Gaining distance from the public uproar by understanding rhetoric

Something I’m learning as I deal with my fears of Trump, climate change, and the possible dying of liberal democracy and organized middle-of-the- road religion, is the value of looking back at beginnings or earlier stages. Margaret MacMillan in her book The Uses and Abuses of History reminds us that how we understand history has to do with which beginning point we choose. For example, to understand the current Middle East, does one go back to pre-Israeli Palestine’s political situation, or to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 or the Six Day War of 1967? And when, exactly, did the conflicts in the Balkans begin? She is certainly right.

But Mark Thompson, president and CEO of the New York Times Corp., in Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics, helps us understand the current rhetoric of politics through the lens of Aristotle’s analysis of rhetoric. Pulling back in this way from the morning’s news reports is remarkably soothing. Distance reduces the senses of threat and anxiety, and gives one leisure to look at things carefully and calmly. For example, he says, there has been a loss in England and America since the Second World War, of that style of political speech which knew to match ethos with pathos. Applying Aristotle’s understanding of ethos to our times, he says it refers to the public’s sense of the speaker: the speaker has a reputation, a history in the society, and enough is known about him or her for the general public to determine where he or she fits in with their lives. Pathos refers to the public’s sense of who they are, how their history and culture have got them to this time, what their commonly-held values and social graces have been, and how their stories compose life. The successful rhetor will be the one who can match his or her ethos with the local pathos, so that he/she and the public can sing together in tune. He suggests that in these later days people are unlikely to have a sense of a politician’s ethos (by contrast, one knew a great deal about Churchill over a long period of time). And it is more difficult to find that pathos, particularly the explicit memory of commonly held values and social grace because there is so very much and rapid change among those values, and absence of grace itself and of the graces.

He writes about the common use of the enthymeme which goes directly to the listener’s head and/or heart. The enthymeme¸ unlike the full dialectic, does not permit the listener to learn the full and complete thought of the speaker; the speaker hints where his/her speech might go, but leaves it to the listener to fill in the rest. For example, a British parliamentarian spoke approvingly about the recent conviction of a murderer of a child. The speaker refers also to the fact that the murderer had seventeen children and had lived on the dole all his life, but the speaker forebore to address the possibilities that those facts related to the murder itself. By withholding complete thoughts on the latter subjects, the speaker invites the listener to provide his or her own reflections on the dole and having many children, and avoids responsibility for those thoughts. I recognize that rhetorical style, seeing it often, but I haven’t perceived that it is technique. I had always thought it to be an illustration of the speaker’s inadequate thinking. I doubt that Trump (or some Canadian politicians) is sophisticated enough to knowingly employ a rhetorical technique as such; nonetheless the effects are sometimes potent in two ways: one is frustrating the listener’s desire to have the whole thought completed; the other is inciting angry behaviour. I find some help in being able to stand back from this type of speech which reaches directly into my mind or heart.

I have a favourite take-away from this study of political language — the rhetorical situation aporia. (It is a Latinized term of a Greek original meaning “without passage.”) It refers to the moment when the rhetor realizes that he or she is speaking from a position which is untenable, but cannot at the moment think of a better construct. I suppose that Trump’s defense of inaccurate information that “he had been given that fact,” is an example. I think he spends a great deal of time in aporia, hence the bombast and accusations rather than more informed responses to criticisms.
Probably no politician or other public speaker can afford to admit being stuck there, but it lessens my sense of tension when watching or listening to Trump, to be able to name that moment when I see it happen. Personally, I have during discussions found myself about to say something but realized that what the other person just said made totally useless what I was now about to say. Experiencing that aporia assures me that I am actually listening to the other person.
And getting past that aporia restores informed consent to my thought about my speech, which also provides great comfort.