“Rhetoric is language at play-language plus. It is what persuades and cajoles, inspires and bamboozles, thrills and misdirects. It is made, as often as not, of half truths and fine-sounding meaninglessness, of false oppositions and abstract nouns and shaky inferences.” ~ Sam Leith, author of ‘Words Like Loaded Pistols’ and former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, UK
To begin with, Lawyer Alexander Kwamena Afenyo-Markin has not offended anybody lately. Well, not that we know of. His communication prowess and knowledge of the law are never in doubt. He speaks clearly and masterfully to issues of the law and matters of politics, especially when he is called to defend his convictions. Even in the vexed and contentious matter of the University of Education, Winneba, where he is a Member of Parliament, the young and ambitious lawyer has offered cogent and unambiguous explanations, often directly speaking to the political and legal issues surrounding the institution’s vice-chancellor position. He is intelligent, succinct and persuasive.
Footbridges – Who cares?
Good communicators do not indulge in digressio (distraction, digressive sidetrack) or circumlocutio (talking around a point) needlessly, except to achieve a deliberate rhetorical effect. Bomphiologia (excessive circumlocution) can be very annoying, especially when the speaker deploys the mechanism to defend the indefensible or divert attention from a perplexing matter. Bomphiologia is ‘beating around the bush’ when it is very bushy.
On last week’s edition of Newsfile (10/11/2018), lawyer Afenyo-Markin uncharacteristically launched into bomphiologia when host Sampson Lardi Ayenini asked him a simple question about the uncompleted footbridges on the Adenta-Madina Highway that has claimed many lives. The latest victim was an 18-year-old student of the West African Senior High School, who was knocked down by a speeding taxi. She died instantly. The lifeless body had remained on the road unattended for nearly an hour while motorists raced past her, leaving the dead the bury the dead. That was the tipping point.
Official statistics put the number of casualties at 24 and some 196 injuries. However, the figures from street corners are unrealistically high. They put it at nearly 200 deaths. All Ghanaians. Young and old. Men and women. Boys and girls. Tall and short. Potentials and ambitions killed. Needless death. Avoidable deaths. A footbridge could have saved them all. But we had looked on for nearly 10 years while souls perished. In their land of birth. The lethargy and nonchalance of previous and present governments had been appalling.
Clichés and rhetoric
Citizens of Adenta and Madina were up in arms, burning tyres and blocking roads in protest. To douse the fires, the police had been a little hardhanded, shooting into crowds and injuring people, including a young school boy who is receiving critical medical attention. Tensions have reached a crescendo. It could tip over to something terrible. This was the matter for discussion on Newsfile and discussant Afenyo Markin was to comment on it.
How do rhetoricians speak to issues like this? Like you, Afenyo-Markin is a rhetorician (anybody who uses language for any purpose is doing rhetoric). The shoe seller at Kantamanto is using rhetoric when he convinces you to make a purchase. So, you, dear reader, is the best rhetorician there is. Of course, there are people who have the ability to use language more skillfully, deploying the metaphors we know without sounding cliched. Lawyer Afenyo-Markin is quite good at this. We expected him to respond to the matter of the footbridges as if he were speaking to people who know about footbridges.
Instead, the Efutu Parliamentarian took a sudden (but not unpredictable) propagandistic detour into the bushes of free SHS, NABCO, national health insurance and other achievements of the governing NPP administration. The matter of the footbridge was lost in the sea of the self-aggradizing metaphors. Gradually, but most painfully, we watched his circumlocucio tip over into bomphiologia until the host stepped in to steer him back on track. It was too late; the NPP politician was already lost in the sea. He had given himself the carte-blanche to navigate the otherwise dangerous terrain of political communication to make it less dangerous for his selfish purposes.
The audience found him very irritating. How do free SHS, NABCO and health insurance answer to the needless deaths of 24 Ghanaians? Talk to us about what your government has done to fix the bridges. Talk to us about the history of the Adenta-Madina highway, and if possible, the name of the contractor who started it. Tell us why the footbridges were not completed. Talk to us about what we are going to do to avoid more deaths. Talk to us about other footbridges in the country that need fixing. Talk to us about the bigger government programme for road infrastructure in the country.
Political communication is a special genre. It is not for everybody. It involves spin, propaganda, half-truths and sometimes fake news. A lot of rhetoric is needed here. Political party communicators skirt round the matter when they don’t have good answers to win the argument or when research fails them. They are evasive, dismissive or angry when the opposition prevails. Where they have some ammunition to counter a point, they tear into the opposition, seeking to outdo them by taking more than the allotted time to speak.
While there are no clear rules on how to answer questions during media interviews and panel discussions, such as Newsfile, discussants are known to indulge in some form of Comprobatio (complementing the audience in the hope that they will look more kindly on your case). It sounds quite patronising as saying ‘our friends from the media’ when a discussant starts his submissions by first greeting your ‘cherished listeners’. Sometimes, they talk about discerning listeners. You will not hear this in British or American media. Listeners do not need to reminded how discerning they are.
Around here, we cherish our listeners enough to leave them in the sea of invectives while we swim ashore. When we end a media interview abruptly, as embattled Ghana Maritime Authority Boss Kwame Owusu did recently on Joy FM’s Top Story, we have ended our courtesy affair with the media.