Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rhetoric of the Non-Essential Argument

The Chewbacca Defense

Speaking to my summer school class about the link between forensic rhetors in ancient Greece and their role as hired advocates before judges, I found myself referencing the Chewbacca Defense from South Park. In Book 1 of Rhetoric, Aristotle privileges rhetoric over narrative because it cuts out all unnecessary introductions and other elements that Aristotle found to be extraneous to persuasiveness before a judge and small jury. The term 'red herring' is what we often use to categorize this kind of rhetorical strategy that purposefully attempts to change the argument.

The context for the Chewbacca Defense was the distinction I made between the conciseness of Aristotle's definition of forensic as opposed to the long, drawn-out kinds of opening and closing statements seen during the O.J. Simpson trial. Given that the trial took place during 1994, 18 year students do not have the same experience with what seemed like weeks and months of courtroom coverage. But I referred to the South Park episode with a parody of Johnnie Cochran speaking of non-essential information during a court case as a strategy to show that the accused was so innocent that Cochran need not discuss the actual case. Instead, he focused on a tangential argument as an appeal to logos.

In the indie film Rocket Science about a young stutter who wants to join the debate team at his high school, the opening scene shows a debater deploying a similar strategy to the Chewbacca Defense. At about Minute One, the young man stops and says something to the effect of, "Other than repeat something you already know, I will give a moment of silence..." Because debaters are timed, this rhetorical strategy can be effective in oratory because it appeals to a confidence, or ethos of the speaker. Modern debate also demonstrates the salience of copiousness to rhetoric.

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