Invitational Versus Traditional Rhetoric

I love a good discussion. There are very few things better than a heated but respectful dialogue of opposing viewpoints. The rush of adrenaline, the singularity of focus, the challenge of consensus, and the freedom from American normative standards of polite but uncommunicative discourse are all reasons why this is one of my favorite activities. When I went to BYU for my undergraduate degree I found a couple of like-minded roommates and once a week we hosted a “Discussion Night” in our tiny blue and white south Provo house. The topics ranged from belief, power, and gender, to politics, environment, and business. Sometimes they would last an hour sometimes they would last all night. It was invigorating. Maybe that is why I chose to become a professor. My favorite classes are when I can create a debate and then sit back and watch my students come alive with a fire and a passion that normally lies dormant (probably because they are checking their facebook statuses during the lecture. I’m just sayin’).

Unfortunately, as I age I have noticed that these elucidating conversations have become less and less frequent in my life. Especially in regard to church topics. They are replaced with hostile, rigid, defensive, and attacking discourse on both sides.  Admittedly, I am part of the problem. I get frustrated feeling like my intellect, faith, and personal choices are questioned when people disagree with me, only to find out that those I am conversing with feel the exact same way.  I know that this is not the right solution, but I am nearing the point where it just seems easier to avoid people with different viewpoints than mine.

This is one of the reasons I joined The Round Table at Patheos. It was created to bring women throughout the bloggernaccle with contrasting perspectives together and have them dialogue with one another rather than against each other. We presented our panel at the Sunstone Symposium this year and one of the panelist, Kathryn Soper, provided an incredible resource about invitational rhetoric (handout) written by Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin, entitled “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric.” (entire article). I highly recommend linking to the handout for more information, but only after you complete the quiz below to see where you fall along the lines of traditional or invitational rhetoric.


Choose one of the options in each number. Keep track of your choices.

1) A. Humanity’s purpose is to understand others. B. Humanity’s purpose is to change others.
2) A. Audiences are allies to be included. B. Audiences are opponents to be convinced.
3) A. The position of the speaker is superior to those in the audience. B. The positions of the audience are just as legitimate as the speaker.
4) My job as a speaker is to: A. show you my way and see your way. B.  help you and show you the way.
5) A. Conversation is a means to an end. B. The means of conversation is the end.
6) In a debate: A. I am determined to persuade. B. I am willing to yield.
7) A. I am more concerned with being right than how others feel. B. I am more concerned with how others feel than that I am right.
8 ) My aim in a discussion is to: A. feel challenged. B. challenge others.
9) Success is determined when: A. others convert to my perspective. b) new ideas and options are generated that neither party had acknowledged previously.
10) My intention is to: A. transform current system. B. reinforce current system.


Answer Key: 1) AI, BT. 2) AI, BT. 3) AT, BI. 4) AI, BT. 5) AT, BI. 6) AT, BI. 7) AT, BI. 8 ) AI, BT. 9) AT, BI. 10) AI, BT. T= Traditional Rhetoric, and I=Invitational Rhetoric. Count up all your T’s and I’s and see where you fall along the line of traditional vs. invitational rhetoric. Were you surprised at your answers?

Ultimately, traditional rhetoric is rooted in a black and white worldview and rigid thinking, where the goal of conversation is to convert others to your thinking. Whereas invitational rhetoric is rooted in valuing the individual experiences of everyone and critically thinking about why there is variation in those viewpoints, where the goal of conversation is to be edified by each other. In parsing out these different perspectives it was surprising to me that so much of what Christ teaches falls along the lines of invitational rhetoric, however, the manner in which the current church functions and teaching often fits into the traditional rhetoric column.  The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty, and yet so much of church rhetoric is rooted in certainty, knowledge, and conversion. Why is that? Do you agree?

On another note, this article really challenged me to do a better job when I am in a dialogue with varying viewpoints, to see their perspective, to value their experiences, etc. It also helped validate why I like engaging in discussion in the first place and that discussion really can open up new ways of thinking. At first glance I saw the notion of invitational rhetoric as another take on the theory of relativity (i.e. cultural relativity, historical relativity, and in this case rhetorical relativity) and it was a bit unsettling because if all points are valid, then do I have to accept oppression, hate speech, or human rights abuses? Yet on closer examination Foss and Griffen conclude on exactly that point:

“Finally, invitational rhetoric provides a mode of communication for women and other marginalized groups to use in their efforts to transform systems of domination and oppression. At first glance, invitational rhetoric may seem to be incapable of resisting and transforming oppressive systems such as patriarchy because the most it seems able to do is to create a space in which representatives of an oppressive system understand a different—in this case, a feminist—perspective but do not adopt it. Although invitational rhetoric is not designed to create a specific change, such as the transformation of systems of oppression into ones that value and nurture individuals, it may produce such an outcome. Invitational rhetoric may resist an oppressive system simply because it models an alternative to the system by being ‘itself an Other way of thinking/speaking (Daly, 1978, p. xiii)—it presents an alternative feminist vision rooted in affirmation and respect and thus shows how an alternative looks and works. Invitational rhetoric thus may transform an oppressive system precisely because it does not engage the system on its own terms, using arguments developed from the system’s framework or orientation. Such arguments usually are co-opted by the dominant system (Ferguson 1984) and provide the impetus ‘to strengthen, refine, and embellish the original edifice,’ entrenching the system further (Johnson, 1989, pp. 16-17). Invitational rhetoric, in contrast, enables rhetors to disengage from the dominance and mastery so common to a system of oppression and to create a reality of equality and mutuality in its place, allowing for options and possibilities not available within the familiar, dominant framework(Foss and Griffen 1995:16-17).

Do you agree with Griffen and Foss’s concluding paragraph? How does this paragraph relate to Exponent’s recent debate about “On the Sexist Nature of Benevolent Patriarchy” by Amelia? How does this comparison between traditional and invitational rhetoric impact your discussion style?

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16 Responses

  1. I dont think either Amelias of St Marks posts were open to much debate. Both seemed to be a sort of “this is how it is, how could you possibly think otherwise” posting. Consequently, many of the discussions as responses to the posts ran along this same vein – both sides firmly entrenched and fighting to the death to keep from being moved. At least it stayed civil, if barely at times.

    That being said, there were some -very- good and open new ideas put forth, that were weighed and treated well, even if it was against the ideas of the original post.

    I, too, prefer invitational rhetoric (which is why I joined Patheos oh those years ago), and have been heartened to see the times when this occours in the discussions.

    I think the least constructive rhetoric comes from those who state their opinion as absolute truth and imply that any who disagree must be of low intelligence.

    • Whoa-man says:

      I agree…partially.

      I particularly included that concluding paragraph and related it to Amelia’s post because I felt that she was trying to explain “an Other” way by “not engage the system on its own terms, using arguments developed from the system’s framework or orientation. Such arguments usually are co-opted by the dominant system (Ferguson 1984).” I’ll let her talk for herself, but my interpretation of her exegesis was taking apart the traditional church rhetoric that equates presiding and equality and reinforces that oxymoron by “‘strengthen [ing], refin[ing] and embellish[ing] the original edifice,’ entrenching the system further (Johnson, 1989, pp. 16-17).”

    • Joanna says:

      I am needing the name of the author for this article?

  2. Corktree says:

    Great post Whoa-man! As I was reading the options in the quiz, I started to get nervous, even when my answers fell on the invitational side because I couldn’t see at first how this would allow for influencing genuine change in the world. But I like the idea presented in the quote that we need to engage in a different space and method from the dominant system in order to be heard and not co-opted. Something to really consider.

    Though I would argue that Christ wasn’t probably all that open to the views of others if he *knew* that he was right. I think his way of convincing was altogether different from the way we engage in debate today, but if he was the son of God as he claimed to be, he didn’t need to be open to other perspectives and he did come to challenge the current system. Though I suppose he also stepped outside the dominant system to do so at the time, as advocated here. Am I missing something? I do agree that the current Church falls heavily on the side of traditional rhetoric, but they don’t have the luxury of claiming to actually *be* divine and know and understand all the mysteries of the universe.

    The other thing I noticed when reading through the quiz, was how I have been working at this very thing in my personal relationships. For some reason, I have a hard time letting go of being right with people I am close to, and I’ve been trying to be as inclusive of their perspectives as I am of those I am less connected to. This offers me a new way of viewing this issue, so thank you!

    • Whoa-man says:

      Great comment, Corktree. I don’t really have any answers, but I think you bring up some good points about Christ. Maybe the problem is that his religious followers also *know* that they are right and that’s why it is okay to make black and white statements? Maybe its all a problem of semantics?

  3. Moniker Challenged says:

    Thanks for this. Question #9, option 2 neatly sums up my personal preferences. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about hanging around the bloggernacle are the new ideas that emerge when people of multiple viewpoints converge to converse respectfully, openly, and honestly. However, I don’t much enjoy an e-brawl (with the exception of Police Beat Roundtable), which seems to be the result of calls for discussion as often as not. I’m not sure if that can be fixed or if it should be fixed.

  4. Amber says:

    While all my responses indicate that I lean toward invitational rhetoric, I know I have my weaknesses. I mean, sometimes I’m JUST RIGHT, dammit. But recognizing that my initial reaction is emotional rather than reason, I do try to temper my passion. : )

    One thing I’ve noticed is the Church has taken a defensive stance, almost like they are defiantly going to keep to their old, and sometimes rotten, ways. It’s almost like reasoning with a two-year-old–their way is right and they will not let reason stand in the way of proving it. (Or maybe only my toddler is headstrong?)
    It has, unfortunately, driven me away. I can’t actively participate in a church that refuses to issue apologies over stances that were clearly in the wrong (i.e. blacks and the priesthood) or move toward more progressive doctrines (i.e. gay marriage and giving women the priesthood). It feels like certain things are not allowed to be discussed, almost like if we keep our mouths shut than we won’t question leadership as that could ultimately lead to loss of testimony. This barrier creates an atmosphere of traditional rhetoric which does not allow different opinions. Members with nontraditional views feel marginalized.

    I think that faith can be viewed as malleable. Of course it will change over time, why would God expect us, his imperfect children, to remain stagnant as our knowledge increases? I just can’t understand why faith must be synonymous–at least in Sunday school lessons I’ve attended–with absolute knowledge. There is no way, without a personal witness, a person could express a firm knowledge that God exists. They can believe it to be true, and build their life accordingly, but to equate unbelief with sin is to stop growth. I love the Jewish tradition of fighting God, based on Jacob’s (?) all night struggle with Him.

    Anyway, I think you clearly expressed an important and necessary component of discussions: recognizing and validating opposing views to encourage a lively and friendly argument.

  5. April says:

    My score was nearly half and half, perhaps because I see a place for both of these conversational styles. I’ve been to many business meetings where conversation was the only result, and I really prefer meetings where conversation is seen as a means to an end. On the other hand, I see your point about how traditional rhetoric can shut people off to new ideas.

  6. Alisa says:

    Like April, I see a place for both of these styles. If your aim is to understand the world better and to question, then absolutely invitational rhetoric is preferred. But is it wrong to want to make an impact in the world?

    Many women have been trained from childhood to have a more invitational rhetorical style than the boys and men around them. For instance, listen to how often a woman will make a statement (ending in a period) while her voice goes up as if she is asking a question. With this questioning inflection, she is revealing self-doubt and she is allowing others to question and correct what she is saying. As a result of this, she may be more open to gaining more understanding, but the other result is that she will fail to make as much of an impact as if she had inflected her statement differently.

    I guess it all comes down to whether or not you would see that women traditionally inflecting their statements so they sound like questions is a bad thing or not. I know feminists that would argue that women should not have to change their rhetorical style to be part of the dominant system and should not change the way they speak or inflect their sentences. Other feminists might argue that yes, a woman should learn to speak a statement like an actual statement would sound when a man says it and use the power of saying what she’s saying in a more defininive way.

    I would argue that in my example of the questioning inflection that women use this questioning rhetorical strategy precisely because they have been raised to do so in a male-dominant society, so that this way of speaking is in fact part of their submission and oppression. That is why I would argue that women should speak more definitively and with intention to persuade. Many of us are already well-trained to question ourselves and hear another’s point of view (particularly the male view). But many of us could use help keeping our self-doubts at bay long enough to actually formulate a thesis.

    And while I make these definitive statements, while I hope to persuade, I also am open to yielding, thus I would answer both A and B on #6. I am just using a more traditional approach of a dialectic by presenting a thesis (feminist group A) an antithesis (feminist group B) and a synthesis (my thoughts arriving from an analysis of both points). That now becomes a new thesis that can enter into a future dialectic as the conversation forms and a new antithesis comes against my thesis and eventually a synthesis emerges. This traditional pattern really isn’t meant to shut down conversation, but advance it.

    And finally, yes, I do very much enjoy the invitational rhetorical style as well. Do you find it’s best suited to oral communication?

  7. Whoa-man says:

    Alisa, brilliant comment. I agree with what you said completely. I still have some questions about how this style works when the other party is being confrontational or assertive, or when there really is something that is not okay and you need to stand up for it, etc.

    I agree that women need to communicate more directly and confidently. So often a man and a woman will say the exact same thing in the same tone, but the woman is seen as a bitch and the man is a leader. Speaking of, I taught YW about a year ago. I was guest teaching so they said I could choose the lesson. I immediately chose the lesson in the very back entitled “Leadership Communication” or something like that. I read through the lesson and was horrified. Instead of teaching actual leadership skills, it was teaching women to be compliant, docile, and agreeable. In fact, if this was taught in a YM class and no one said the title, it could have been a lesson on “How to All Get Along” NOT “Leadership.

    I guess I mainly thought that this was an important topic because I constantly see people trying to tell others how they “should” think or believe and I just want it to be clear that rigid thinking is symptomatic of one’s mental paradigm, not the reality of the world.

  8. JacobHalford says:

    The key part that is missed is that it is invitational rhetoric. Rhetoric ultimately is a persuasive device, and the aim of an invitational method of discussion is simply a way of persuading people to consider your view without being combative. Because it encourages an openness to consider alternative perspectives, rather them impose another perspective on others its a very powerful form of rhetoric. If someone comes to a conclusion and thinks that they have made the decision to think something by themselves it is more powerful then simply telling them what to think. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding one of the grandma’s tells the women that the secret to getting what you want is to make the other think that it was their idea in the first place ie. If I am wrong its better if an environment is created that helps me to discover that for myself then if someone just comes up to me and tells me that I am wrong. Invitational rhetoric simply helps others think that they came up with the idea, and respects their autonomy to think for themselves.

    When I teach GD I use a very invitational style, ultimately I hope that they will eventually conclude that the perspective that I think is the best on it is the one they also will come to the conclusion is the best but I hope that they have considered alternative perspectives even if they don’t agree with them in the end. Obviously, I am always open to changing my perspective from their perspectives, and often find my view is refined and changed as a result. Perhaps its strength is leading by example, you want the class to be open minded and consider other ways of thinking, and if you expect that then as a teacher you should be just as open-minded and considerate, and an invitational rhetoric is demonstrative of the attitude you want others to have.

  9. Anthony says:

    To what extent are the boundaries between invitational and traditional rhetoric black and white? What should someone do when the disagreement is over how disagreement should be handled?

  10. Twila says:

    I remember reading Adrienne Rich in Grad. School many years ago and thinking, yes, multiplicity that is God, that is real. All the varied experience of humanity, that is God, that is real. It resonated then and it resonates now.

    In my experience, to truly love is to let go of ego. So often, when I am convinced of my own rightness about something, it shuts me off from really connecting with people whose experience or worldview is different than my own. And, what I crave and seek is real connection with the “other”. It is easy to find that connection among like minded people, but then your sphere of experience and understanding becomes more narrow rather than expansive. I want to remain open. Because that is where, I believe, more truth is available.

    I loved the article. It gives me a good practical model for practicing what I have been feeling and struggling to do for a very long time. Thank you.

  1. September 22, 2011

    […] hurt feelings, and anger that often take over those kinds of discussions. Go read about it here. Permanent Link   Comments […]

  2. February 14, 2012

    […] resource I found that discussed invitational rhetoric was pretty nondescript – mentioning the benefits […]

  3. May 14, 2013

    […] So, invitational rhetoric doesn’t force audience to follow their point of view and leave them what they think about an issue. I found an interesting article about traditional versus invitational rhetoric ( […]

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