Values in Rhetoric

Here are some of the central concepts I teach students about values in rhetoric:

  • Values are broad, abstract ideas of what is good, of what people want and desire.
  • Values are culturally dependent, meaning that not all cultures have the same values.
  • Values change over time. They are not static concepts.
  • Values are often in tension with one another: e.g. Tradition – Progress, Individuality – Community
  • Values vary in their application, they are not absolute. For example, "life" is a common value, but people who call themselves "pro-life" are sometimes the same people who support the death penalty. Specifics matter.
  • Appealing to common values can fail when people don't share your values or they rank their importance differently. In that case, critics sometimes apply the fallacy term ad populum to describe a failure to convince your audience of popularly accepted values.
  • All language conveys values. There is no neutral value-free language.


(Abbreviated versions hyperlinked)

Steele, Edward D. and W. Charles Redding. “The American Value System: Premises for Persuasion.” Western Speech 26.2 (April 1962): 93-91.

Tapscott, Don. “The 8 Net Gen Norms.” The Digital Divide. Ed. Mark Bauerlein. New York: Penguin, 2011. 130-159.

Coontz, Stephanie. “What We Really Miss About the 1950s.” Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. 8th ed. Ed. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. 32-48.

Waters, Ethan. “We Aren’t the World.” Interview with Joe Henrich. Pacific Standard Magazine 25, Feb. 2013. Web. 15 Jul. 2013.

Together these readings allow students to think through the ways that American values change over time and the ways they conflict. For example, Steele and Redding's article suggests certain core values during the 1960s; Tapscott's suggests common values for this generation of youth.

The Waters and Coontz articles, though, problematize values further, demonstrating that different cultures have different values (Waters) and that naming common values even within a single culture is up for debate. Koontz argues that the 1950s have been misunderstood and that the values that dominate the 1950s are different than the popular American narrative of the period.

Class Lesson

Directions for Group Work: When an author appeals to a value, (s)he does so in anticipation that a large segment of the population will be swayed by these values. However, because they are generalizations values will never appeal to all individuals.

Your job is to determine whether an author effectively appeals to a certain value in your opinion and to support that critique. For example, does appealing to a certain value create agreement? Feel manipulative? Demonstrate common ground? Alienate some members of the audience? Or any other effects.

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