Use code DAD23 for 20% off + Free shipping on $45+ Shop Now!
Words Like Loaded Pistols
Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama
By Sam Leith
Formats and Prices
- ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
- Trade Paperback $19.99 $24.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 26, 2016. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Also available from:
Rhetoric gives our words the power to inspire. But it's not just for politicians: it's all around us, whether you're buttering up a key client or persuading your children to eat their vegetables. You have been using rhetoric yourself, all your life. After all, you know what a rhetorical question is, don't you?
In Words Like Loaded Pistols, Sam Leith traces the art of argument from ancient Greece down to its many modern mutations. He introduces verbal villains from Hitler to Richard Nixon—and the three musketeers: ethos, pathos and logos. He explains how rhetoric works in speeches from Cicero to Obama, and pays tribute to the rhetorical brilliance of AC/DC's "Back In Black". Before you know it, you'll be confident in chiasmus and proud of your panegyrics— because rhetoric is useful, relevant, and absolutely nothing to be afraid of.
Praise for Words Like Loaded Pistols
“It is through a welter of colloquial examples and eccentric line readings that the book really comes alive. . . . While the formal study of rhetoric might have collapsed under its own weight, Leith offers a slimmed-down version that is sure to enlighten.”
—Financial Times (UK)
“Leith attempts to reclaim rhetoric with a breezy book that sprays around examples from history, politics, and popular culture to outline the building blocks of public speech, flitting happily from Cicero to J-Lo, from Hitler to Homer Simpson. . . . Leith's often engaging examples lighten any sense of learning.”
“This requires more than a cursory glance to appreciate its genius properly, but Leith's great gift is the ability to plunder the everyday to illustrate the rarefied. . . . He describes the development of rhetoric beautifully, and even after the most cursory dip into this, you begin to hear the world in a completely different, illuminated way.”
“Engrossing. . . . When it comes to Obama, Leith's scrutiny is painstaking and he is especially illuminating on Obama's debts to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.”
“In this entertaining work of scholarship, Sam Leith revives the powerful discipline of classical rhetoric. . . . Leith is a gifted listener, and will not only tell you that 'Friends, Romans, countrymen' is a swelling tricolon but also which power ballad's opening bars it most resembles (AC/DC's 'Back in Black': 'DUM! DUH-dum! DUH-dum-dum!')”
—London Evening Standard (UK)
“This isn't your parents' rhetoric primer. . . . Irreverent and funny, Words Like Loaded Pistols is filled with tongue-in-cheek witticisms, slang, and unexpected illustrations. . . . As political rhetoric builds toward November, Leith's subject will be unavoidable. For the coming months, friends, Buckeyes, countrymen, ready your ears.”
“A rambunctious handbook of rhetoric . . . funny, friendly pages.”
“A fascinating examination of the power of words.”
—Sacramento/San Francisco Book Review
“Leith throws around obscure Greek words like a classics professor, but there are just enough Simpsons references and jokes to make this feel like worthy extracurricular reading.”
—Zocalo Public Square
“Riveting. . . . Leith makes the classical techniques of rhetoric irresistibly accessible.”
“A magnificently entertaining romp through the intricacies of classic rhetorical technique from Aristotle to Obama. . . . The genius of the book . . . is the irreverent and humorous range of examples he calls on to illustrate rhetoric in action.”
—Professionally Speaking (blog)
“Leith is good on tropes and registers and equally good at picking apart speeches—as his subtitle says, From Aristotle to Obama—to show us how they work. . . . [He] is good, too, on the structure of political speeches.”
“Timed for a presidential election year, this sassy, smart book outlines and illustrates nearly every rhetorical trope and flourish related to the art of persuasion. . . . Leith can be fiendishly entertaining.”
“Leith brings to life a forgotten but eternally essential subject. . . . Leith uses every tool in the rhetorician's arsenal to argue for rhetoric's continuing relevance. . . . Readers will gain a great deal of insight into how humans use communication to get what they want. . . . The book fulfills Cicero's three objectives of rhetoric: 'to move, educate, and delight.'”
Also by Sam Leith
The Coincidence Engine
Preface to the Paperback Edition
I first sat down to write the book that became Words Like Loaded Pistols in 2009. The forty-fourth president of the United States of America—whose oratory had inspired the book—was just settling into the White House. The book seemed pretty up-to-date. My notion in writing it had been to take a sweeping look at the history of rhetoric—its theorists and its practitioners from long before the birth of Christ to shortly after the 2008 election.
In doing so I hoped to demonstrate that, at root, not much about oratory and persuasive writing had changed—not on a fundamental level: public men and women still wrote and delivered speeches, and the way those speeches worked on their audiences' sense of self, their emotions and their reasoning, would have been entirely recognizable to Aristotle.
I stand by that. But in certain respects, things have moved on. And what's more, they have moved on pretty fast. Look in the index of this book, and you find not a single reference to Facebook or Twitter and only one to Google. Yet if you look at the world around you and the way it is shaped by digital media in general and social media in particular, you see a complete transformation. Grassroots political movements flourish as never before thanks to social media—and even mainstream politicians now have to consider not only how their rhetorical sallies will be reported in the mainstream press and on television but how they will travel on social media.
It just so happens that 2009 was exactly the year in which Twitter's rate of growth started to really shoot up; in 2008 it was growing at 750-odd percent; in 2009, at twice that rate. Facebook started the turbocharged phase of its ascent a little earlier, but still, if you compare its user base as 2007 dawned with its user base three years later, it's a jump of multiples. As I write, Twitter boasts 320 million active users; Facebook, 1.55 billion. And this ignores Instagram, Tumblr, SnapChat, YouTube, and the countless other apps and services with which people now share information and through which data—aka our thoughts, our feelings, and our amusing Hitler-resembling pussycats—propagates.
Is all this, as you might ask, a game changer? I should say, though I am no oracle, yes and no. Yes, the advent of social media has changed, definitively and for good and all (at least until the next thing comes along), the way much rhetoric is done. But no, it has not changed one bit, not fundamentally, the way rhetoric works.
How do I make that distinction? It's sometimes said that we're out of sync: our technology is space-age, while our civilizations or institutions are medieval, and our emotions are still Stone Age. This is what we might call a suggestive oversimplification, but it points to something real. Anyone who's watched the lumbering way in which Western legal institutions attempt to play catch-up with technology can see the gap between the first and second of those propositions; anyone who's seen the ageless reaction of a teenager being bullied—whether it be taunting on social media or the good-old analogue point-and-jeer method I remember from the playground—will recognize the truth of the third proposition.
So the way rhetoric works through these different technologies adapts to the technologies, but the way it works on us—our fears and desires, our deep-seated tribal feelings—is pretty much the same as ever. It emphatically doesn't mean rhetoric is on the way out. It means, rather, that it's changing form. And that change is extremely interesting.
Through human history every new art form or communicative technology—and rhetoric falls into both categories—has been greeted with a mixture of excitement and fear. Those fears tend to be substantially the same: that it will shorten our attention spans, erode our seriousness, hamper our ability to communicate, and/or undermine civil society. Socrates regarded the development of the written word as a bad thing: it would cause the arts of memory to fall into disrepair and with them the skill of thinking. People would imagine that because they had read something, they understood it: we would have everywhere knowledge and nowhere wisdom. (When I was growing up, similar anxieties attended the use of pocket calculators in math class.) We know Socrates thought this, incidentally, thanks to the miracle of the written word. So too, in various ways over the years, did cultural paranoia attend the development of silent reading, moveable type, and the distribution of the Bible in the vernacular.
When the novel first became popular as a form, it was widely regarded as a morally suspect and brain-rotting form of entertainment. Likewise, the theater: in Jane Austen's morally suspect, brain-rotting Mansfield Park, you know that certain of the characters are a bit scandalous because they're keen on amateur theatricals. Now we regard novels and drama as mainstays of high culture, while television and videogames have taken their turns as the great villains of the day. Play videogames all day, and you'll lose the ability to communicate with other human beings. Watch television too much, and you'll become stupid, just like David Foster Wallace.
So, in the age of the sound bite and the tweet, I'm occasionally asked, "Is rhetoric dead?" I always answer, cheerily and with complete confidence, that it's never been more vigorous. Rhetoric is unkillable. It ceaselessly adapts to its audience and to its means of transmission.
Let me give an example or two. In the 1980s and 1990s, rolling television news started to change how politics was reported. As a cast-iron consequence, it also changed the way politics was done. Political aides started to think in terms of not the next day's newspapers but the "news cycle." And the "sound bite"—a short phrase that would be quoted over and over again in those repeating news bulletins and would likely then also make the next day's headlines—became a very important weapon in their armory.
There was a lot of anxiety over "sound-bite culture," some of it well justified. It did mean that, for a politician being grilled on an issue of the day, a long, nuanced, and carefully argued answer was unlikely to have the impact of a well-turned phrase. And, of course, this hasn't gone away—though it's worth remembering that the well-turned and memorable phrase has always, always had a special life in rhetoric and oratory.
As the media landscape has become more and more disaggregated, as the Internet—memorably described as "an ecosystem of interruption technologies"—offers more and more by way of distraction and temptation, as quotation from any given set of remarks is more and more likely to happen in a tweet or a Vine or an image, small objects travel furthest.
But the orator still needs to be on his toes. In 2011, we saw a gloriously comic instance of why. A television reporter interviewed Ed Miliband, then leader of Britain's main opposition party, for his reaction to a public-sector labor dispute.
"These strikes are wrong," he said with earnest conviction, "at a time when negotiations are still going on. But parents and the public have been let down by both sides, because the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner. After today's disruption I urge both sides to put aside the rhetoric, get round the negotiating table, and stop it happening again."
He answered the following five questions, all of which addressed different issues, with an all but identical version of the same formulation, paying no regard whatever to the questions themselves. As the interviewer later remarked, he'd been sorely tempted, by the end of the interview, to ask, "What is the world's fastest fish?" "Can your dog do tricks?" or "Which is your favorite dinosaur?" to see if he could elicit a different answer.
So what on earth was going on there? The answer is that Miliband and his Mili-handlers had calculated—quite reasonably, as it happened—that whatever he said would be whittled down to a ten-second quote for inclusion in a packaged news report at the top of the hour. By having him simply repeat a prepared sound bite, word for word, in answer to any question, they thought they could ensure that the broadcaster transmitted exactly what they wanted transmitted. No "gaffes," no being drawn into saying something he shouldn't, no dangerous off-topic digressions.
And that worked, as far as it went. That evening's news will have used one of those answers. It's clear that this interview was no more than an unusually stark and clunking version of something that has long been standard practice for politicians confronted with TV cameras. The rolling news stations need your ten-second sound bite, and if you only give them one, that's the one they'll have to use. Crude but effective. Had Miliband given that interview just a few years previously, it would have been a job well—if discourteously—done.
But he didn't reckon on YouTube. Unexpurgated footage of the interview was posted online and soon went viral on social media. Miliband's robotic repetitions, combined with his hammy attempts to seem serious and sincere, were so sublimely strange and funny that he became an instant laughing stock. Here I am, still mocking him for it five years later. And that footage will be online forever. So there: a CNN-age orator getting a Twitter-age comeuppance. Rhetoric is an arms race.
But was he the victim of "sound-bite culture"? Only up to a point. We think of the Internet as necessitating ever-shorter communications, the 140 characters of a tweet being its paradigmatic new form. But the Internet's pull toward brevity did not do for Miliband—quite the opposite: a cable news network could never screen two and a half minutes of someone saying the same thing over and over again, but slapping that video up on YouTube costs nothing and is the work of a moment. Small objects travel furthest, but in the vast space of the digital universe, there's room for some very large ones too. In its early years, YouTube limited videos to ten minutes; in 2010, it upped the limit to fifteen minutes; now (with a verified account) you can post an Andy Warhol–esque eleven hours. Blog posts of positively eye-watering length and detail proliferate too—giving rise to the always useful acronym "TL;DR" ("Too long; didn't read").
This means that a rhetorical strategy online might involve using something very short and snappy, say, a tweet or a Facebook status update, to hook the audience and linking to something much longer and more detailed—just as, in the analogue world, a citation might lead to an article whose bibliography reveals a whole world of further reading or, perhaps, an eye-catching newspaper headline hints at the substance unpacked at length below. Your exordium—to stretch an analogy—might be 140 characters, while narration, division, and proof might continue in your blog post. And prepare for some refutation in the below-the-line comments section or your @ replies.
What of Aristotle's persuasive triad—ethos, pathos, and logos—in the digital age? Let's start with the first among equals, the bedrock of all persuasion, ethos: a speaker's appeal to his or her audience. In most cases through history, that has been a case of personal bona fides: Does the audience trust your integrity and expertise, know your history, share your desires? Does it like you?
For the last few centuries, with the advent of the joint stock company and the blessed invention of the advertising industry, ethos has also been involved in corporate identities: here, we call it "branding." When you see that your hamburger comes out of a wrapper bearing the Golden Arches or that the car in front of you is a Toyota, you'll form an impression of the hamburger or the car based on its logo—and companies go to very great lengths to ensure that impression is a positive one.
Every action, as Isaac Newton told us, has an equal and opposite reaction. Anticorporate campaigners have, over the last quarter century, become especially adept at using big brands' visibility against them in what's sometimes called culture jamming. So anti-tobacco campaigners, for instance, replaced Joe Camel with Joe Chemo, and billboard vandals turned "ESSO" into "E$$O." Sometimes the corporations even manage to subvert themselves: when the boss of a large British jewelry chain, Ratners, described his products as "total crap" at a business conference, his remarks wiped three quarters of a million dollars off the market capitalization.
Ethos is about trust. And when you go online—where anonymity and impersonation are very much easier and very much more common than in meatspace—trust is a major problem. The blockchain technology that underpins Bitcoin—a transparent, publicly available, and uncheatable cryptographic structure—is one ingenious approach, in one area, to solving that problem. It allows strangers to trust each other with money and, what's more, to do so while remaining anonymous. When it comes to arguing online, however, as opposed to paying for goods and services, encryption technology won't quite cover it. As has often been said, the Internet gives a voice to millions who would not have had one. But it also makes it harder to sift the authoritative and trustworthy from all those voices. How do people project an ethos appeal online?
Do you trust something you find on a random blog? Probably not. Do you trust something you read on Wikipedia? More likely so—because Wikipedia's guidelines ensure that, though it's possible to hoax visitors with an untested or outright false piece of information, the canny user knows to check material that lacks a proper citation. And hypertext lets you check those citations. You can trust an anonymous editor, in other words, because you can check his or her work—a weak, nonmathematical shadow of the blockchain.
Branding, both corporate and personal, still does a great deal of the work of ethos in the online environment. When someone who has kept the (default) egg avatar and appears to have three followers tweets something to your timeline, you will likely give it less weight than the tweet of a user followed by many people known to you. A few thousand followers or a few thousand "likes" give users of social media more of an air of authority: those "likes" are the earnest of a track record and a history—of one sort or another. Indeed, you could consider that, implicitly, a version of argumentum ad populum—an appeal to the wisdom of the crowd. The same thing applies to posts that go viral: if half a million people have shared something on social media, we tend to assume that it will be interesting—or funny, or offensive, or blessed with a particularly amusing picture of a cat that looks a bit like Hitler.
This idea about virality leads us to the second of Aristotle's categories. It's notable that pathos, the appeal to emotion, plays a very large part in this. When a few years ago I interviewed BuzzFeed's founder, Jonah Peretti, he said that memes and web culture are "organized by a sort of social logic. What kind of things do people like to do together? What kinds of things do people relate to? We organize our site by these emotional responses" [my emphasis]. As Peretti confirms, and as online advertising experts will tell you, the things that go completely bananas online are almost always the things that tap into the emotions: shock or curiosity ("WTF"), sentimentality ("Squee!"), amusement ("LOL"), and—more than perhaps any of the previous—anger ("Grrr," to borrow the analogue catchphrase).
Argumentum ad populum can be weaponized as an appeal to the anger of the crowd. See cases of the "social media pile-on" or "Twitterstorm" for details—for example the case of Justine Sacco, the PR worker who in 2013 made a jocular tweet widely interpreted as racist and said that the resultant furor "ruined her life." As a weapon of persuasion, the online equivalent of George Orwell's four-minute hate is a blunt and unattractive instrument—but it works. All rhetoric, as I'm fond of saying, is at root identity speech, and the Internet is a space in which group identities are policed aggressively. Transgressors against codes of behavior can be hounded in a way that was barely possible offline, and with-us-or-against-us thinking is very common indeed.
Social media has been very important in the emergence of angry movements against conventional politics—be they the Occupy Movement or the Tea Party. In a widely antiauthoritarian online environment, new types of authority emerge—including, in a strange twist on the old notion of trusting somebody because you know who they are, the rise of the decentered activist group Anonymous. Anonymity, here, is parlayed into a sort of rhetorical strength, a mark of egolessness, austere virtue, and (by implication, at least) membership in a numberless group of the like-minded.
And finally, what about logos, the name Aristotle gave to actual argumentation? Can you still make a proper argument in the online world? Won't you just be shouted down? Isn't it just a case of blurting a 140-character slogan and hoping yours is the one that goes viral? Will anyone even listen on an Internet that is an apparent cesspool of conspiracy theories, hoaxes, zombie facts, and malicious put-ons?
Actually, there's decent reason to suppose you can, you won't, it isn't, and—if you get it right—they will. Many of the things that Aristotle talked about when discussing argument—the use of proofs and witnesses, the appeal to commonplaces, and the adducing of evidence—are easier rather than harder in the online age. With the digital equivalent of the Great Library of Alexandria at your fingertips—and the means not only to quote from but to link to it—your resources for serious argument are far greater than they were. Want to pull a living authority into your argument? You can always @ him or her on Twitter.
There are lots of shouty crazies out there—but the sane are out there too. The Internet makes it easy to spread lies and conspiracy theories—the long-discredited anti-Semitic tsarist hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion continues to enjoy its radioactive half-life in the swampier parts of the World Wide Web—but it makes debunking them easy as well. A specialized form of refutation known as "fisking" has flourished online. The term denotes a style of aggressively forensic line-by-line fact-checking named for veteran Middle Eastern correspondent Robert Fisk, who pioneered the technique in the sense (unfortunately for him) of incessantly being the victim of it.
So we have new communicative forms—the very long and the very short. The visual rather than the merely verbal is foregrounded—with the play of gifs and emoticons, the impact of photographs and diagrams. We have, you could say, new figures and commonplaces available—a reaction gif where once a well-worn apothegm would have served. But the old ones are still going strong: you'll find chiasmus, alliteration, erotema, antithesis, anaphora, and tricolon all flourishing on social media. We have new, complex, and often subtle forms of signaling tone and register online, new decorums and conventions indicating membership in one communicative clique or another. Our resources for quotation and fact-checking are as never before.
And—this maybe the most exciting and complicating aspect of the digital age of all—our arguments now have a dizzying reach. Consider, after all, that in the notional Rhetoric Year One, the only audience imaginable consisted of people physically within earshot of a speaker.
So, is rhetoric dead? I don't think so.
I'd like to wrap up by appealing to a source of ancient wisdom: Ian Malcolm, the chaos mathematician played by Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. "The history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers," he says. "Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way." Substitute "rhetoric" for "life" in that quote, and it is no less true.
Rhetoric finds a way. Rhetoric always finds a way.
LET ME START BY introducing you to a scene from The Simpsons.
MARGE [sings]: How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?
LISA: No, dad, it’s a rhetorical question.
HOMER: Okay, eight.
LISA: Dad, do you even know what “rhetorical” means?
HOMER: Do I know what “rhetorical” means?
On this little scene, the whole premise of the book you hold in your hand hinges. Do you know what rhetorical means? Because you should. And if Homer Simpson, one of the greatest everyman figures of our time, can make a joke about rhetoric, you can be assured it is not a subject that needs to be intimidating.
So what is rhetoric? Rhetoric is, as simply defined as possible, the art of persuasion: the attempt by one human being to influence another in words. It is no more complicated than that. You are probably accustomed to thinking of rhetoric in terms of formal oratory: the sort of public speeches you see politicians make on television, CEOs make at annual meetings, and priests make on Sunday mornings in church. True, that is, when rhetoric is at its most visible—that’s when rhetoric puts on a dinner jacket and polishes its dancing shoes. But that is only one part of a huge area that the term covers.
- "Delightful and illuminating.... Words Like Loaded Pistols sports a fabulous assortment of examples of time-tested rhetorical gambits in action.... The marvel is not that the old techniques still work, but that we ever persuaded ourselves that we could do without them."—Salon
- "It is through a welter of colloquial examples and eccentric line readings that the book really comes alive.... While the formal study of rhetoric might have collapsed under its own weight, Leith offers a slimmed-down version that is sure to enlighten."—The Financial Times (UK)
- "Leith attempts to reclaim rhetoric with a breezy book that sprays around examples from history, politics and popular culture to outline the building blocks of public speech, flitting happily from Cicero to J-Lo, from Hitler to Homer Simpson.... Leith's often engaging examples lighten any sense of learning."—The Observer (UK)
- "A highly entertaining and erudite whisk through the subject [of rhetoric].... It's not hard to agree that a little rhetorical knowledge is a wonderful thing, and Leith's work will indeed prove instructive as well as entertaining to those called on to speak in public."—The Guardian (UK)
- "This requires more than a cursory glance to appreciate its genius properly, but Leith's great gift is the ability to plunder the everyday to illustrate the rarefied...He describes the development of rhetoric beautifully, and even after the most cursory dip into this, you begin to hear the world in a completely different, illuminated way."—Telegraph (UK)
- "Leith is good on tropes and registers and equally good at picking apart speeches - as his subtitle says, From Aristotle to Obama - to show us how they work.... [he] is good, too, on the structure of political speeches."—Week (UK)
- "Elegant, concise and frequently very funny."—Spectator (UK)
- "Engrossing.... When it comes to Obama, Leith's scrutiny is painstaking and he is especially illuminating on Obama's debts to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King."—Independent (UK)
- “This isn’t your parents’ rhetoric primer. . . .Irreverent and funny, Words Like Loaded Pistols is filled with tongue-in-cheek witticisms, slang, and unexpected illustrations. . . . As political rhetoric builds toward November, Leith’s subject will be unavoidable. For the coming months, friends, Buckeyes, countrymen, ready your ears.”—Plain Dealer
- “A rambunctious handbook of rhetoric . . . funny, friendly pages.” —Wilson Quarterly
- "Leith brings to life a forgotten but eternally essential subject.... Leith uses every tool in the rhetorician's arsenal to argue for rhetoric's continuing relevance.... Readers will gain a great deal of insight into how humans use communication to get what they want...the book fulfills Cicero's three objectives of rhetoric: 'to move, educate, and delight.'"—Kirkus Reviews
- "Timed for a presidential election year, this sassy, smart book outlines and illustrates nearly every rhetorical trope and flourish related to the art of persuasion.... Leith can be fiendishly entertaining."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Apr 26, 2016
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Basic Books