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Summer 2021, 51.4, pages: 276-292

Impediments to Productive Argument: Rhetorical Decay


This essay presents a theory of rhetorical decay, a rhetorical state that results from argumentative gestures that “derail” and suppress productive discourse (i.e., exchanges that produce new understandings, consensus, or “legitimate dissensus” between members of a public). Reviewing works from critical race studies, rhetorical criticism, and feminist rhetorical studies, the author identifies several individual preexisting concepts that can be classified as individual rhetorical decay–fostering practices. However, a gap remains in theorizing the larger category and understanding the outcomes of such rhetorics; this essay intervenes in this space by creating the metatheory of rhetorical decay, characterizing the family of gestures, examining affiliate concepts, providing an example of rhetorical decay in a contemporary public argument (over lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender marriage), and identifying precedents for mitigating such practices.

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