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Monday, October 5, 2020

Aristotle on rhetoric #1 - ethos

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was one of the greatest philosophers of Ancient Athens, if not of all time. His published work covers science, literature, morality and politics. The book of his that is most relevant to debaters is
The Art of Rhetoric. Rhetoric - the art of persuasion, which is what debating is all about - was a vital part of life in Ancient Athens, as public policy was decided in massive assemblies to which all (male, non-slave) citizens were invited. There was a thriving industry of instructors in rhetoric. Aristotle was the best in the business, and his insights into how to persuade people are as relevant now as they were 2,300 years ago. In this series of posts, we’ll be looking at some of the key ideas from The Art of Rhetoric, and how you might use them to improve your debating. 

The first idea is ethos. It means how the audience to a speech feel about the person who is giving it.

‘I believe her.’


‘I don’t know, I just do.’

‘But why? Did she give you reasons to believe her?’

‘It’s not about the reasons.’

‘Then why do you believe her?’

‘Because I just trust her, that’s why.’

How often have you had that conversation? Or at least that thought?

Debating is about getting people to believe you, but this belief is meant to be based on reason, logic and evidence. Provided the arguments are good, it doesn’t matter who makes them; to think otherwise is to fall into the ad hominem fallacy (attacking or supporting the person, not the idea).

But … we all know it isn’t really like that. Of course we are influenced by who’s talking, by how they come across, by what we think of them. Some people could make you believe night is day; other people could tell you the sun rose this morning and you still wouldn’t believe them.

This is what Aristotle calls ethos. It means the audience’s reaction to the person who is speaking. It matters a lot, and that is why he considers it accounts for at least a third of the persuasive force of any speech.

We can break ethos down into four parts:

1. Status: what authority does the person speaking hold, and how do they hold it? What impact will this have on how much the audience trusts them / wants to listen to them?

2. Identity: to which section of society do they belong? What impact will this have on how much the audience trusts them / wants to listen to them?

3. Setting: when and where are they giving the speech? What impact will this have on how much the audience trusts them / wants to listen to them?

4. Personality: what sort of person are they (or do they appear to be)? What impact will this have on how much the audience trusts them / wants to listen to them?

Let’s take some famous speeches and see how we can apply this analysis to them.

First, Barack Obama's speech on November 4th, 2008, the night he was elected President of the United States for the first time. We analysed the rhetorical techniques he uses in an earlier post, but let’s think here what difference it made that it was Barack Obama saying the words and not someone else. Why would people be listening to him with particular attention and faith in his words?

1. Status

He has just been elected as President of the United States, arguably the most powerful position in the world. This means a/ millions of American people chose to give him this immense power b/ he will soon be able to exercise this power. So, we want to listen to him because a/ we respect his mandate b/ we want to know what he is going to do with it.

2. Identity

He is the first black person ever to have been elected President of the United States, a country that was founded on the enslavement of millions of black people. Simply by virtue of his racial identity, he represents a unique historical moment. This in itself is inspiring and incentivises us to listen to him. (Unfortunately, there were - and are - some people in America who found it impossible to accept a black person in a position of power, and would refuse to listen to Obama for the exact same reason of his racial identity.)

3. Setting 

The speech has been timed to be given at midnight: the first minute of a new day, symbolising a new beginning for America. It is given in Chicago, the city where Obama has spent most of his adult life, and where he has a considerable following. And he makes sure that  the American flag, representing American identity, is very visible in the background.

4. Personality

Even Obama’s critics and opponents would accept that he is blessed with considerable charm and that he comes across as a warm, approachable, trustworthy person. This inevitably makes it easier to believe what he says.

Now, let’s look at Greta Thunberg’s speech to the United Nations on climate change on September 23rd, 2019. While Obama’s 2008 speech was very much in celebratory mode, aiming to make people feel optimistic about the future, Thunberg is here issuing a dark warning of what may happen if her listeners do not take urgent action. How does ethos work in her speech?

1. Status

On the surface, she has very little status. She is a sixteen year old schoolgirl from Sweden. Compared to the President of the United States, she has virtually no power. However, though she has no formal political authority, what she does have is moral authority. Her brave, principled stand has led her to be respected around the world, and has brought her invitations to the centres of power, such as the United Nations.

2. Identity

Again, she seems unremarkable compared to Obama. She’s just an ordinary schoolgirl, like millions of others. But that is precisely where her strength lies; in her very ordinariness. By seeming ordinary, she gives the message that fighting climate change is not something that should be left to powerful people, but should rather be undertaken by ordinary people - by all of us.

3. Setting

While Obama looks and feels completely at home speaking to a huge crowd in Chicago, she looks out of place. What is this schoolgirl doing speaking in the vast and powerful setting of the United Nations? But that is exactly the point. The very incongruity between the speaker and the setting points up the paradox: an ordinary schoolgirl talks more sense than all these world leaders with their armies of advisers. This paradox highlights the failure of those in power to deal with climate change.

4. Personality

Greta Thunberg is a person of very little guile; she says what she thinks, and what you see is what you get. This greatly increases the power of her message, because it is associated with sincerity and truth against the evasions and double talk of those in power.

Lastly, let’s look at a speech which, while it may not be the finest example of rhetoric ever, is certainly one of the most consequential ever given by a British Prime Minister. When Boris Johnson spoke to the British people on March 23rd, 2020 to announce a comprehensive national lockdown as a response to the spread of the coronavirus, he instantly changed the lives of every single person in the country in the most profound way, both then and for many months afterwards. How did he come across?

1. Status 

He is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the head of the government, so we have to listen to him telling us what to do because he is able to make us do it. In practice, Prime Ministers have much less power than you (or they) might think, and their speeches are often more about what they would like to happen rather than about what is actually going to happen. In this case, however, the national emergency meant that the Prime Minister had an unusual amount of power.

2. Identity

Boris Johnson was educated at Eton College and Oxford, two of the most elite (and expensive) institutions in Britain. He speaks with an accent associated with the English upper class. Maybe none of these things should matter, but they do. For some people they are a reason to turn against him, for others to respect him. At this moment in history, when people were frightened and confused, the sense of entitlement to rule often associated with his kind of background was probably more of a reassurance than otherwise.

3. Setting

He is inside 10 Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister. It is more usual for Prime Ministers to speak to the nation from the street outside, but this setting says that he is on the inside of government, that he is in charge and is getting on with the job. It also reinforces the key message that we too must all stay indoors to prevent the spread of the virus. He is sitting behind a desk, a statement of distance and authority. The Union Jack can be seen behind him, an expression of national identity, saying that we as a nation are united, and that he represents that nation. And he’s actually combed his hair, which he doesn’t normally do; things must be serious.

4. Personality

Boris Johnson’s normal personality - or at least the personality he chooses to project - is that of a jovial joker, who doesn’t take anything too seriously, but can get things done just by being upbeat and positive about them. None of this is appropriate for a national emergency in which thousands of the people for whom he is responsible are about to die from a virus for which there is, at the time of his speech, no vaccine. So you can almost see him physically restraining himself, keeping his facial expression serious, his tone sombre, his language clear and decisive; the stumbling, stammering, wisecracking image he has used to such effect in the past is firmly locked away for the duration.

How does all of this apply to schools debating? You’re not a President or a Prime Minister; you might well be a sixteen year old schoolgirl, but you’re not Greta Thunberg. You’re most likely speaking, not at a mass rally, or at the United Nations, or from Downing Street, but in an untidy classroom at the end of school, surrounded by discarded hockey sticks and Maths books. None the less, a skilful use of ethos can still help you to persuade the judge and thus win you the debate.

1. Status

Remember that, for the few minutes in which you are speaking, you have the highest status in the room, over the other debaters, over the judges, even over the teachers. Everyone has to listen to you,  whether they like it or not. Yes, the other side can make points of information, but it is entirely up to you whether you take them or not. You are in control. So act and speak like someone people should listen to, because that is who you are.

2. Identity

The important thing to remember here is that the identity you adopt during a debate is not the same as your actual identity. In this respect, debating has a lot in common with acting; you have to inhabit an identity which is not yours. And, just as with acting, the more fully you enter into that identity, the more convincing you will be. Sometimes this will mean you have to assume an identity you personally find repugnant. You might be an out gay person who finds themselves maintaining that gay couples are not fit people to adopt children; you might have to deny a significant part of your  cultural or family heritage to argue on one side or the other in the Israel-Palestine conflict; you might be a devout Catholic or Muslim who must make the case for abortion rights. But for those few minutes, you have to enter totally into that unfamiliar identity. The more convincingly you do this - the more the judges believe that you believe what you are saying - the more likely you are to win the debate.

Another thing: one identity all debaters must assume is that of the expert. Even if you have only been thinking about the debate topic for the fifteen minutes you had to prepare it, and know little and care less about it, you must make it seem as if you have dedicated your whole life to the study of proportional representation, car free city centres or the universal basic income, and that no one on earth knows more than you about this vital issue. 

3. Setting

If you’ve managed to qualify for the final of the Oxford Union or Cambridge Union debating competitions, you will find yourself debating in a magnificent Gothic setting, deliberately designed to replicate the House of Commons. Most of the time, though, you’ll be in a classroom that looks and smells like a room does when a hundred teenagers have recently passed through it. 

You can’t change the room. But you can change how you position yourself within it. If you can, go to the head of the table to speak. Own the space; spread yourself and your notes over it. Use assertive body language: stand upright, with your legs apart, and your hands visible (though not too active, as this may be distracting). Make eye contact with the people in the room, one after another, but giving special priority to the judges. Project your voice, but don’t shout. Vary your tone and pace. Use index cards, but look at them as little as possible. Act like you are the centre of attention, and deserve to be. Because you are, and you do.

4. Personality

As with identity, you do not have to - perhaps are best advised not to - deploy your actual personality. Some of the best debaters are in fact deeply shy people who find public speaking terrifying. Other debaters are gentle, conciliatory people, who hate disagreement in their personal lives. In both cases, they have to leave their real personality outside the door of the debating chamber.

Which personality you adopt depends on the motion. If you are speaking for the proposition in a motion to change the status quo, you need to come across as an optimistic, upbeat person who has faith that humanity will one day be living in the broad, sunlit uplands of hope if only we make all school lunches vegetarian. If you are speaking for the opposition in the same debate, opposing change, you will need to become a person who is cautious, wise and protective, and cares deeply about the suffering that will be caused to young people if burgers are banished. If you are arguing for a change that will address a perceived injustice, you need to assume the personality of a dedicated campaigner, fired up by righteous anger at the monstrosity that is school uniform, homophobic language or homework. As with identity, it’s all about acting.

To sum up: although in theory ethos, in Aristotle’s sense of how the audience regard the speaker, should be irrelevant in debating, judges are still human and are bound to be influenced by how you present yourself. So it is worth paying some attention to how you come across, as well as to what you say.

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