Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

red concave bar 1

The Eclipse of Character

Character measured by known virtues like honesty and doing good works was a huge concern for classical thinkers. Why do we now find the carnival barkers in our midst more worthy of our time? 

It seems like a paradox that, amidst sufficient information to draw conclusions about the quality of a public person’s character, vast segments of the American public are unable or unwilling to notice disqualifying flaws. To be sure, humans can be taken in by scoundrels in any era. From Professor Harold Hill to Bernard Madoff, the charlatan  “on the make” is a distinct American type. Among many others, historian Daniel Boorstin was especially vivid in chronicling American hustlers with a  gift for self-promotion but a tenuous grasp on the Truth. Even when serious flaws of character become known, many of us have an incapacity to see them. Indifference also seems to be the norm, even when we will pay a deep price for believing fraudulent claims. It was so for citizens of New York’s 3d congressional district, who trusted George Santos . Years ago folks in Wisconsin fell for the the same kind of destructive character in the person of Senator Joe McCarthy. And it many be worse now; Congress has an entire “chaos caucus” of loquacious but slow thinkers.

What thoughts are reflected in those enthusiastic faces we see planted behind felonious candidates at their political rallies? Why do persons with the cultural tools to sense the mendacity of others still fail to act react appropriately? Clearly many of the nation’s collective woes are due to widespread indifference to signs indicating that a person should not be trusted to lead.

short black line

There is a useful thought-experiment here to puzzle out why traditional virtues of character have withered in the public sphere.

Our public reasoning has become inverted. Incredibly, every new formal accusation brought against former President Trump has produced a new levels of support, as if we were talking about parking tickets rather than civil convictions for a sexual assault and tax fraud. The ostensible ‘bad news’ that in more sober times would have disqualified a leader now seems to boomerang. It is not just the shabby spews of ad hominem attacks from Trump that have given our public life an Alice in Wonderland aspect. We can find similar lapses of judgment in other leaders in business and the arts.

The word itself now seems like an antique, but virtue actually has a long history in the classical world representing the general idea of a good person.


Giants in western philosophy such as Aristotle (b. 384 B.C.) and Cicero (b. 106 B.C.) have explored the subjects of the virtuous and the good. They are mentioned here because—among their many interests—both were rhetoricians interested in how audiences react in the presence of those who would influence them. For Aristotle, a good person had high ethos, meaning a person was known for virtues that included prudence, sense of justice, temperance, and courage. Their known strengths preceded them. Persons known to be burdened with the baggage of low credibility (meaning an indifference to the Truth, or ways to test it) were seen as lacking high ethos. Having the virtue of good character is reflected in Aristotle’s famous dictum that “character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.”

Cicero noted much the same regarding basic morality, arguing that virtue was “the habit of the mind which makes us consistent in doing good.” If this seems too wooly, think of the doctrines in most faith traditions that require engaging in acts of service to others. Or consider the exemplary lives of Americans such as Martin Luther King, Madeleine Albright or Fred Rogers.

Aristotle’s ethical standards for an able advocate included the capacity for reasoning accurately, awareness of what is appropriate to a situation, and the mastery of language. Add Cicero’s recommendations that people worthy of our support cultivate goodwill, kindness, and benevolence. These ideas aren’t alien to us, but we seem lost in the maw of popular media that can distract us from sorting the honorable from the self-promoters.

There’s another an important twist here. In our era we tend to plant false flags that affirm loyalty to certain individuals, mistaking an act of continuous devotion as its own kind of moral absolute.  Interestingly, both philosophers centered their discussions of communication ethics on the agent. Neither had much to say about loyalty as a core virtue: a revealing fact, given the high status we now give to a person who is—not infrequently—totally devoted to an ethically flawed person. Many seem to have developed a withered form of ethics based on a fixed allegiance. What remains is more transactional, and based more on the personal rewards of a settled mind set. Put another way, we make fewer demands that others be “virtuous,” settling instead on their believability. In this realm, public figures with social capital matter more rather than those with integrity. Indeed, a person’s notoriety may be their chief asset in dominating a cultural space.

Perhaps we no longer want to be put to the test of thoughtfully assessing a person’s character. Our awareness of others outside our immediate circle is often nominal and impressionistic. If Aristotle thought the high ethos of a person was set prior to their appearance, we  tend to construct our truncated version of it on the spot. Vetting by using the standards of logic and evidence requires more effort than we are willing to give.

black bar

cropped Revised square logo


red concave bar 1

In Defense of “Context”

In general, dullards think in binaries; trained experts will be far more interested in contextual variables.

It made good congressional theater to nail three Ivy League college presidents on a question of how they would manage verbal threats against Jews. The standard response now is that they prevaricated when they should have been unequivocal. Asked during the hearing whether suggesting the genocide of Jews was against their policies prohibiting harassment, Harvard’s Claudine Gay replied, “It can be, depending on the context.” But as she later noted, she should have returned to her “guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard and will never go unchallenged.”

Gay missed the opportunity to make a clearer definitive statement against racism. But the presidents were not wrong to explicitly suggest the need for defining the contexts in which threats against others are spoken. There is a long tradition in the United States to treat overheated rhetoric against another group as unfortunate but mostly tolerated. We tolerate blather but not violent behavior. Courts in the country have rarely agreed on what constitutes “fighting words,” and whether they are legally actionable. In each case that has come before a federal court context mattered.

Peer societies like France have more stringent norms against “inciting hatred” that would have muzzled rhetorical provocateurs like Donald Trump years ago. His constant efforts to incite violence against reporters, election officials and politicians opposing him would have crossed the line. But Americans have tolerated Trump’s rhetoric because many view his taunts as the mostly harmless ravings of a man-child.  In some ways his abusive rhetoric is treated with the same kind of indifference American legislators have shown toward gun laws.

The three Ivy League presidents put on the hot seat by a New York Congresswoman were doing what academics are trained to do by trying to deconstruct a broad and panoramic question by considering contextual variables. For example, it is a credit to our culture and campuses that we usually do not send in goon squads to arrest a fiery orator. On my own campus I’ve seen visiting Christian evangelists single out and taunt a single Muslim woman in a hijab, with no interruption from the authorities on site. Should the campus police have stopped the hurtful hurangues of the speakers? Maybe. But I’m glad they let the crowd react with suitable anger.

Context Matters.

The same process is replicated by any trained specialist that is ready to face the messy externals that make any bald claim inaccurate. For example, the description of a dreaded disease to a hapless patient should come with a whole range of scenarios based on the particulars of a person’s case and recent past. A weather prediction similarly comes with a backstory that includes the specific meteorological conditions that are shaping what may happen. And it is obvious that a good biography of a key figure will always include carefully researched details that makes some authors rethink their initial  infatuation with their subject.

Too many members of Congress have perfected the “gotcha question.” But it is inconceivable that a scholar would not have an extended trail of qualifiers to amend a simple panoramic judgment. Their impulse would be to “unpack” the assumptions embedded in a question and wonder if there is a better formulation.  Nitpicking?  Not at all.  Any query suggesting a blanket prohibition of speech needs to be carefully considered.

To be sure, we clearly like the theater of take-no-prisoners questions. That is how television’s Perry Mason kept us riveted for over a decade. But life is complex. Even moral assertions have their limits. If we bother to notice, behaviors are usually more nuanced than our utterances about them. And so, it should not surprise us that the three academics wanted to explain themselves as if they were in a seminar. To be sure, they clearly picked the wrong “universe of discourse” for the setting they were in. They paid the price of having their thoughts reduced to soundbites that made them look equivocal. But it is useful to remember that all of this unfolded in what has become an alien place: a tarnished institution that has abandoned honest curiosity for the  low arts of deprecation and vituperation. It is clear that academics often have a higher standard of discourse that requires amendments, exceptions, genuine questions, and a willingness to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time.

short black line

Revised square logo