, and that “people often do this in a very organic way, just without labeling it in the way debaters have.”

Although the elements of structured argumentation mentioned by Mr. Weil might be somewhat lacking in the current presidential election, he emphasized that observing and interpreting the theatrical factors from an informed point of view can help to distill subtle messages from the candidates. Mr. Weil explained that this type of awareness allows one to ask important questions such as “what are the types of arguments the candidates are making that are actually strong as arguments, in terms of the evidence and reasoning, and what are the types of arguments they are making that depend more on manipulation of our emotions or that hinge on assumptions that we have as listeners which we might not be aware of?”

While our current presidential hopefuls might be a little too fond of the theatrical aspects of rhetoric, the key to success is knowing how to find the correct balance of pathos, logos and egos for an argument, although it does always depend on the circumstances. Maybe in four years we will be lucky enough to watch debates with candidates who are slightly better at making substantive arguments during debates ... although, where is the fun in that?

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