When a speaker successfully uses the canons of rhetoric to craft a compelling message and influence an appropriate target audience, that message often falls on deaf ears. Why does this occur? One reason has to do with the shifting communication patterns emerging in contemporary society. When people are used to hearing (a) poorly organized messages that lack effective delivery mechanisms, (b) passionless messages that have little enthusiasm for their subject, or (c) speakers who skim the surface of topics rather than possess an in-depth knowledge of them, people begin to distrust speaking in general. A distrustful cultural norm emerges that leads to isolated skepticism. A skeptical mind is an admirable quality in a critical thinker, but what differentiates this “productive skepticism” from isolated (or unproductive) skepticism is that we are skeptical in combination with others, we ask questions, have debates, and engage in dialogue. Isolate skepticism, on the other hand, encourages us to change the channel until we find a message more in tune with our beliefs…it is a form of confirmation bias. The plethora of messages that we are inundated with on a daily basis provides us so much choice that there is bound to be a message that fits into our currently formed belief structures. This is problematic because it closes off exposure to different ideas which can lead to understanding, empathy, or an increase in the superiority of our own ideas.
In popular culture, specifically the print, broadcast, radio, and internet media institutions, people are exposed to mostly extreme, adversarial positions on topics. So when a speaker takes the time to create an effective speech that cuts to the heart of a topic, people are losing their ability to respond because it doesn’t match the cultural script that is evolving for public speaking. When television shows and internet broadcasts cover every facet of the human experience, we begin to recategorize “public speaking” into the same speaking pattern as “everyday conversations.” This recategorization is problematic. It blurs our ability to criticize different forms and functions of speech, thereby limiting our critical thinking skills and ability (and desire) to connect with others. Thus, when we encounter a highly developed and compelling message, we react defensively and aren’t sure how to respond. We have gotten so used to expedient decision making, reasoning, improper heuristics (i.e., mental short cuts), that many of us have lost not only the ability but more important the desire to craft or listen to well developed arguments or speeches. We want the bullet-pointed version. Rhetorical Blowback occurs when people negatively respond to effectively crafted persuasive messages because they apply incorrect speaking criteria (i.e., the forms and functions of conversational patterns to judge public speeches). To put a halt to this critical thinking killer, we need to point it out when we hear it and engage eloquently presented and masterfully crafted messages.