Category: Rhetoric

upcoming talk on “deep humanities”

I’m presenting a lecture on Nov. 20 at 6pm at Riverside Church (120th St. and Claremont Ave.) entitled “Deep Humanities: Artificial Intelligence and the Ethics of Persuasion.” It’s my first talk on a new research project on the classical antecedents of our contemporary crisis regarding “deepfake” videos, and I argue that we can locate deepfakes in an ancient tradition of using obvious falsehoods in the service of persuasion. At odds with contemporary scientific and analytic approaches to deepfakes, which seek to test their validity by isolating some kind of criterion of authenticity, my rhetorically oriented approach sees deepfakes as examples of character-based persuasion that operate largely outside the considerations of truthfulness and “fact-checking.” I revisit some of the courtroom literature of Cicero, whose use of caricature and impersonation anticipates the strategies underlying deepfakes.

The event is on Riverside Church’s Floor 11, and it is open to the public.

a classic case of patois

Yes, I’ve got rhetorical ethos on my mind these days, but this interview suggests that a certain classicist-turned-commentator needs to revisit his notes on ancient rhetoric:

This is what you were saying about Greek heroes. You don’t get the perfect person who will phrase everything or do everything perfectly.

You don’t. You don’t. I was trying to look at Trump in classical terms, so words like eirôneia, or irony—how could it be that the Republican Party supposedly was empathetic, but a millionaire, a billionaire Manhattanite started using terms I had never heard Romney or McCain or Paul Ryan say? He started saying “our.” Our miners. And then, on the left, every time Hillary Clinton went before a Southern audience, she started speaking in a Southern accent. And Barack Obama, I think you would agree, when he gets before an inner-city audience, he suddenly sounded as if he spoke in a black patois. When Trump went to any of these groups, he had the same tie, the same suit, the same accent. What people thought was that, whatever he is, he is authentic.

Honest, authentic.

I don’t know about honest, but authentic and genuine. Honest in the sense that—

The larger sense.


As Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and all their centuries of readers know, the occasion of a grand-style political speech demands that a speaker give some attention to his own ethos or character. A captatio benevolentiae (a “capturing of goodwill” or establishment of trustworthiness) is one of the indispensable components of such a strategy—a speaker needs to give an audience reason to listen up and follow along with his arguments.

It’s tough, then, to fault a savvy politician for “speaking in a southern accent” or with a “patois” when the particular audience demands it. Regional jokes will do the trick, too. Even aside from these considerations from classical handbooks of persuasion, everyone uses code-switching when interviewing for a job, teaching a class, or sharing dinner with a close friend. To suggest that these linguistic shifts or rhetorical tactics are signs of dishonesty is fundamentally ungenerous.

If Hanson has ever read his Cicero (with a Ph.D. from Stanford, he absolutely has), he undoubtedly knows all of this.

The President’s undiscerning “same tie, same suit, same accent” routine, though, is interesting for other reasons, reconsidered through the two lenses of classical character appeals and contemporary media. In our retweet-driven, cable-news-staged era of American politics, it is becoming harder to find a “particular audience” in front of whom to speak in an accent or to deploy regional slang. If Nielsen viewership numbers and Twitter “impressions” hover in the millions—with no real geographic, sociological, or economic consistency—we may have lost distinct audiences and, as a result, distinct oratory. The President’s immutable self-presentation, then, might simply stem from a demand of speaking before a boundless crowd of spectators. Why bother with accents when all of YouTube is watching?

polarized rome

We have seen in other contexts Cicero’s attempt to paint the characters of a speech in the sharply contrasting colors of black and white, to reduce a judicial dispute to the simple juxtaposition of antipathetic characters or ways or life, one honorable, upright, in keeping with the mos maiorum, the other its un-Roman antithesis. In this instance, Cicero has aimed his entire speech at creating such a gulf between the Roman state and Catiline and his followers; grey hues, so many of which in reality colored the Catilinarian affair, scarcely enter the picture. The contrast is nowhere more forcefully expressed than in the conclusion to this part of the speech:

“On our side fights modesty, on theirs shamelessness; on our side morality, on theirs debauchery; on ours good faith, on theirs deceit; on ours respect for right, on theirs crime; on ours steadfastness, on theirs madness; on ours honor, on theirs disgrace; on ours self-control, on theirs a surrender to passion; in short, justice, temperance, fortitude, prudence, all the virtues, contend with injustice, extravagance, cowardice, folly, all the vices. In a word, abundance fights against poverty, incorrupt principles against corrupt, sanity against insanity, well-founded hope against general desperation.”James May, Trials of Character (1988), p. 55