Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Rhetorical Leadership and Transferable Lessons for Successful Social Advocacy in Al Gore's an Inconvenient Truth

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Rhetorical Leadership and Transferable Lessons for Successful Social Advocacy in Al Gore's an Inconvenient Truth

Article excerpt

Al Gore's 2006 film about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, met with great popular and critical success. The film weaves together the story of Gore's early conversion and lifelong commitment to environmental issues as the unifying theme of his long political career and a presentation of Gore's standard fact-filled, deliberative lecture on the veracity and dangers of climate change. This political documentary's lifetime gross earnings make it the third highest ranked film in its class to date ("Documentary--Political, 1982-Present," n.d.). The film was widely shown free of charge at churches and schools around the country and garnered high marks in critical reviews on Internet sites that rate and discuss popular films. An Inconvenient Truth's critical recognitions included a 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for Gore for the attention he drew to this global crisis, and being named one of Advertising Age's three winners for top marketing and advertising efforts in 2006 (Ryan, 2007). For argument scholars, however, the film's rhetorical success as an instance of social advocacy that successfully galvanized ordinary people to take action and become advocates themselves is its related, but more interesting achievement.

A personal conversion response is evident at the conclusion of Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert's (2006) review of An Inconvenient Truth. He wrote:

In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to. Am I acting as an advocate in this review? Yes, I am. I believe that to be "impartial" and "balanced" on global warming means one must take a position like Gore's. There is no other view that can be defended.... What can we do? Switch to and encourage the development of alternative energy sources: Solar, wind, tidal, and yes, nuclear. Move quickly toward hybrid and electric cars. Pour money into public transit, and subsidize fares. Save energy in our houses. I did a funny thing when I came home after seeing "An Inconvenient Truth." I went around the house turning off the lights. (para. 14-16)

Similarly, Australian writer Dave Hoskin (2007) said he initially expected An Inconvenient Truth to be in the same class as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Outfoxed, "essentially provincial left-wing stories for a provincial left-wing audience" (p. 46). Instead Hoskin came away converted:

Although international liberals may applaud the fact that Gore is trying to raise awareness of the issue, it's hard to escape the assumption that he will be telling us something we already know. Certainly I'll admit that when I bought my ticket for An Inconvenient Truth I was sceptical that Al Gore was really going to change how I thought about global warming. I was wrong. I now believe that An Inconvenient Truth is the most important film that anyone will see this year.... Faced with such a vivid wake-up call, it's infuriating to realize just how politicized the issue has been allowed to become, with the argument over belief having crowded far more important items off the agenda. (p. 46)

The fact that An Inconvenient Truth was criticized for some minor factual inaccuracies did not undermine its persuasive appeal. This unusual film ignited political discussion, social commitment, and personal conversion among the skeptical and usually apathetic, not just the true believers.

The purpose of this paper is to systematically analyze and evaluate the transferable rhetorical techniques that make the film a motivating, radiating act of social advocacy. I use familiar concepts from the public speaking and persuasion tradition as well as from Kenneth Burke to abstract and explain the successful operation of reproducible rhetorical applications to prompt individual change that does not rest on, but can contribute to demanding, top-down policy change. …

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