141 Views

From Cicero to Snapchat: Why rhetoric holds the key to the politics of the future

For thousands of years, the ways that politicians communicate with the people has remained relatively stable. There have been alterations and developments to reflect social changes, but the forms of speech established by the likes of Cicero and Demosthenes in antiquity have remained with us into modernity, as strong in influence as ever.

For about as long as politics itself has existed in recorded history, there has been one dominant method of political communication: a long-form speech. Politicians speak, citizens listen, peppered with a litany of techniques that most of us can spot when they’re done badly, but which seamlessly manipulate our emotions and our rationality at their best.  It is poetry disguised as prose; politics suger-coated with a layer of undeniability.

Classically, it is defined by a five steps: invention, organisation, style, memory and delivery.

These traditions have survived industrial modernisation However, they are creaking under the new pressures of Internet-era communication. Attacking each one of those five processes, and in doing so fundamentally altering the relationship between citizen and leader.

The most important driver in changing how we communicate, as in changing so many other things, is technology. The invention and subsequent prevalence of the printing press, newspapers, radio, television, recordings, and a host of other smaller changes, have undoubtedly changed the manner of communication.

But they have done so in reform rather than revolution. Technology has altered the method, but not substantially the form or the content, of communication.

Politicians could still invent and organise their speeches in advance. They would be would be listened to at length and without interruption, and they could speak in a style largely set by the speaker themselves.

The essence of the leader-citizen relationship remained the same, and even the content of speeches could essentially adapt and remain intact.

Internet-era communication, however, shows indications of becoming something new altogether.

We can only speculate about the direction our generation’s politicians will take communication, and it may be that, as so often, the potential for change is overstated.

But there are three main ways in which online communication is a clean break from the rhetorical traditions of the past: intimacy, spontaneity and flexibility.

Rhetoric has always been personal – grounding abstract political or ideological statements in personal colour gives them an authenticity that disposes us to identify with the speaker, and hence more likely to agree with their statements. But they have been personal at arms length.

Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC speech – given shortly before the inventions of Youtube and Twitter – is the quintessential example of politics made personal. He tells a story of his parents’ heritage and his own identity and values; it is intensely intimate and open in content.

But he, unlike us, couldn’t be interrogated immediately by anyone with a phone and a 3g connection. Intimacy and authenticity could be created as an elaborate illusion in a twenty minute speech – they didn’t have to be maintained and reinforced day in and day out.

Even today, the most serious political messages remain divorced from the people. They speak, in front of media or supporters, and we react on social media. The question is: what happens when we speak and listen on the same platforms?

If there comes a time (and I suspect there will) when so few people will listen to a lengthy speech, or even read a news report summary of it, then it may be become a successful vote-winning strategy to just stop giving them.

Where once the speaker was up on a stage, sheltering behind a podium, while the rest of us listened from afar, in future we might speak, listen, react and be responded to all on the same platforms.

Perhaps that will be positive. Effective speech is often designed to feel like a personal conversation with audience members, and perhaps in future it really will be one constant, equal, interactive conversation.

In practical terms that might mean higher rates of trust in politicians, higher voter turnout or party membership, and a wider range of issues and viewpoints given importance in policy-making.

Or, perhaps politicians will be drowned out. We all speak our every thought all the time but

none of us listen; the concept of a ‘leader’ ceases to have any meaning.

Mario Cuomo once remarked that “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose” but in the absence of the safety of the podium, leaders must be poets at all times.

Speeches can be planned and forethought, written days, weeks or months in advance by a team of experienced and qualified speechwriters to engineer the desired impact.

Although Cicero gives us in De Oratore a long list of talents and ingredients that go into an effective use of rhetoric, there’s only so much linguistic trickery you can fit into 140 characters… and you can hardly pre-plan a Snapchat.

Communication, as in so much of media, can no longer complacently expect to be long-form and pre-written. It must now be spontaneous, frequent and brief. But most important of all, it must still be authentic.

Finally, flexibility. So far I’ve assumed that social media and online communication will stay the same, and considered the ways politicians should use platforms like Youtube, Twitter and Snapchat.

But of course social media sites die as quickly as they’re born, and new variations in communication are developed almost every year.

In the past, it has taken a generation several decades time to master and mature a technological change in their communication.

But where radio has stayed more or less the same since its invention, online communication requires a constant evolution of learning. Sites present today will be condemned to history tomorrow, and the regenerative nature of the internet guaruntees new and innovative forms of media in future.

Politicians will have to keep up with these shifting expectations. There is nothing worse than appearing less competent at communication than your audience – Ed Balls’s famous accidental tweeting of his own name, or the cringe-inducing Hillary Clinton Snapchat (if you happened to miss that, by the way, spare yourself and don’t google it), show the problem of lagging behind on media awareness.

None of us alive now can know, or even guess, what kind of media our politicians will be expected to reach us with; this is a new and unique problem.

In essence, then, where once rhetoric in political circles was essentially limited to one form.

Now politicians need to be nimble, understanding the wide and nuanced world of online media, and be prepared to allow citizens a far more complete and intimate picture of their personal life than ever before.

Get the best viral stories straight into your inbox!

Don't worry, we don't spam

Leave a Reply

Join the Badger Team

Apply today!

Latest Posts

Union obliterates the debate – unwritten requirement used to shut down free speech debate
Campus News
537 views1
Campus News
537 views1

Union obliterates the debate – unwritten requirement used to shut down free speech debate

Jordan Wright - April 27, 2018

Student society Liberate the Debate’s most recent event was cancelled over a lack of compliance with the Students' Union's (USSU) requirement for a neutral chair - a…

Verve Couture – Musicality, kitsch & ignition: the beginning of a series
Arts
75 views
Arts
75 views

Verve Couture – Musicality, kitsch & ignition: the beginning of a series

Ricardo Reverón Blanco - June 17, 2018

Pictured: Zac Black At Proud Cabaret audiences were spellbound as if at night at the circus, yet this was not like Angela Carter’s magical realist novel; Verve…

Fleabag on stage at The Old Market – review
Arts
109 views
Arts
109 views

Fleabag on stage at The Old Market – review

Florence Dutton - June 11, 2018

[caption id="attachment_35513" align="alignnone" width="2400"] Fleabag at Soho Theatre[/caption] Last Monday at 8pm at Brighton’s The Old Market, I sat myself down in my theatre seat eagerly awaiting…

Fleabag preview
Arts
107 views
Arts
107 views

Fleabag preview

Florence Dutton - June 2, 2018

[caption id="attachment_35513" align="alignnone" width="2400"] Fleabag at Soho Theatre[/caption] Following the mass success of the Bafta award-winning BBC Series, DryWrite and Soho Theatre are about to hit the…

Brighton Festival: Ezra Furman at the Dome
Arts
132 views
Arts
132 views

Brighton Festival: Ezra Furman at the Dome

Georgia Grace - June 1, 2018

Having completed my final semester of university with modules on punk history and queer arts, it was fitting that I rounded off my end-of-assessment celebrations by attending…

Arts
148 views

The Tempest review

Georgia Grace - May 30, 2018

As the sun begins to set over Hove Green, tinnies of Red Stripe are cracked open, tartan blankets are strewn, and families tuck into their picnic hampers.…

A Glass Half Empty review
Arts
158 views
Arts
158 views

A Glass Half Empty review

Georgia Grace - May 27, 2018

For those of us coming to the end of another year of university study, the prospect of careers, marriages and babies may seem a long way off.…

DollyWould at The Old Market review
Arts
150 views
Arts
150 views

DollyWould at The Old Market review

Alex Hutson - May 27, 2018

Sh!t Theatre’s DollyWould is a hilarious, thoughtful and experimental performance piece. The award winning show has the Sh!t Theatre duo integrating comedy, storytelling, personal experience and music.…

UCU Launch Petition to End the ‘Hostile Environment’ at Sussex
Campus News
244 views
Campus News
244 views

UCU Launch Petition to End the ‘Hostile Environment’ at Sussex

Billie-Jean Johnson - May 26, 2018

The Sussex branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has launched a petition calling for Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell to end the 'hostile environment' at Sussex. The…

Arts
116 views

Shakespeare in the sun – The Tempest preview

Georgia Grace - May 24, 2018

In a world of dystopian King Lears and female Hamlets, Shakespeare’s classics are constantly being reimagined for the modern day. There’s something oddly refreshing then about the…

Review: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)
Arts
230 views
Arts
230 views

Review: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)

Sophie Coppenhall - May 23, 2018

What a phenomenal contrast these two films present when watched side-by-side. In essence, together they are capable of tracing inner and outer metamorphoses of their subjects. The…

Dollywould at The Old Market preview
Arts
149 views
Arts
149 views

Dollywould at The Old Market preview

Alex Hutson - May 22, 2018

From the 22nd May - 25th May 2018 DollyWould will be showing at The Old Market. An exciting new show, presented by Sh!t Theatre, who won the…

Exhibition: Io-sono Fedilouu
Artist Focus
222 views
Artist Focus
222 views

Exhibition: Io-sono Fedilouu

Ricardo Reverón Blanco - May 16, 2018

Last week artist Fedilou made her debut exhibition in the downstairs space of Morelli Zorelli, a quaint vegan Italian restaurant in Hove, featuring a collection of intimate…

Interview with Philosophy faculty and COGS director Ron Chrisley
Interview
158 views
Interview
158 views

Interview with Philosophy faculty and COGS director Ron Chrisley

Nikolaos Manesis - May 15, 2018

Ron Chrisley is a Reader in Philosophy, on the faculty of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, and is the director of COGS (Centre for Cognitive Science).…

Adam review
Arts
223 views
Arts
223 views

Adam review

Ketan Jha - May 13, 2018

If you have been a stranger to the stage this spring and decide to see one contemporary show, let it be Adam. This reviewer went in entirely…

Brighton Fringe Preview: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)
Arts
250 views
Arts
250 views

Brighton Fringe Preview: Nick Cave Double Bill at The Old Market (TOM’s Film Club)

Sophie Coppenhall - May 13, 2018

In celebration of iconic Brighton local, legendary alt-rock musician (and episodic actor) Nick Cave, TOM’s Film Club are hosting a double-bill screening of his films at The…

Whimsical fairy-tale meets class war – Standard: Elite review
Arts
288 views
Arts
288 views

Whimsical fairy-tale meets class war – Standard: Elite review

Georgia Grace - May 11, 2018

Meta-theatricality and interactivity are becoming all the more vogue in contemporary theatre, and in a world where the arts are becoming increasingly open and democratised, I find…

A Year of Art Society: The Best Picks
Artist Focus
200 views
Artist Focus
200 views

A Year of Art Society: The Best Picks

Alex Leissle - May 9, 2018

  [gallery type="slideshow" ids="35385,35386,35387,35388,35389,35390,35391,35392,35393,35394,35395,35396,35397,35398,35399,35400,35401,35402,35403,35404,35405,35406,35407,35408,35409,35410,35411"]

More Brit(ish) than ever: A review of Afua Hirsch at Brighton Festival
Books
214 views
Books
214 views

More Brit(ish) than ever: A review of Afua Hirsch at Brighton Festival

William Singh - May 9, 2018

Afua Hirsch’s 2018 book - part memoir, part polemic - provokes mixed feelings. So too did her discussion of the topic at this year’s Brighton Festival. Don’t…

Ethnic-bioweapons: between conspiracy and reality
Science
267 views
Science
267 views

Ethnic-bioweapons: between conspiracy and reality

Luke Richards - May 8, 2018

Bioweapons exist, while ethnic-bioweapons are whispered conspiracies. Pandemics can fairly hazardous to human life, the 1918 Flu Pandemic killed 20-50 million people. A man made pandemic could…

Breaking: Spring referenda results announced
News
273 views
News
273 views

Breaking: Spring referenda results announced

Jessica Hubbard - May 4, 2018

Students have voted to support the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, reject Prevent and adopt new Gender Equality policies. Results for the Students' Union referenda were…