Are Rhetoric, Ideology, Demagogue Dirty Words?

Greek sculpture - pontificatingWe hear a lot about rhetoric, ideology and demagogue in today’s political arena. In most cases, their connotations are negative. Considering their origin, that’s a shame.

Rhetoric, a word in use since the 14th century, is the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by orators of ancient times. It can be defined as the art of speaking or writing effectively and persuasively.

Unfortunately, it has evolved to imply the undue use of exaggeration, speech that is meant to sound important or impressive but that is not sincere or meaningful.

Synonyms for rhetoric can be oratory, discourse, elocution. But synonyms today more often are bombast, hyperbole, pomposity.

The candidate’s vow to increase education spending was just rhetoric.
The shrill rhetoric of extremists drowns out the moderate voices of reason.
Her rhetoric belied that fact that she had already broken promises to voters.

Ideology, in simplest terms, is the science of ideas, especially their origin and nature. It can be a systematic body of concepts, primarily about human life or culture. It also can be considered a collection of ideas that reflect the beliefs and interests of a nation or political system — ideas that underlie political action.

In today’s world, those who espouse a particular ideology too often become ideologues, blindly adhering to their beliefs in a way that is uncompromising or impractical. They consider their view the only valid or acceptable way of thinking or acting.

Synonyms for ideology include doctrine, creed, ideals. But synonyms for ideologue are crusader, fanatic, zealot.

The ideology of one wing of the political party has rendered its candidate unelectable.
She clung to her ideology, despite the changing circumstances that made it irrelevant.
If he doesn’t adopt a more inclusive ideology, he’ll never ascend to a leadership position.

Demagogue originally was used in ancient Greece and Rome to mean a leader of the common people. At first, it had no negative connotation, but it eventually came to mean a troublesome kind of leader.

Today we use demagogue to describe someone who seeks support by preying on people’s fears and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. A demagogue is not beyond taking advantage of the lack of knowledge or sophistication of a certain element in the electorate to gain power and promote political motives.

Synonyms for demagogue are rabble-rouser, firebrand, agitator.

Always the demagogue, he’s quick to manipulate facts and instill fear in his listeners.
There are plenty of demagogues in both political parties.
She’s not a leader; she’s a demagogue with no valid, workable solutions.

What about demagogue as a verb? We hear statements such as “He demagogued the issue of gun rights,” or “The members of the committee are demagoguing for tougher rules.”

Such use might be widely acceptable at some point, but for now, I agree with those who would not use it in serious, credible speaking or writing.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)