Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Rhetoric of Now 3: Ethos (George Tenet edition!)

This is the third entry in "The Rhetoric of Now," my series on how we can change our current political climate by understanding and employing concepts from the rhetorical tradition. The first entry was on stasis or framing of questions; the second was on kairos or rhetorical time. This entry will be on ethos.

Let's start with something George Tenet said on 60 Minutes this past weekend:
You know, at the end of the day, the only thing you have is trust and honor in this world. It's all you have. All you have is your reputation built on trust and your personal honor. And when you don't have that anymore, well, there you go.
George Tenet is a Greek American. I'm not sure how these concepts -- honor, integrity, reputation -- would be expressed in modern Greek. But in ancient Greek rhetoric, they all lead toward the crucial rhetorical concept of ethos: character, reputation, trustworthiness.

At some point in your education, you may have heard the term ethos, probably accompanied by its constant companions logos and pathos. But what do they mean? These three terms are what Aristotle called pisteis, or means of securing persuasion. Here's how Aristotle lays them out in the Rhetoric, Book 1, Chapter 2. (I'll highlight the parts about ethos).
Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses. Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile. It is towards producing these effects, as we maintain, that present-day writers on rhetoric direct the whole of their efforts. This subject shall be treated in detail when we come to speak of the emotions. Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.

Roughly speaking, ethos, or character, is a term used for arguments that rely "on the personal character of the speaker." Pathos, or emotion, is used for arguments that depend on "putting the audience into a certain frame of mind." Logos, or reason, is used for arguments where the proof is found in the words themselves. And so we speak of logical proof, ethical proof, and pathetic proof. (I'll deal with pathos in a future post, and logos over several entries -- including the intriguing notion of "apparent proof." But it's worth pointing out that in rhetoric, saying an argument is pathetic doesn't mean it's bad; it only means that it relies on eliciting emotion.) So when Tenet complains about having had his trust, honor, reputation sullied, he's talking about what has happened to his ethos.

George Tenet has written a memoir about his work at the CIA. The book has been trashed by everybody from the astute (Larry Johnson et al.) to the insane (Christopher Hitchens). Yesterday I listened, twice, to Tenet's interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air, and I almost felt sorry for the guy. In less than an hour, Tenet had to engage in an impossible amount of dissembling, backtracking, hair-splitting, and goalpost-shifting. Every interview he gives, his digs a little more deeply into his own grave.

What's happened to his ethos? And why does Tenet seem to think he can salvage it in a memoir of this sort (along with the interviews)? It might be helpful to know that there are two kinds of ethos. One is articulated in the Aristotle quote above; this is the ethos deriving from "the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible." When the speech is so spoken -- this is ethos, in other words, understood purely as a product of discourse.

Let me give an example. Of all the 120,000 registered users on Daily Kos, only a few have met me personally. When I post something on Daily Kos, and people there read it, they have to make a number of decisions about it based, in part, on how my writing allows them to imagine my character. Do I seem trustworthy? Do I seem fair? Whenever you read, you have to imagine a person who wrote those words and ascribe intention to that person. Probably the person you make up, the person you mentally construct out of these words, has something like a psychological consistency. Much as in the classic Turing test, you have to make up the person on the other end of the screen.

Rhetorically, I can construct an effective, trustworthy ethos in many ways. For example:
  • I can treat my sources respectfully.
  • I can write in a way that assumes you're intelligent.
  • I can be consistent in the way I treat friends and adversaries.
  • I can do my homework and not spout off without thinking.

Constructing an ethos of this sort is a never-ending task. My students in writing classes sometimes misunderstand this; they say, "I'm going to add some ethos to my paper." My response is to say, "no, no; your writing always has ethos. It's your choice whether that ethos indicates someone readers want to trust or not."

Aristotle is concerned that ethos exists only within texts. (Note: I'm using "text" here to mean both oral and written discourse. The ancients assumed that rhetoric was the art of oratory, but rhetoric became much more concerned with writing in the last few centuries -- and is currently expanding to treat visual and multimedia formats.) With Tenet, he seems to think that every speech is a new chance. And certainly the door to recovering a damaged ethos is rarely shut entirely. But Aristotle's view is challenged by later writers, such as Cicero and Quintilian, who argue that the orator must be a good person. (Clearly, this view was already present in Aristotle's time, or else Aristotle would not have to argue against it. Also, it's worth mentioning that the Roman orators didn't use the Greek term ethos,)

In Book XII, Chapter 1 of the Institutes of Oratory, Quintilian writes that "I not only say that he who would answer my idea of an orator must be a good man, but that no man, unless he be good, can ever be an orator." He goes on:

A good man, doubtless, will speak of what is true and honest with greater frequency, but even if, from being influenced by some call of duty, he endeavors to support what is fallacious (a case which, as I shall show, may sometimes occur), he must still be heard with greater credit than a bad man. But with bad men, on the other hand, dissimulation sometimes fails, as well through their contempt for the opinion of mankind as through their ignorance of what is right. Hence, they assert without modesty and maintain their assertions without shame, and in attempting what evidently cannot be accomplished, there appears in them a repulsive obstinacy and useless perseverance, for bad men, as well in their pleadings as in their lives, entertain dishonest expectations. It often happens that even when they speak the truth, belief is not accorded them, and the employment of advocates of such a character is regarded as a proof of the badness of a cause.

Why is Tenet having such a hard time fixing his reputation? To put it another way, why is all his writing and speaking insufficient? Because he seems to think that the ethos of the speaker is created anew every time he speaks. This is an Aristotelian view. In the real world, however -- which in this regard, at least, Quintilian seems to understand better -- Tenet's endless explanations display "a repulsive obstinacy and useless perseverance."

Thanks, by the way, to those who have encouraged me to press on with this series despite the limited response. I seem to have quickly developed a small but eager readership, for which I'm quite grateful.


Nathan Rich said...

It seems that everybody comments on this over at Daily Kos, so I just thought I'd let you know that this series has caused me to bookmark your blog and check it daily.

Hermagoras said...


Welcome aboard! It's nice to have some readers. I think with this series I've found something worth blogging about. I'll be happy to build a readership one reader at a time.


David said...

Hi Dan,

If it wasn't the end of the year I'd be using your three rhetoric entries for all of my classes. As it is, I'm only able to forward them with enthusiasm to friends and colleagues.


Hermagoras said...

Hi David,

Thanks! (My name is David as well, not Dan, by the way. The problems of pseudo-anonymity.) I appreciate the comment.

I'll try to pull together a number of posts over the summer. Maybe some people will use them for classes in the Fall.