Sometimes in our training seminars I get questions from our participants about the ethics of rhetoric. Especially when their gut feeling tells them to disagree with a certain speaker but their mind can’t find the arguments to do so. They get caught in a fight between their emotion (pathos) and their ratio (logos). They feel they are being manipulated into agreeing with something their heart tells them to disagree with. For instance when we analyze the speech ‘The gun as the best instrument for peace and stability’ by Peter van Uhm. Such is the convincing power of strong rhetoric.
But with great power comes great responsibility.The exceptional power of a well built up and skillfully put together argument is so strong that the user has the responsibility to use it with care. Here are some of the ethical elements of rhetoric we need to consider:
The power to mislead
Why do we believe someone? Can we artificially create source credibility (ethos)? Yes we can! So does this mean we can be steered wrong and can we knowingly or unknowingly mislead others? Yes we can! And so we must proceed with care. At the time he delivered it Chamberlains speech ‘Peace in our time’, was considered to be a masterful and strong piece of communication. Not only had he tamed Adolf Hitler, his speech on return during which he showed the paper with the signature of Adolf Hitler helped to cement the idea that he had indeed achieved ‘Peace in our time’. So did Hitler mislead Chamberlain? Absolutely! But did Chamberlain really mislead the British people? That question is harder to answer. To mislead implies an intent and it is highly doubtful that Chamberlain willingly steered the British people in the wrong direction, but with the benefit of hindsight there is a case to be made.
The importance of being authentic
We all know that ‘uncomfortable’ feeling when a speaker does not believe what he or she is saying. On the contrary when you stay close to your own style and remain authentic your message gets much stronger. That is how Ronald Reagan earned the nickname ‘the Great Communicator’. So if you are an introvert, do not try to speak like Obama. If your core strength is a managerial style and strong logos (Reinfeldt) do not try to come across in a debate as someones best friend. Stay close to your true style, remain authentic and strengthen what you are good at, instead of trying to achieve something that you are not good at. Even if your audience agrees with you at a rational level they will ‘feel’ something is of when you are not being authentic.
Theater vs Public Speaking
I often get the question if public speaking is not just theater, and –if so- that is not misleading. My answer is that public speaking is indeed a form of theater. But you are not playing a scripted role of a different person. You are playing the best communicator you can be. You must be authentic in your emotion but this does not mean you can not give ‘a performance’; you must be authentic as a person bust this does not mean you can’t act the most appropiate version of yourself and you must be open for interaction but this does not mean you should not prepare. Every business meeting, every speech and every encounter is a possibility to create a relation ship. And in order to get the most out of that relationship you must prepare. That is not manipulation, that is what we call strategic communication!
There are more elements to consider such as master suppression techniques (härskartekniken) and other ethical considerations. For the StIPS that question also includes the question ‘with whom do we work’? Because although we do not align ourselves with one political party or view we will not use our skills, competences and knowledge to strengthen the message of those who preach hatred, intolerance and xenophobia.
Because we believe that rhetoric is not like Plato said ‘the art of ruling the minds of men‘ but in the words of the English writer Mary Astell ‘the design that removes prejudices that lie in the way of truth‘.
Ruben Brunsveld (VD StIPS)
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