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What Is Vitriolic Rhetoric?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Vitriolic rhetoric is a type of speech or discourse that is scathing and caustic in its criticism of a perceived wrong. Such speeches or writings can be aimed at individuals, groups, or phenomena. In this sense, it is very similar to violent rhetoric, although it is not a call to violence. The harshness of the critique comes instead from the words used to describe the problem.

Rhetoric is a form of discourse that seeks to persuade others of a point of view or of an idea. It can be employed in speeches or in writing, but in both forms it is a one-way point of view that does not include discussion. This said, some rhetoric will allow speeches and counter speeches. The purpose of such rhetoric is to persuade people to follow something, vote for something, abandon something, or even to destroy something.

The term "vitriolic rhetoric" comes from "vitriol" because of its corrosive nature. Vitriol is the historical name for sulfuric acid, which has been used since the times of Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder. Applying the term to rhetoric appears to date from the mid-19th century.

Violent rhetoric differs from vitriolic rhetoric in that it calls for violence to be done against the target, whether figuratively or actually. The caustic nature of vitriolic rhetoric means that the rhetorician is employing a different set of objectives and language tools. The chief purpose of this kind of discourse is to destroy the target with words, which makes it closer to satire, but without the humor.

Discourse can be biting without being vitriolic rhetoric. Biting rhetoric pulls no punches when it comes to criticizing something, such as social inequality or the misbehavior of others. In politics, it is often used to criticize opposition policies and policymakers. When done well, the criticism lays low all of the faults of the target; when done badly, it merely appears to be a series of insults.

What takes vitriolic rhetoric one step beyond is the use of harsh language that goes beyond the pale. This includes poisonous language that truly insults the opponents, the people, and the concepts being critiqued. It is an active attempt to insult. This means the rhetorician, while designing his or her speech, has specifically chosen words designed to hurt and to provoke.

The employment of such language has an effect on others, and this is where it often links to violent rhetoric. While there are no direct calls to action, vitriolic words are designed to inflame reactions in people who are either sensitive to those issues or who are already opponents of the idea or person. This means when something violent is done against that organization or individual, the rhetorician may be blamed for inciting it.

Some people wonder why such language is tolerated in the mainstream press, on television, and amongst people who are supposed to be role models. In many countries, rhetoricians are able to use such inflammatory language because they are protected by freedom of speech laws and because they are not calling for direct action or violence against others. Where the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech should be drawn is a constant debate in most societies.

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Discussion Comments
By Lodeseba — On Dec 23, 2013

I think society could use a lot less of this style of speaking, and attempt a return to civil discourse.

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