Rhetorical Questions

Public oration is one of the great skills of the powerful, but the manipulation of language can be a dangerous game.

Words Jennifer Hilder
Illustration Peter Grundy


In January 63 BCE Cicero stood in the busy Roman forum and spoke to the assembled crowd. He had just become consul for the year, the leading man in Rome, but he was already facing his first challenge: one of the lower-ranking magistrates wanted to pass a law to redistribute land to the people. If passed, this law would create turmoil, especially for his powerful, land-owning allies. Cicero wanted the people to say no — but how do you convince people to vote against their interests? Then as now, the secret is emotion.

“I will be a consul for the people,” Cicero said, “because what is better for the people than peace? What is better for the people than freedom? What is better for the people than an easy life?” With this undeniable tricolon, Cicero introduces the main theme of his speech. He repeats these ideas — the people, and what is best for them — again and again, right up to his final words: “From your reaction, fellow citizens, I see that nothing can be better for the people than what I — the consul for the people — am bringing you this year: peace, calm, and an easy life.”

It worked: he used an ambiguous idea of ‘the people’ and abstract notions of a better future to decisively persuade the audience against their own interests. Just over 2,000 years later, as any survivors of 2016 will know, politicians are still using this powerful combination with chilling success.

“The Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.” Not Cicero this time, but Theresa May in July 2016 during her first speech as prime minister, promising a country that “works for everyone.” Through this inclusive language, May created the unity she claimed was so important for the United Kingdom, with the direct but equally generalising “you.” This speech is entirely appropriate for a politician who is no longer simply leader of a political party, but now prime minister of the UK. At the same time, May’s use of vague and undefined terms sits within the tradition of manipulatively ambiguous language.

“The rhetoric of these populist movements looks backwards and forwards at the same time — taking back control and making America great again both imply a distinct sense of nostalgia.”

Two phrases have defined the Conservative government’s approach in the last six years: “hard-working families” and most recently, “just about managing.” These slogans roll off the tongue for more than one reason. As units of language, they are very similar — both have three words, with an increasing number of syllables, and the same pattern of stress (two dactyls, if you’re asking) — but what they imply is important too. These phrases present an image of families doing something, or “striving” in Toryspeak, that Labour’s “squeezed middle,” with all its unpleasant physical and visual connotations, just doesn’t.

How do these phrases work rhetorically? They work because they apply to everyone, that is, you. Just as Cicero’s audience agreed that they wanted peace, calm, an easy life, so today most people would agree that they work hard, and that they are, just about, managing.

Buy-in from wider society means that these terms have been repeated and diluted, their original audience (if there ever was one) conveniently forgotten. Because of the ambiguity, then, whatever Theresa May does, she does for someone who thinks they are “just about managing.”

Political opposition to May’s speech was and is almost impossible. As former Labour leader Ed Miliband joked on Twitter, he had a lot more material like it. After all, who on the political left would argue against giving people more? Similarly, oppositions have struggled on both sides of the Atlantic to face the simple yet powerful slogans of Brexit (“Take back control!”) and Trump (“Make America great again!”).

And so we come to the abstractions: the imagined futures in which a mythical golden age of control or greatness can be recreated. The rhetoric of these populist movements looks backwards and forwards at the same time. Taking back control and making America great again both imply a distinct sense of nostalgia — what the late AA Gill called “the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug.”

Does it matter that these terms are abstract and ambiguous — or rather, that control means control, great means great, and Brexit means Brexit? Far from it. The flexibility of these words gives them their emotional power, enhanced by the commanding imperative (‘take!’, ‘make!’). Whether or not these promises can be delivered becomes irrelevant, as the audience repeats the script they have been given. By giving the people a voice, the original orator is distanced and their failings glossed over. The slogan has become a chant representing what the people think they have always wanted.

Cicero writes that nothing is as important in public speaking as creating an emotional response in your listener. He was being provocative, but the tricks he perfected still have power, reducing past, present, and future to an unrecognisable blur, with no room for reply.

Rhetorical tricks are powerful things, but it’s a dangerous game. Twenty years after this speech, Cicero was killed by his political enemies. They cut out his tongue.


This is article is from Weapons of Reason’s fourth issue: Power.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency.

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