To Trust or Not to Trust

Dr. Curtis Dozier from Vassar College wrote an article in August 2016 titled Hillary Clinton and the Rhetoric of Trust, essentially claiming that, when it comes to establishing trust, we hold women accountable to standards that weren’t designed for them.

I respectfully disagree. Assessing trust is no different for women than it is for men. Credibility has two dimensions, expertise (competence) and trustworthiness. While competence can be easily proven by a track record of achievements, trustworthiness comes down to demonstrating honesty, reliability and fairness.

Dozier, who teaches Classical Rhetoric and Presidential Campaigns, uses Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a framework of analysis to assess political candidates’ use of rhetorical devices founded in Antiquity. Dozier claims that, since during Aristotle’s time women didn’t participate in politics, Aristotle’s views on what makes a good persuader must have been skewed in favor of men. In fact, the persuasion techniques proposed by Aristotle in his Rhetoric (logos / logical argument, ethos / the credibility of the speaker, and pathos / emotional appeals) have been used successfully in all aspects of life ever since, and are not limited to politics.

When it comes to establishing trust, Dozier points out to one constituent of trustworthiness in particular – courage, which in ancient Greece was firmly associated with men (or manliness). The word Aristotle used for courage was andreia which also meant man, a position that, Dozier thought, put women at a disadvantage. The author fails to mention however that female courage wasn’t alien to ancient Greeks, after all they had a Goddess of War, Athena, who was also the Goddess of Wisdom. Granted, that’s mythology, but it does tell us something about the Greek psyche.

When it comes to wisdom, Dozier explains that “Aristotle did not discuss sophia, “wisdom”, in concrete terms, but a fragment of Euripides declares that “a woman-hearted spirit is not a part of a wise (sophos) man” (Erechtheus fr. 53.33 Austin).” Again, the author fails to mention that, after all, in Greek mythology there is a Goddess of Wisdom, Athena.

Dozier also claims that “We expect our politicians to use his [Aristotle] techniques, because that’s what they’ve always done and it’s what we’re used to hearing.” I respectfully disagree: I believe that politicians (and not only) continue to use these persuasion techniques simply because they work.

The article did not go far enough, in my opinion, to analyze the extent to which the speaker’s likeability influences his / her perceived credibility (there is extensive research on this topic). Ordinarily, likeable communicators are perceived as more credible than the unlikeable ones – that is why charisma is so important in politics. There are scales for measuring both the speaker’s credibility and likeability.