Welcome to Kairoticast – a podcast about rhetoric, current events, and how big ideas play out in our daily lives. Our goal at Kairoticast is to look at how rhetoric functions in the real world. We’re going to be speaking about some things that rhetoric scholars think about but trying to show how this isn’t just some navel-gazing, but how these ideas actually work.
So, while the appeal might initially be to people who know and work in rhetoric because they know the lingo, we’re hoping to take these ideas to some people outside of the regular scholarly audience. Because these ideas aren’t helpful if they just stay stuck inside a tightly knit group of experts. So if you know a lot about rhetoric, I hope you see how we can take our ideas and make them useful. If all of this sounds weird and foreign to you, then this is really FOR you. If you’ve ever taken a class or read a book or even seen somebody tweet and thought “Now how on earth is that a useful subject/discipline/major?” that’s what we’d like to address.
So first, let’s explain ourselves – we’ve named ourselves after an old concept – kairos. Kairos has a long history in rhetoric (and we’ll probably spend a whole podcast in the future just talking about what RHETORIC is), but kairos was especially important to the Sophists, who you may not know about unless you’re a student of rhetoric. The Sophists were kind of itinerant rhetoricians thousands of years ago. They were really controversial for a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason was that part of their working philosophy was that the truth is basically what you can convince people of (that’s a pretty big generalization, but we’re speaking in broad strokes here). Kairos is part of that philosophy. In simple terms Kairos is saying the right thing at the right time. You are most persuasive, or even a truth-creator, by recognizing the appropriate response to the singular circumstance – it’s all contextual.
And that’s kind of what we’re going to be looking at – the contexts in which we find ourselves. We’re going to be looking a lot at current events, current issues, and the discourse in which we find ourselves. So we’re going to be analyzing some politics and some current events and talking about how people are responding to their situations. That’s our plan. We hope you’ll join us and give us some feedback.
So today we’re going to be talking about press conferences!
You may have noticed but there have been a lot of press conferences in the last few weeks. Press conferences have become really important in the age of COVID. A lot of state leaders have been having regular meetings with the press, and the President’s press conferences have had record-breaking viewership. But the responses to these press conferences have been wildly different, and I want to talk about why.
So specifically, we’re going to talk about Andrew Cuomo’s and Donald Trump’s press conferences and what makes those different. There is a lot happening in these press conferences so there is no way we could thoroughly analyze these things – they are complex creatures. But we can address some of the initial issues. So what we’re going to do is think about these press conferences as if they are each rhetorical pieces – we’re going to look at them as you might look at a speech and see what kinds of appeals and effects are happening.
Now, something that is important to understand about doing any kind of analysis of a speech or a commercial or really any piece of persuasive discourse is analysis is different from intent, and that’s something that skeptics often like to levy against those of us who think seriously about these things. Here’s what I mean by that – I might look at an argument and be like, oh, what an effective use of an enthymeme, or some other equally hard to understand, academic term. You don’t have to know what that word means for me to make my point. In no way am I saying the speaker/author sat down and said, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m gonna use a freaking enthymeme to make my point!” This is something my students often get frustrated with. We’ll analyze an argument and they’re like “Do you really think somebody ACTUALLY did this on purpose?” And I will say, “Of course.” But I don’t mean they specifically decided to use an enthymeme. But that’s different than making an intentional argument.
When we analyze an argument what we are doing is saying, look, we have observed many, many arguments and noticed some themes. People tend to make arguments in THESE WAYS. These are repetitive ways we have noticed people do things. And these are the GOOD and EFFECTIVE ways. And we’ve given them names. This has been going on for thousands of years. It started with Aristotle who categorized various kinds of arguments and we’ve been doing these things the same ways since then. So did the speaker say, “I’m gonna use an enthymeme!” No. But the speaker decided “I’m going to make an argument in a way that I know is usually and historically effective. I know this usually works.” And that happens to be an enthymeme. And so we, as those who often analyze these things, feel comfortable calling it an enthymeme because it adds to the body of knowledge we have about persuasion in general. So does analysis equal intent? No. But analysis categorizes intent and tells us why it works.
So we’re getting back to basics today: let’s talk about logos, pathos, and ethos. Aristotle said that an argument needed proofs, and there were two kinds: artistic and inartistic. Inartistic proofs were “outside” proofs – knowledge that you brought in: laws, contracts, outside witnesses – kinds of data. Artistic proofs were the proofs that the speaker provided – and Aristotle classified these as logos, pathos, and ethos.
Logos is reasoning. It’s related to our word “logic.” It’s also related to our word “logo” but that’s neither here nor there. An appeal to logos is an appeal to logic and reason. It appeals to you as a rational being. Pathos is emotional appeals. You can see that root word in our words “sympathy” and “empathy.” And appeal to pathos is an appeal to you as a feeling person. A lot of people think of appeals to emotion as a bad thing – but they’re not. It is not WRONG to appeal to people on an emotional level. That doesn’t make your argument bad. What DOES make a bad argument is SOLELY appealing to emotion – that’s manipulative. A good argument is balanced. But we are human. We have emotions. It’s totally legit to appeal to them. You know what kind of person doesn’t have emotions? Sociopaths. You’re not doing yourself any favors by making arguments that only appeal to sociopaths. Ethos is an appeal to credibility. It’s related to our word ethics. In the most technical sense an appeal to ethos is convincing your listeners that you have good character. This one may be a bit harder to understand so bear with me for a minute – an appeal to ethos is an appeal to the speaker’s credibility. And it’s important to remember than credibility is in some ways a rhetorical construction. You have to convince your readers you are worth listening to. That’s a difficult thing to figure out. Sometimes you don’t have to do much. If you are an elected official you might walk in with a bit more credibility so you don’t have to do much to convince people you are believable. But that may not convince people of your character, so you may have to do more to convince people you are honest. In a complicated way, effective use of pathos and logos can go a long way to convincing people you are believable, though those may not be appeals to ethos. So for example, if I am starting a class on the first day I may say, “hello, I am Dr. Elizabeth Thorpe, welcome to class.” And I may tell them a little about myself including that I have my PhD from Texas A&M University in Communication with a concentration in Rhetoric and Public Affairs. In a class on political rhetoric that may go a long way to enhance my credibility. If I introduce myself that way at the first PTA meeting of the year I have probably just convinced the other parents that I am an arrogant jerk. So the community you are speaking to matters a lot when it comes to showing your expertise or your character or anything like that. What is going to make you seem credible, honest, and trustworthy to THAT group in THAT situation? (Kind of going back to our Kairos idea, earlier).
This leads us back to where we started – the press conferences. If you think about the press conferences as an argument you can think about them in terms of logos, pathos, and ethos and seem some interesting differences emerge. Andrew Cuomo’s press conferences tend to follow a similar pattern every time. He begins with a very fact-driven account of what is going on in NY, he follows it up with his personal opinion on these facts, which he always notes is his personal opinion, and then he ends it with a kind of sermonic, elevated conclusion in which he looks to the future and focuses on the humanity of his audience. It’s structured, it’s organized, and it’s consistent. Andrew Cuomo has also had a lot of success with this pattern. People from all over the nation have been tuning in and he’s been seen as a voice of reason, calm, and hope to people everywhere. The Cuomo memes alone are a little ridiculous. So let’s consider what is happening in these pressers.
Cuomo begins every press conference with a combination of inartistic proof, and appeals to logos. It’s not necessarily mechanical, but each presser starts with what is rational and objective. What is interesting about this is it is not necessarily what is POSITIVE. So the calmness and the rationality don’t automatically mean things are GOOD. There’s been a lot of bad news out of NY in the past few weeks, to be honest. But it begins from a place of rationality. This is an important anchor for how Cuomo is appealing to state an national audiences. He is treating us like rational, thinking people. It is also important to note what KINDS of data is he sharing with us. He talks about the number of deaths, hospitalizations, intubations, and other indicators of state health. In other words, Cuomo makes it clear that what is important, in this rational paradigm, is health and life. Cuomo’s inartistic proofs and logical appeals focus on the importance of health and the number of people who are living and dying – this is an important point because he is using his logical proofs to make a point about values. And people like that. People who share the belief that life is valuable are going to identify with Cuomo’s arguments because his beginning point is that logically it is important to note these things are important. He will often then comment with his opinion. It may well be an obvious opinion, or an opinion that is shared by many, but he is generally careful to note that it is his opinion and not a fact. This may not be a direct appeal to ethos, but it certainly helps his credibility with those who value rationality. To begin with what is observable and proveable, and note then that his observation are simply his observations re-emphasize his position as a rational leader who understands the difference between fact and opinion.
Finally, he ends with some uplifting appeals to pathos, reminding us that we are all human, but we are all human together. He seems to be channeling his father, Mario Cuomo, in the last few minutes of his press conferences, as he tends to focus on humanity, hope, and the ties that bind us together. There is occasionally a well-selected metaphor or a moving narrative, but each presser ends with appeals to pathos that remind listeners of his, and our humanity. This is ESSENTIAL. Without this conclusion these press conferences would have been informative, but had no humanity, and humanity is an essential part of being an effective speaker (and leader). Early press conferences when the news was bad and things were looking especially dire would have been particularly bad without these optimistic conclusions reminding us of what good there was in the world – because the numbers were bleak. We needed the emotional appeals to pull us out of the depression that the appeals to logos put us into.
This brings us to appeals to ethos. It may not have been immediately obvious how Cuomo appealed to ethos, but it was woven into other appeals. He repeatedly and consistently reminded listeners he understood their frustration. He spoke about himself as a father and told stories of his mother and his daughters. He talked about missing opportunities to ride his motorcycle. He could have appealed to his authority as governor, but he didn’t need to appeal to his authority – he had established himself as an authoritative figure through his logic and his rationality. The way he showed us he was believable was by describing himself as one of us – one of the community. He established himself as trustworthy by showing himself to be both logical and human (it should be noted that trustworthiness is a big deal for Cuomo who has a long history of accusations of cronyism and corruption).
This leads us Donald Trump’s press conferences which are a very different creature. On the surface these should have been very successful – they followed a good pattern which should have made them widely popular. They began with opening statements that also focused on data/observable facts that were then followed up with testimony from various experts which should have re-enforced what was originally said, creating and sense of rational harmony. But there were…issues.
First, Trump began his pressers very differently than Cuomo did. Trump very often, especially in recent days, began his opening statements with comments on the economy. Trump’s immediate concern was the status of business and money, as opposed to Cuomo’s focus on health and life/death stats. This made a notable, if unintentional comment on values. Trump’s chief concern seemed to be the economy, not the health of the citizens. (This was compounded by his lack of outward display of mourning or sympathy for the sick or dying, – an interesting comment on how logos and pathos work together to create unstated arguments.) So those who value the health of the economy more so than general health would have appreciated Trump’s opening statements. Those who valued life and health would have been turned off by his implied statement of values. So in the beginning we can see how Trump’s press conferences are already divisive.
Secondly, the organization of Trump’s pressers should have given them universal appeal, but internal conflict caused all kinds of problems. It is not a secret that Trump has made many statements that had to be corrected by his own experts in press conferences. This is really problematic for his appeals to logos. There’s a lot going on here – for one, Trump doesn’t do much to differentiate between his opinion and what is fact. He treats them as all the same. So when something he says is observably false it does a lot to hurt his argument because it is ALL questionable then – because it is all kind of falling under the same category. And there have been numerous times when his claims have been corrected by his own experts. So his reasoning is problematic. So without helpful appeals to logos, Trump is left with appeals to pathos and ethos.
The thing is, Trump has only a finite sent of pathetic appeals that he is comfortable with. He is really good at appeals to anger, fear, resentment, and nationalism, but none of these are appropriate for these press conferences. It doesn’t make sense to get people angry at the virus and making people afraid would just hurt the economy more. And nationalism doesn’t help because, even as he has admitted, this is a problem which knows no borders. So his usual set of emotional appeals aren’t particularly useful. So he has been rather lacking. He has made some superficial comments about how we’re all going to get through this together, but there has been no narratives or stories, no emotive language, no guiding metaphors – all those things that get us emotionally involved are missing. Trump HAS tried to make us feel good by telling us that there are treatments and cures on the horizon. It’s not that he hasn’t been hopeful. But these are not appeals to emotion. These are just claims and observations, often without foundation, about the future. There is not an attempt to reach us on any human level. Remember, pathos is the root of sympathy and empathy. These are things that have been lacking in Trump’s addresses. This is more problematic than even an initial observation would indicate. If appeals to pathos aren’t present then a person would have to rely on appeals to logos and ethos to make an argument. But his appeals to logos are stymied by his own problematic claims that are corrected by his own experts. This JUST leaves ethos.
Trump makes explicit appeals to ethos in ways that other people don’t necessarily do. He straight-up tells us how well he understands things or how smart he is. But when those who are credentialed contradict him we don’t necessarily know what to think about those claims. Trump never talks about himself as a community member or someone we can connect with – he always talks about how GOOD he is at something. Whereas Cuomo make specific arguments that he was just like us and he understood where we are coming from and he feels how we feels, Trump’s appeals to ethos seem to be less about how he is one of the community and more about how he is above the community. He appeals to his superiority and his authority. This is tricky territory because for many people that requires some evidence – and his appeals to logos are problematic. Trump consistently reminds us how good he is at things and how smart he is. If I, Elizabeth Thorpe, claim that I am really good at curling, you have no reason to believe that because I have not proven that to you (I am not good at it so let’s not get excited). If I claim I know something about artistic proofs you have at least some criteria by which to judge that claim because you’ve been listening to me talk about it for a few minutes. When Trump claims he is really smart and understands these things you are called upon to judge that by the criteria he has provided – so why do people come to such radically different conclusions about whether he is believable?
The answer to that is probably going to be a whole other podcast, but is worth mentioning now. This appeal to ethos is tricky – what makes someone’s character? What makes someone believable? For some, it is whether his logic is consistent and he seems to value life and health and compassion (that all important empathy). If that stuff isn’t present than you can say “I’m smart and I understand this stuff” all day long but it just sounds like authoritarian bloviating. But for others character comes from a different place – it comes from the claims of authority themselves. We’ll talk more about demagoguery in the future, but for some the credibility comes from the force of the claims themselves. The power basically comes from white masculinity – not from logic, not from compassion, but from a particular character rooted in force. The claims have veracity in and of themselves because they are rooted in character that not everyone accepts as believable – authoritarian, demagogic, or toxically masculine. So in future podcasts we’ll talk about demagoguery and white masculinity – and that will be super fun.
So the press conferences as a piece of rhetoric present us with some complex arguments. We may not have solved any major world problems here today, but one thing I hope we were able to show you is how some of these ideas from your old comp or comm classes can actually help you make sense out of things that we deal with in real life.
If you hate Trump it’s easy to say “But he’s a liar” or “He doesn’t make any sense!” and not understand why anybody would believe him. But what we have to think about is where these claims are coming from and how these appeals are being made. His appeal to ethos only appeals to certain communities, so his argument only makes sense to those that understand and appreciate that appeal. If you think, “Why do people listen to Cuomo? He’s such a corrupt politician?” you may well have a solid point. But thinking about how he has crafted an argument and has balanced ethos and used logos to make a values claim that speaks to a large group of people may help us understand how he has overcome some of those credibility problems.
And there’s a lot more we could say, but I think we’ll leave it at that for now. Thanks for listening to our inaugural episode of Kairoticast. We really hope you’ll join us again.
If you have feedback, we’d love to hear it. If you questions we’ll try to answer them. If you have issues you’d like us to address send them our way and we’ll do our best to get to that. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we look forward to spending some time with you next week!
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.