Who Spoke, Who Didn't? | Using Rhetoric To Read The News

How speaking – and not speaking – affects public affairs

If you want to persuade, you need to appeal to (at least) one of three things: personal credibility, rational argument, emotion.

Six of the richest soccer clubs in England announced that they were breaking away to join a new European Superleague. More or less everybody who heard about this seemed to hate the idea – or rather, nobody who liked it appeared willing to say so.

Public outrage found a focus in a few key individuals. The manager at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola, was one of the first to speak out. He said the superleague, built precisely to protect teams from relegation, would not be real sport.

This was a good point (what rhetoricians call logos, meaning rational argument) but what mattered most was who said it. Guardiola possesses vast credibility, because he’s been extraordinarily successful as manager of one of the clubs trying to break away. He’s also generally well liked, even by people who don’t support his team. Rhetoricians call this personal credibility ethos.

Others too relied on ethos to speak against the breakaway. As well as being a player at one of the teams involved, Marcus Rashford has lately gained a vast wodge of public affection, even from people who don’t care about football, because of his campaign to ensure proper meals for poorer children during lockdown.

Rhetoric fiends will note that Rashford didn’t speak out directly, but shared on social media a quote by a legendary Man Utd manager, to the effect that football is nothing without fans. Not so much logos as an appeal to emotion (rhetorical term: pathos).

Cicero and his admirers

Fans themselves spoke up, gathering outside football grounds in large numbers to express strong emotion in written signs and chanted slogans.

As hours turned into days, it became clear that nobody was going to speak up for the breakaway. And something else remarkable happened: people began to mention the names of significant people who weren’t speaking out. The first I noticed was Henry Winter, who noted in The Times that the captain of England and Tottenham, Harry Kane, was notably silent.

It always feels risky to speak out, but suddenly it was becoming risky not to.

As more and more voices came out against it, the pressure became too great, and the plan was scrapped. As a fan, I’m pleased. As a writer and speaker, I’m curious to consider what possible combination of ethos, pathos and logos could have worked in favour of the superleague. Right now, nothing springs to mind.

Meanwhile, a political storm developed. It started with a relatively poor attempt by Sir Keir Starmer, at Prime Minister’s Questions, to accuse Boris Johnson of murky exchanges with an industrialist.

I felt for Starmer because it looked as if he’d got no traction.

Johnson defended himself by saying he had only been motivated to protect the British people from Covid. (An appeal to pathos, because it tries to make Starmer seem heartlessly indifferent to this.) Worse for Starmer: as leader of the opposition, he routinely attacks the PM, and it’s easy to tune him out. He lacks, in this context, ethos.

But as the days unfolded the issue grew much larger, as others joined in.

Unlike the superleague, this political to- and fro- is very much ongoing. One of the key developments was when Johnson’s former ally Dominic Cummings spoke out against him. Cummings lacks the popular affection enjoyed by Pep Guardiola, but as an insider, albeit a former insider, his insights into Johnson had a credibility unavailable to the leader of the opposition.

And perhaps precisely because Cummings has never seemed to care about popular affection, it will be hard for Johnson to hit back at him, as he did at Starmer, using pathos.

Finally, for now: it’s worth observing that Starmer, even if he didn’t smash Johnson at PMQs, created a space for others to join in. So his effort was not wasted, and he may deserve more credit than I’ve given him.

Speaking up, and out, is key to How To Change The World (one of my books), and (another) A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech.