Does Meaning matter? Or does Style rule?

A response to Mark Forsyth's new book, “Elements Of Eloquence” by Giles Abbott

“You don’t need to have anything to say, you just have to say it well”. So says a reviewer in summary of Mark Forsyth’s new book, “The Elements Of Eloquence”. Style: One, Substance: Nil, apparently.

I heard about this book on the Today Programme, Monday 11th November 2013 at around 8:30am. The author detailed how he has studied certain rhetorical figures and teaches readers how to use them to create the perfect English phrase. He points out that such techniques were widely taught in Europe until roughly a hundred years ago. This is true. He points out that this is how Shakespeare learnt his craft as a writer. This is true. He says that anyone can learn these techniques. This is true. He says it doesn’t matter what you say, but only how you say it. This is not true. Disguised in flippancy, this is a seductive, but grievous, lie.     

Two thousand five hundred years ago, Plato wrote a dialogue, “Gorgias” in which Socrates interrogates a teacher of rhetoric, Gorgias. Gorgias, in response to Socrates’ questioning, asserts that Rhetoric is an art. Question follows question until eventually Gorgias is unable to disagree when Socrates asserts that Rhetoric is not art but only a form of flattery, not good for you, like medicine, but only pleasing, like fancy cakes. This is a view of Rhetoric which has caught, held, stuck, and very much shaped views of Rhetoric ever since.


What’s less well known is that in a later dialogue, “Phaedrus”, Socrates returns to the subject of Rhetoric and reaches the opposite conclusion. He tries to use rhetorical figures to say something he really doesn’t believe to be true and finds that he can’t. The forms of Rhetoric are, in themselves, powerful, Forsyth said exactly this on Radio 4 this morning. At Academy Of Oratory, we say that they are not only powerful but also demanding. We argue that their very power requires truthfulness, requires that you mean what you say.


Let’s try it. Take a simple rhetorical figure, such as repetition. Form a statement you can make about something which you hold to be true. By “true”, I mean “truthful” rather than “factual”, so something like “Education starts at home” rather than “Isaac Newton devised the theory of Gravity”. Find something true to you, meaningful to you, crucially important to you. Now, when you have devised the words exactly, so you can repeat them exactly, speak them out loud three times in succession. Ready to kick it up a notch? Say it to someone else.


Done? Good. Now find a statement that you hold to be untrue. Devise a phrase in which you state this untruthas if it was true. This might simply be the reverse of the first, and truthful, phrase you came up with, or it may be completely unconnected. What matters is that it forces you to state as a truth something which you deeply feel is not true. Repeat this out loud three times. Try repeating it three times to another person.


How did you do? How did it feel? Did it get easier or harder? Do you agree with Forsyth when he says that it doesn’t matter what you say, only that you say it well?


Because Forsyth’s expressed view is what got Rhetoric in the sin-bin in the first place. “Oh, that’s just Rhetoric!” people say, “Mere Rhetoric!” as if the word Rhetoric was the same as “spin”. In many people’s minds, it is. Rhetoric provokes a very strong response in listeners, which is precisely why it is dangerous and self-defeating to use it untruthfully. Also on Radio 4 (because I don’t get out much) I heard a woman, talking about the inequality between men and women still persisting in the work place.

She said, meaning to highlight an injustice;

“Men are promoted for their potential; women for their track record!”

A clearly oppositional structure here used to show the unfairness of discrimination in the workplace, to show the contradiction in the way that women are treated in comparison to men. It’s well phrased, succinct, catchy. Is it good though? For me, it backfired. Because there is an untruth in it. Because how can one assess potential without an awareness of track record? It’s impossible. The illogicality of this jarred, provoking in me a strong reaction against her statement, which is odd, because, ideologically, I’m with her all the way.


What if she’d said, “Men rise by what they promise; women by what they deliver.”

Does that work better? Does it seem truer?

Because, despite what Forsyth claims, truthfulness is essential in Rhetoric. Martin Luther King always moves me to tears because we feel the truthfulness of the injustices he names, evokes, combats. Churchill moves because we feel the solidarity, the immensity of the struggle and of the resolve. By contrast, when Robert Kilroy Silk asked the rhetorical question “Apart from oil, what have the Arabs ever done for us?” the erotema misfired. You ask a rhetorical question when you are sure either that the question can only be answered one way or that it cannot be answered at all. For example “Is the Pope Catholic?” or “Why, America, why?”. Mr Kilroy Silk asked his question confident that the answer from the public would be a grumbling, “yeah, those Arabs, what have they ever done for us…..?”. What a terrible blow it must have been to him, what a shock, what a bitter betrayal of all his cherished beliefs about the British people, when the public answered to the contrary. Oops. What have the Arabs ever done for us, eh Robert? What have the Romans?!


Forsyth says, of the forms of Rhetoric, that nobody knows how they work. That’s not true either, but he clearly doesn’t. The forms of rhetoric work precisely because they are forms and our brains are wired to pay more attention to form and less attention to formlessness. For example, symmetry. Imagine you are in a forest (pretty much where we, as a species, evolved). Everywhere you see the asymmetrical forms of foliage, of branches, of undergrowth and canopy and suddenly your eyes detect something symmetrical. It has four legs, equally spaced each side of a point of balance. It has two pointy ears. It has two large fangs spaced equally apart in a symmetrical array of pointy teeth. And it has two eyes, which are looking at you. Now that you’ve noticed this symmetrical form, you have a chance of surviving it. Had you not noticed, or had your nervous system not demanded you notice, you would be dead. Without that noticing of form, we all would’ve been, long ago, before we ever left that forest.

There is a symmetry in much rhetorical form and pattern in all, hence,

“Despised if ugly, if fair betrayed!” 

which, you’ll agree, is more impactful, more memorable than “women generally aren’t very highly thought of if they’re plain but if they’re pretty there’s always a risk that somebody won’t do the right thing by them, if you know what I mean….”


The second is just as truthful, but not as powerful, so Forsyth is right that style, and skill in style, matters. But what if it’s completely untrue? Such as,
“The ugly woman always prospers, the pretty will always fail!”


You notice it just long enough to notice that it’s nonsense, but you won’t remember it. So, contrary to what Forsyth claims, style alone is not enough to make something memorable. What then is?
Rhetoric does not have to be entirely true, but it does entirely have to seem true. The easiest way for a thing to seem true is that it be true. But why, then, is Plato’s “Gorgias” so much better remembered than his “Phaedrus”? Could it be that condemnation sticks better to the ear than commendation? A performer once told me “do a good gig and people might tell a few people. Do a bad gig and everyone will tell everyone they know!”. This is surely a truth that journalists know, that good news is no news and bad news is good news, for journalists, at least? Why?


Well, think back to that forest of our ancestors’ childhood. What would stick in your mind more, because it would be more important, more survival critical? Someone telling you where they found some nice berries or someone telling you where they narrowly escaped death by tiger? Hard wiring again. Pay more attention to danger than safeness. What, to you, seems the more sexy job? Fireman or Health & Safety officer? Professor Robert Cialdini, who has conducted quantitative research into what influences people, has proven that people are far more influenced by fear of loss than hope of gain. Why? Only one of them might get you killed.


So Forsyth’s assertion that “nobody knows how the forms of Rhetoric work” is not true. It’s glib. His statement that meaning doesn’t matter and that style alone conquers all is also glib and seductively untrue. Why seductively? Because it promises us that things can be easy. “Meaning” is hard and truthfulness is really hard, so to say that meaning doesn’t matter is a clever lie, clever because people will accept it simply because it is easier than not doing so. Why do we take the easy option? Well, that particular bit of hard-wiring is so obvious it hardly merits explaining – because we have limited reserves of energy and we may at some point need as much energy as we can muster—that tiger again. To fight or to fly? It makes little sense to expend more energy then we need, spend more energy than we can afford, therefore, until it is absolutely impossible not to, so we always take the easy option. Ah, the easy route! Don’t knock it! It’s what didn’t get me to where I’m not!


 But Martin Luther King didn’t take the easy option. He took the hard one, and died doing so. Nelson Mandela didn’t take the easy option. Emily Pankhurst didn’t take the easy option. Tom Paine didn’t. Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t, Malala Yousafzai won’t, and we mustn’t. Socrates, at one time, said that Rhetoric was a flattery, and Forsyth flatters us that meaning doesn’t matter, it’s okay not to try, it’s okay that we find it so hard to mean much. But Socrates challenged himself and was brave enough to change his mind and conclude that Rhetoric is intrinsically linked to truthfulness. But perhaps Forsyth doesn’t really mean what he says and simply knows that it will add a little notoriety and boost the sales of a book which will undoubtedly be witty, erudite and well-written? It will appeal to those of us who wish others to think us wealthy enough to afford the decadent luxury of cynicism. But cynicism is cowardly. Instead of posturing, dare to stand as you are, speak as you find, say what you mean. Above all, dare to mean.

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