The Rhetoric of Deception: A Lesson from Karl Rove

Christopher Witt —  May 16, 2014

Rhetoric is the skillful use of language in speaking or writing in order to influence how people think, feel, and act.

Rhetoric is neither good nor bad in itself. Its legitimacy is determined by how it is used (honestly or deceptively) and for what end it is used (for good or for ill).

The deceptive use of rhetoric is nothing new, certainly not in politics, nor is it limited to any particular faction.

Karl Rove’s comments “questioning” Hillary Clinton’s mental health are the most recent example. (For an account of his tactics, check out the Atlantic piece, “Why Karl Rove Uses Dirty Tricks: They Work.”)

I would like to take a page from Rove’s playbook as a lesson.

A Common Technique of the Rhetoric of Deception

Make a malicious statement so that the idea, image, or phrase you used becomes part of the public discourse.

The statement doesn’t have to be true or supported by logic or the evidence. As a matter of fact, the more outrageous the statement, the more sticking power it has.

You can deny having made the statement, or say you were misquoted, or regret having misspoken, or apologize for having offended anyone.

But the idea, image, or phrase has been introduced into the conversation — into people’s consciousness — and it will be repeated, if only to be attacked and discredited.

Here are five common ways (you’ll recognized them) to make an malicious statement, without appearing to be a nasty piece of work yourself:

  1. Pose a malicious statement as a question.
    “Is Karl Rove a master of deceit who will say anything, no matter how false or misleading, to advance his political agenda?”
  2. Deny making a malicious statement.
    “I’m not saying that Karl Rove has made himself rich by spreading outrageous lies about his political opponents.”
  3. Attribute a malicious statement to others.
    “Many people have said that Karl Rove wouldn’t recognize the truth if it hit him over the head with a bat.”
  4. Condemn a malicious statement.
    “Those who say that Karl Rove has contributed to the degradation of civil discourse should be ashamed of themselves.”
  5. Quote someone else’s malicious statement (with tepid disapproval).
    “I’m not sure I would agree with Joe Conason when he wrote, ‘Karl Rove is a liar and a scoundrel.'”

Once you have introduced the malicious idea, image, or phrase, it takes on a life of its own. Every subsequent rebuttal and impassioned denial will only serve to reinforce it.

I’m not saying that I believe Karl Rove is a master of deception, who deserves public condemnation. That’s not what I said. I may have misspoken (miswritten?) or been misquoted. I apologize if anyone was offended.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

7 responses to The Rhetoric of Deception: A Lesson from Karl Rove

  1. Excellent!!! I agree with the many people who say that Christopher Witt really knows his stuff.

  2. Wonderful Chris! I was once interviewed for a magazine article. The reporter asked “Aren’t you just copying your competitor?” I defended “No, we were actually first in market”

    It appeared in print as “Gabrielle denies just copying his competitor.” Riiiiight.

    • Bruce,

      Your response was exactly right thing. You didn’t repeat this charge in your denial. You proposed your own positive image. Unfortunately, he returned to his original charge. He was either unprofessional or unethical.

      As you know, I’m a fan of your book — SPEAKING POWERPOINT: THE NEW LANGUAGE OF BUSINESS. And it was the first book to take your approach to the subject that I saw. I hope it’s finding the market it deserves.


  3. Anonymous sources close to the Chris Witt camp will neither confirm or deny that he is one of the pithiest, most intelligent bloggers around. They also refused to comment on the rumor that “Karl Rove” is a mythical cable news avatar played by a rotating cadre of portly character actors known to have lost poker bets to Rupwrt Murdoch…

    • Thanks rich for passing on the rumors. I haven’t been able to substantiate or repudiate the rumor about Rove being a mythical cable news avatar. And I wouldn’t want to pass it on or repeat it here.

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