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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Classics of Rhetoric and the Internet: Secrets from Richard Whately

Play the podcast (downloadable audio file).

Richard Whately, who lived and wrote in 18th century England, had some ideas about “testimony” make a lot of sense today in the age of Internet journalism, blogs, and instant punditry. Although we often think of testimony as something that belongs only in a court of law or perhaps in certain churches, the reality is that “testimony” is a much broader concept.

Testimony occurs whenever an expert expresses a viewpoint. It also encompasses most quotes or citations you may use, whether they involve case studies or the verbal picture that someone paints for you in order to define the concept(s).

It might be good to back up for a moment and provide some historical background. Richard Whately, who wrote Elements of Rhetoric in 1828, was an ordained Anglican priest educated at and later a reader at Oxford University. He was the author of numerous books that explored the relationships of persuasive discourse, rhetoric, and religion. A few more details about Whately’s life can be found at’s entry for him:

According to Whately, a factual testimony carries more weight than simple opinion. How do you tell the difference between fact and opinion? A fact can be checked out and verified. Think of “rules of evidence.”

Kinds of testimony include the following:

---Spontaneous testimony. Whately argues that unplanned testimony is persuasive because it has the appearance of being genuine and “unscripted.” Keep this in mind when you have an argument that could be helped by “man on the street” kinds of interviews. We all know that the way that one asks questions can be pretty coercive, and yet that fact is rarely acknowledged. In the Internet, spontaneous testimony often appears in chat rooms, newsgroups, usenet, and discussion boards. How many of the people posting in these places have a hidden agenda? How many are trying to boost traffic to their own sites? These are not questions that occur to most readers. Most people take what appears to be spontaneous testimony at face value.

---Negative testimony. Ironically, it’s not necessary to speak in order to give a negative testimony. Silence can have the same impact, especially if you don’t deny negative character assaults. On the other hand, Whately acknowledges that if you take the bait and spend a lot of time defending negative claims, you end up reinforcing the negative rather than refuting it. A good example of this is the case of negative political campaign ads. To take a look at Presidential television ads, check out the American Museum of the Moving Image’s wonderful presentation of The University of Oklahoma’s Political Communication Center’s collection. The spots can be found here: You can view the digitized television ads with RealPlayer or Windows Media Player. Download is smooth, and the site’s great flexibility for different connection speeds makes accessing them a real pleasure. I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that these streaming media files are housed with Akamai ( ).

---Concurrent testimony. If several unrelated individuals have the same or similar testimonies, it has a lot more impact than the testimony of a single individual. Think of space alien abduction stories. Would you believe that alien abductions take place if ten individuals who do not know each other and have had no common contact all offer testimony that it occurred to them? Would you believe it if only one person claimed to have been abducted by aliens? For archives of alien abduction stories, please visit’s archive of first-person testimonials:

--Character of the witness. Whately’s not breaking any new ground here. Of course, the majority of individuals are going to believe the testimony of an individual who is a solid, respected citizen over that of an individual who breaks society’s rules. Ironically, sometimes the “outsiders” are more truthful. Nevertheless, they’re going to have a harder time of convincing anyone.

--Testimony of an adversary. According to Whately, the words of an adversary can be quite persuasive, especially if they are speaking in a way that is not expected. For example, if an adversary suddenly begins to support the opposite position, the impact can be profound.

Whately’s emphasis on the “burden of proof” is very helpful to the writer who is embarking on a “taking a position” paper. Whately is realistic about the nature of written discourse, and he accepts that “truth” can become a concept to managed in the service of persuasion.

Although it’s not too advisable to end on a quote, this one is irresistible:

“It is one thing to wish to have truth on our side, and another to wish sincerely to be on the side of truth.”

(an earlier version of this was first published in

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