Speech and its rules

Discourse can mislead as well as convince of the truth. Clement Viktorovitch's salutary work recalls the fundamental rules of rhetoric, with its pitfalls and its resources.

Clement Viktorovitch's work is both theoretical and educational, it brings to the attention of the general public the main contemporary reflections on the use of rhetoric. On the one hand, it provides the keys to democratic argumentation and debates, on the other hand, it invites us to identify hollow, manipulative and unhealthy speeches.

Let us reassure the reader from the outset, this is not a supplement to the personal development manuals very fashionable giving a tool of power over oneself and others through the mastery of effective and attractive language. Nor should we reduce Clément Viktorovitch to the media image he constructed through his analyzes of comments made by political actors (on Canal+, then France Info and Quotidien). His success is based on his mischievous ability to decipher political jargon while integrating rhetorical concepts (metaphor, sophistry, paralogisms, prolepsis, etc.) appropriately and without pedantry. The risk for his image is that some spectators only see him as a quality entertainer, more intellectual than Guillaume Meurice, but exploiting the same vein of current affairs commentary with humor.

His book is something else entirely. It is not a compilation of his chronicles, it is a treatise in the literal sense of the term bringing together the history, the debates and especially the contents of rhetorical thought. Clment Viktorovitch is a doctor in political science, disciple of Bernard Manin and teacher at Sciences Po Paris. Another dimension of the work, little displayed, lies in its militant scope. The banner of the book insinuates: Speech is a weapon. For the author, mastery of rhetoric is a condition for the quality of democracy, its exchanges and the possibilities of agreement. I will return to this aspect in conclusion.

An ethics of rhetoric

The book opens with a brief history of rhetoric and the evolution of the controversies to which it has given rise from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes. It is also inspired by the precepts of Arthur Schopenhauer in The art of always being right. Clement Viktorovitch opposes the conception of rhetoric as a science of manipulation, as a technology of imposing a point of view on others. He recalls that rhetoric has three dimensions: the logos (the elements that the speaker proposes); Lethos (the image that the speaker sends back) and the pathos (the motions that the speaker arouses) (p. 45-46). It is not just eloquence, the ability to speak in public. He defends an ethics of rhetoric as an art of convincing through the reasoned confrontation of points of view. Taking up Cham Perelman: Rhetoric is the set of discursive processes making it possible to arouse or strengthen the adhesion of individuals to the propositions submitted to them. (p. 44). Rhetoric is seen as a set of dynamics developed according to situations of conviction (p. 50 ff.).

The question of choosing the right arguments is decisive and the author warns against the ease of use common sense and examples alone (pp. 56-67). He also emphasizes the importance of understanding disagreements (p. 75).

The essential thing is the construction of an argumentative line which must combine rigor, efficiency and coherence. An excellent example is given by the different ways of convincing people to give up meat consumption (p. 86-87). The author presents three registers of argument. The first is an ecologist and emphasizes the impact of meat consumption on the missions of CO2 and climate change. The second is moral, centered on animal suffering during lifting and killing. The third focuses on human health and the negative impact of eating too much meat on the body. The author shows that these three registers of arguments cannot be directly combined. The use that can be made of one or the other depends on the public and their preconceptions. The selection or hierarchy in this repertoire places the speaker in tension between his personal ethics and the search for effectiveness of his speech. Even weak, or questionable, the public health argument can be a lever to raise awareness among people who are not very sensitive to ecological and moral arguments.

Mastering counter-argumentation is also an essential dimension. The author adapts some ploys of Schopenhauer in particular the way of conducting objections ad rem (contesting the merits of an argument), ad hominem (contesting a type of argument), and ad personam (attack on the credibility of the interlocutor) (p. 88-120).

It dismantles classically used defense tactics such as manipulation of facts, denial, reinterpretation of facts and their relativization. The Cahuzac affair serves to illustrate these four forms of defense (107-115).

The gardener's patience

Chapter 3 is devoted to ways to properly structure arguments. It provides elements of method for constructing speeches and ensuring their validity (p. 117-166). Chapter 4 emphasizes the work of language and the games that accompany it: implicitness, denotation, the use of negative forms, pretrition, the choice of verbs, the use of the passive, modeling (p. 167-226).

The important chapter 5 addresses the delicate question of mobilizing emotions through discourse (pp. 227-296). Reason is not sufficient in itself,homo economicus which seeks to best satisfy its preferences through an assessment of costs and benefits is an insufficient model. Taking irrationality into account is an equally important dimension, because it introduces complexity. The author refers to a body of contemporary work which demonstrates the importance of emotions in reasoning and knowledge processes. Effective argumentation combines rationality and the use of emotion: In every calculation, there is an emotional part () the expression and perception of emotions are undoubtedly an integral part of the mechanisms of the faculty of reasoning (p. 233). The author also analyzes how emotion can become a tool of manipulation (p. 238-257). Chapter 6 analyzes the falsely secondary question of the speaker's projected image: his ethos. This factor largely contributes to the production of conviction. It is prior to the discursive, it prepares its reception framework. This component is a more or less coherent assembly of a set of elements such; sincerity, coherence, congruence. An analysis of Donald Trump's speeches shows how this perverse rhetorician was able to impose a form of credibility and support through skillful mobilization of emotions, his thesis, competence and seduction (p. 323325). Ultimately, the ethos presents itself as a compromise resulting from internal negotiations made by the actors between the previous components.

Chapter 7 focuses on mastering debate, whether it involves convincing an interlocutor or defeating an opponent. It gives a certain number of keys to recognizing deception, which misleads the interlocutors and dupes the listeners, as well: the reduction of the situations of oppositions, the maintenance of vagueness, the use of contradictory arguments, the use of pathos. The author analyzes the ways of abusing logic, using fraudulent reasoning and using artifices. The book completes the means of mastering debates and the use of the principles of competition: attack, defense, overruns and the art of answering questions. The author does not claim to allow one or there truth to manifest itself, but its objective is to make a deliberative discussion as coherent, even as productive as possible (p. 377-434).

The work concludes with a lesson in humility which reminds us that mastery of all the mysteries of rhetoric in no way confers absolute power. Failures are as numerous as successes and the main effect of insistence is to accentuate resistance. It is exceptional that rhetoric modifies, as if by magic, minds and reasoning. On the other hand, it sows seeds which will perhaps grow and be able to produce effects over time without us being able to precisely determine the cause. As the author nicely says the patience of the gardener prevails here over the alchemist's impatience.

This work is easy to access for the non-specialist public despite the quantity of concepts introduced and in-depth analyses. The simple style and use of case studies and to moments of decryption help you get through this journey. Likewise, the presence in the appendix of a 10-page glossary (p. 459-470) is extremely valuable.

Finally, this treatise would call for a second work which would take into account the militant enterprises carried out by Clement Viktorovitch to put into practice his critical approach equipped with rhetoric. For several years, he led a popular education project, Aequivoxwithin the framework of which he organized courses, games and conferences, before coordinating the eloquence competition for high school students in Montreuil, the free talkers. These open-air laboratories, in working-class neighborhoods, have certainly decisively enriched an approach that could have been purely academic.