I know that a common theme of this blog is that content is king, but there are times it has to take a backseat and let ethos drive the persuasion process.
Along with logic and emotion (logos and pathos) ethos is one of the three legs of Aristotle’s persuasive triad. There are times when the messenger is as important as the message, when the speaker’s presence and behavior provide eloquent testimony to the cause they represent.
The messenger’s credibility and authority is especially crucial when the listener will not respond to logic. The Egyptian regime refused to listen to any logic that would threaten its power, and the Egyptian people had for too long been afraid to act on the logic that finally led to its uprising.
So, when Wael Ghonim spoke on Egyptian TV after his release from detention, it was his ethos that gave his words power. Let’s take a look at some of the components that contributed to his credibility:
“We’re the youth that loves Egypt and we did this because we love Egypt!”
“I came here because we had to be with the people.”
We humans are very tribal, and we will assign much more credibility in a speaker who is one of us. It was very important for Ghonim to establish this early in the interview because he and others had been officially described as traitors.
Disinterest and shared sacrifice:
“Every single one of us who was at risk wasn’t doing this for a personal agenda, the people who moved and the people who planned they don’t want anything! I don’t want anything!”
Even when you agree with a speaker, any hint that they personally have something to gain can weaken their appeal. Ghonim lets us know that he had a comfortable—even rich—life outside of Egypt, so he had nothing to gain from coming back to the country to take part in the protests. Later in the interview he stresses that he has no political ambitions and just wants to go back to work.
“The heroes are the ones who were in the streets, the heroes are those who got beaten up, the heroes are those who got arrested and put their lives in danger. I was not a hero.”
He says he does not consider himself a hero. The ones protesting in the square, especially the ones who died in the violence, are the true heroes. The more he downplays his own stature, the higher it rises in the esteem of his listeners. On one occasion, he was asked if he had been beaten, and he says he was, but not systematically and not seriously. He was more concerned for his parents who suffered for twelve days without hearing from him than he was for himself.
“It is just not right…not right…that my dad…who has lost an eye…and could lose the other any day…spent 12 days not knowing where his son is!”
The raw and intense emotions Wael displays are caused not by his own danger and suffering, but by that of others. There is no mistaking the genuine grief he experiences when the pictures of some of the dead protesters come across the screen. It is real and heartfelt, and you would have to be pretty hard-hearted not to feel it yourself as you watch him weep.
“…but what I want to say is that at least those who interrogated me had the country’s best interests at heart.”
The most striking show of empathy is that which he exhibits toward the soldiers who had beaten him during his detention, or his interrogators. He does not blame them as individuals. He understands that they see him as a traitor and a threat to their country.
“This is not the time to settle scores. There are a lot of people I’d like to settle scores with, even personally, I wish I could get my rights from a lot of people.”
These statements could possibly harm his credibility with the most militant of the protesters, but it’s important to understand that Ghonim is not speaking only to them; they have already proven they are willing to take on the regime. He is instead appealing to the uncommitted and inactive middle, those who might have been confused about the motivations and good faith of the protesters; they had been told officially that the movement was being driven and manipulated by outsiders. He probably is also reaching out to wavering members of the regime. This is where ethos is critical: his empathy sends a powerful message about the non-violent and reasonable nature of the movement.
There are so many other examples of ethos in this interview that it would take too long to point them all out; I urge you to view the three part series with English captions here.
Ethos is so powerful because we are all human, and we respond instinctively to individuals. Sometimes a real face with a heartfelt message can be as powerful as a million people in the streets. No one knows how Egypt’s story will unfold in the coming months, but with people like Wael Ghonim involved, there is tremendous reason for hope.