After reading various definitions of rhetoric over the course of two weeks and trying to understand all perspectives of why and how, not only ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle but also historical figures like John Locke and George Kennedy, explain rhetoric based on their societal time and personal experiences I’ve come to realize that rhetoric is based on everything. We all somehow use rhetoric without even consciously realizing it, well at least most of us anyway. People who are in the advertising industry, politics, and any discourse that requires you to watch what you say because others are watching you as a brand or a being, well those are the people who pay attention rhetoric.
Rhetoric is useful for a multitude of things. Aristotle agrees with me on that (or rather I agree with him). Rhetoric can be used to show the truth of things in the natural tendency in which they happen to prevail over their opponents in a conversation or for better use of a word an argument. He also says that before specific audiences we must not only possess the knowledge to prove that our case is valid but be able to apply instruction (evidence) and use persuasion to convince them. I don’t know about you but this sounds like how the justice system works to me. Innocent until proven guilty.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how the rhetorical function to persuade relates to how the court system in America works. I’m going to try to keep things light heartened but still present a concrete example by using an episode of The Boondocks titled ‘The Trial of R. Kelly‘ [warning: mature content].
R. Kelly is an R & B singer who, in 2002, was charged with 21 counts of child pornography in the state of Chicago after a video of him engaging in sexual acts and urinating on an underage (13 year old) girl. For further details, please visit CNN.
This particular episode of The Boondocks premiered on November 13th, 2005 on Adult Swim. The episode features several central characters:
- Riley Freeman (voiced by Regina King): the younger brother with braids who is perceived as an 8 year old thug
- Huey Freeman (voiced by Regina King): the older brother with an afro who is perceived as a young social and civil rights activist, similar to that of Martin Luther King Jr.
- Tom Dubois (voiced byCedric Yarbrough): the neighbor who works as a public defense attorney
- Robert Kelly (voiced by various actors): R & B singer, songwriter, record producer
- R. Kelly’s Lawyer (voiced by Adam West): self explanatory description/ guest star for this episode
Here is a scene from the episode where Riley presents an argument against his neighbor, Tom Dubois about the R. Kelly trial.
As it relates to rhetoric, what do we see here? Well, we can easily see a clear portrayal of the three appeals to effecting persuasion, according to Aristotle: ethos (to understand human character and goodness in various forms), pathos (to understand emotions), and logos (to reason logically).
These arguments are presented from the very beginning when Tom says how sorry he is about having to prosecute R. Kelly, which presents pathos because he is being sincere about their emotional response to the trial. Huey responds with “Aye man you do what you got to do,” which then presents logos because it’s Tom’s job to prosecute people for their wrong doings and he shouldn’t have to apologize.
Riley enters the scene with his rant about R. Kelly. He starts rough presenting pathos as a weak argument to say, “Why R. Kelly? What did he do to you?”
Tom’s rebuttal is presented confidently with the logos to say that R. Kelly urinating on an underage girl is against the law.
Riley isn’t hit to hard in this ring of argumentation because he comes back with ethos to ask Tom about the statute of limitations on peeing. So peeing in a toilet is okay but peeing on a person is not okay. Then what about accidentally peeing on someone in the bathroom who is standing next to you? What about bed wetting? That’s an involuntary action. Riley presents logos and ethos throughout this argument.
Tom presents further logos when he says that no one will prosecute Riley for bed wetting.
Riley continues his argument strong with saying how no one should be prosecuted for peeing because it’s a natural bodily function and that the victim is not little but there are other people who are actually little who managed to avoid getting peed on so far implying the question of what makes this girl so different? Riley finishes his argument with “When does personal responsibility become a factor in this equation? I see piss coming, I move. She saw piss coming, she stayed.” Riley may have started his argument weakly with pathos but he ended on a strong note by presenting logos and ethos.
This next and last scene that I would like to show you all is from the same episode of The Boondocks but it is a scene from the court room, where the alleged tape of R. Kelly is played and his lawyer tries his best to defend R. Kelly’s case but fails terribly. In relation to real life events, R. Kelly pleaded that because the tape was not on his face and even when it was aligned properly the recording wasn’t clear and presented an obstructed visual of a man that it was not actually him in the video. The watching audience on the other side of the TV of news reports from this case as well as the court had a good bit of proof to believe it was him. This short clip makes a satire of how R. Kelly presented his plead and how the lawyer failed to defend his reputation.
Tom presents his argument in a way to get the crowd to feel bad for the victim and what happened to her by explaining to the jury and R. Kelly’s lawyer that this is a young girl who is still learning things about life and is innocent and doesn’t know any better. However, the victim quickly refuses Tom’s argument with “whatever I guess” and her later statement, “if I didn’t want to be peed on I’d just move out the way.” This is the perfect irony because Riley presented the same argument earlier in the episode, which persuades Tom that argument is valid.
To sum up, the way rhetoric works in law falls in to the three divisions of oratory defined by Aristotle. This particular blog post in correlation between The Boondocks: ‘The Trial of R. Kelly’ episodes and the law system in America represents forensic speaking, which either attacks or defends somebody and must always be done by the parties in the case. Similar to a court case where the lawyers defend or attack the clients in the case and present an argument to persuade not only those in the court room but the masses of society.
“Aristotle on Rhetoric.” American Rhetoric. American Rhetoric, 2001-2015. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.
“R. Kelly arrested in child porn case.” CNN Entertainment. CNN, 6 Jun. 2002. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.
The Boondocks Show. “The Boondocks Season 1 Episode 2 – The Trial of R. Kelly – (Full Episode)” Online video clip. YouTube, 18 Aug. 2015. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.
Ronald Green. “Riley Thoughts on R Kelly going to jail” Online video clip. YouTube, 20 Jul. 2010. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.
cooldude9404. “The Boondocks – R.Kelly Peeing Tape (Uncut)” Online video clip. YouTube, 18 Aug. 2013. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.
Updates in the R. Kelly case(s):
- R. Kelly’s 20 Year Timeline of Sexual Abuse Allegations, NY Times, 2018 (full article here)
- Surviving R. Kelly, 2-part documentary, 2019 (watch full episodes), also available on Netflix & Lifetime
- Sparkle Interview w/ The Breakfast Club, 2019 – scenes left out of Surviving R. Kelly, the infamous tape & more (watch here)
- R. Kelly Interview w/ Gayle King, CBS, 2019 (full video here)
- Interview with Azriel Clary, Jan. 2020 (view/listen here)
- R. Kelly Witness Tampering/Intimidation Tactics, Aug. 2020 (Video 1) (Video 2)
- R. Kelly Appeals for Release, Law & Crime Report, Sept. 2020 (watch the full report here)