How is Character Communicated?

By Jennifer Keohane

In this post, I introduce a rhetorical approach to character. This understanding may not square with other academic disciplines that may be interested in other aspects, but I hope this explanation will help explain my approach to studying character assassination.

I start from the assumption that character assassination occurs in communication. That is, assassins encode their attacks into messages (whether videos, speeches, newspaper articles), and then release those messages to a targeted public. Character attacks are strategic communication, so the attacker will determine what strategies they might use to best convince their audience of their claims.

However, the audience is the ultimate arbiter of whether the attacks have power or not. And as rhetoricians have known, dating back to the founding texts of the discipline, character is a key component of how we engage with speakers and determine whether or not we believe them. In fact, ethos, loosely translated as character or credibility, is one of Aristotle’s three persuasive appeals alongside logos (logic) and pathos (emotion).

Rhetorical scholars understand ethos in a few dimensions. Prior ethos is the understanding that the audience has of the speaker’s character or credibility before any communication occurs. Knowing that the speaker has a PhD, for instance, would likely build their prior ethos, especially if they were discussing research or issues in higher education. Yet, ethos also unfolds within a communication act. One can design an attack that sounds credible to the audience by using strong evidence and a logical structure. This would fall under the category of intrinsic ethos, or ethos built within communication.

Here’s a good example. On Saturday, February 3, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan tweeted, lauding the tax bill for providing an extra $1.50 per week for one woman. He soon deleted the tweet after Twitter exploded, smearing him as out of touch with real Americans for suggesting that $1.50 more would make a significant difference.

While Ryan has strong prior ethos to certain audiences as a declared policy wonk and leader of the Republican Party, others view him with much less credibility. This, of course, is expected when dealing with a political figure in divisive times.

Perhaps more importantly, however, I want to call attention to a hybrid policy argument and character attack written by Paul Krugman on Sunday. Krugman attacks Ryan for being out of touch and accuses him of a bait-and-switch to pass the tax bill. Krugman titled his piece, “Let them eat French fries,” an allusion to the fact that $1.50 per week is about the price of a small fry at McDonalds and calling up one of the most out of touch leaders ever, Marie Antoinette.

While I won’t rehearse all of Krugman’s arguments here, the op-ed goes beyond simple character smears and presents evidence for the claims, built upon Krugman’s prior ethos as a well-known macroeconomist. In short, the intrinsic and prior ethos are developed. While that certainly doesn’t mean that Krugman will convince his whole audience, for the relatively left-leaning, New York Times-reading audience, his arguments are likely to be persuasive.

So a full exploration of character attacks from a rhetorical perspective should explore both what aspects of the target’s character were attacked and attempt to untangle whether or how the attack was likely to resonate with the audience. And recognizing that communication is a two-way street, it should look at character being communicated in these varied dimensions.

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