Anti-rhetoric can be the best rhetoric; Decrying your opponent’s clever use of words is a clever way to use words

February 3, 2014 4:58 pm

Anti-rhetoric can be the best rhetoric

By Sam Leith

Rhetoric can be written as well as spoken. The rules are – with certain exceptions – basically the same. A fine example was offered recently in an article by the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in The Guardian, the UK newspaper. Using the anniversary of the first world war – what the Greeks called kairos, or timeliness – Mr Steinmeier sought to defend the European project by arguing that it was the bestbulwark against another such catastrophe.

The article was nicely crafted, and contains some elaborate rhetorical language. It begins by painting a word-picture (an attention-grabbing trick known as enargia): “On 28 June 1914, telegraphs were spreading news of the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austrian throne . . .” It makes use of parallels, antitheses, balanced clauses and groups of three. It even drops in a neat little chiasmus: “Instead of the law of the strong, Europe is governed by the strength of the law.”

In light of all this, there is one aspect of the article that deserves particular attention: the word “rhetoric” itself is used twice. In both cases it is given negative connotations. Mr Steinmeier warns that, given the present economic difficulties in Europe, “it is easy to fall back on nationalist rhetoric, sung to the catchy tune of criticism of Europe”. Later, discussing the outbreak of war, he says the crisis tipped into bloodshed because “emotive rhetoric overrode the courage to pursue a laborious balancing of interests”.

Do you see what he is doing? Nationalist rhetoric is “easy”, “catchy” and what you “fall back on” – implying lazy, symptomatic of a herd mentality and retrograde. It is “sung to a tune”: music rather than argumentation. And in a neat elision, it is made interchangeable – which of course it is not – with criticism of the European project. Even though the second sentence is about something completely different, he establishes a link between the two with the common theme of “rhetoric”. Here rhetoric is “emotive” – and is in direct counterpoint to “courage” and the “laborious balancing of interests”. In other words, it is an enemy of clear thinking, cowardly and (again) lazy. Plus, in this case, it led to the deaths of many millions of people. So – subtextually – to criticise the European project is to set off down the path to Passchendaele.

Here is one of the oldest and best rhetorical strategies – what I call “anti-rhetoric rhetoric”. As long as it has existed, rhetoric has been mistrusted. Nobody likes to think they are being manipulated. So the persuasion that works most effectively is persuasion that does not announce itself as such – and what better way to dissociate yourself from all things rhetorical by denouncing rhetoric itself?

Rhetoric is what your opponent is doing, while you are speaking from the heart. Shakespeare has Mark Antony say in his funeral speech in Julius Caesar: “I am no orator, as Brutus is. But as you know me all a plain, blunt man.” Antony, of course, says this in the course of one of the great oratorical setpieces of all time.

Unfair? Hypocritical? Yes. But also deadly effective. Don’t be afraid to use it. If you are able to characterise an opponent’s arguments as rhetoric – latch on to the fancy phrases, emotive appeals and grand-sounding abstractions – you are that much more able to cast your own position as cool intellection or stout common sense.

You flatter your audience by implying that they cannot be hoodwinked by rhetoric – and in so doing, hoodwink them with rhetoric.

The writer is the author of ‘You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama’



About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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