The consequences of one small word may be known to savvy lawyers but it can become a true stumbling block for others such as politicians, famous people and aristocrats with the potential of overthrowing the heedless orator. How is that even possible?
As son to the Queen of England one may suppose that Prince Andrew would have sufficient experience in how to handle the press and how to appear in public becoming a member of the Royal Family. One could even assume that being in accordance with decorum was part of the royal education from an early age. Why then did a small subordinate clause of the Prince cause such a backlash?
When analysing this interview from a rhetorician’s point of view, the rhetorical situation has to be considered first. These were the circumstances of the interview:
Proxemics: A parlour in Buckingham Palace
Setting: TV interview with BBC Newsnight on 14.11.2019; broadcasted on 16.11.2019
People: Emily Maitlis (journalist) and Prince Andrew
Media: TV broadcast and available on BBC iPlayer / Youtube
Telos: Clarifying his relationship to Jeffrey Epstein
Passage: Prince Andrew’s answer to the question why he stayed with a convicted sex offender at his mansion:
„Right, I have always… ever since this has happened and since this has become, as it were, public knowledge that I was there, I've questioned myself as to why did I go and what was I doing and was it the right thing to do? Now, I went there with the sole purpose of saying to him that because he had been convicted, it was inappropriate for us to be seen together.
And I had a number of people counsel me in both directions, either to go and see him or not to go and see him and I took the judgement call that because this was serious and I felt that doing it over the telephone was the chicken's way of doing it. I had to go and see him and talk to him.
And I went to see him and I was doing a number of other things in New York at the time and we had an opportunity to go for a walk in the park and that was the conversation coincidentally that was photographed which was when I said to him, I said, "Look, because of what has happened, I don't think it is appropriate that we should remain in contact," and by mutual agreement during that walk in the park we decided that we would part company and I left, I think it was the next day and to this day I never had any contact with him from that day forward.” 1
In Prince Andrew’s words, he did meet up personally with Mr. Epstein with the sole purpose of telling him that it would be inappropriate for them to be seen together in the future. A walk in the park was the right thing to do for him as he felt a mere telephone call with Epstein would have been „the chicken’s way” out.
The dilemma that arises becomes obvious: why bother meeting with someone personally when it is inappropriate to be seen with this person in public? He was doing exactly that which he wanted to avoid in the first place. Logic contradicts his argument. The ethos of the orator is one of a public persona who represents England abroad. England is a constitutional monarchy since 1688 and members of the Royal Family act as a kind of ambassador for their people and country. They are dignified ambassadors. The answer of Prince Andrew does not reflect this in any way and he is therefore violating his own ethos as a royal son. He is talking about appropriateness but not about the victims of Epstein. He is talking about appropriateness but he isn’t showing any shame or remorse of being in touch with Epstein all these years. This is deeply disconcerting.
It seems as if Prince Andrew and his staff haven’t considered that broadcasting this interview on TV and online would ensue comments which are a force to be reckoned with. It wasn’t long before an outpouring of criticism set in and the dilemma mentioned above took place. It is the factor of extension (Dimission2) that underlines the discrepancy between the appropriate wording in the orator’s eyes in this situation and the devastating effect it had on the audience. What seemed logical to the orator while speaking was by no means the judging audience’s perception which could watch this video unhurriedly, could comment ad hoc or could obtain detailed information after watching it. Reckoning how the addressee is going to react isn’t 100% sure but an orator ponders on the possible outcome and resistance beforehand. Why Prince Andrew answered the way he did, if it was improvised or if he simply wasn’t aware of the full meaning of his words cannot be clarified in the end. The effect it had on the viewer however was clear and univocal regardless of class or education.
Appropriateness is much more than a speech in accordance with aptum due to the fact that it has to be pinned to the orator as an ethical agent according to Cicero’s concept of decorum. Ethics and rhetoric cannot be seen as separated entities from the human as a socially acting being because he/she is the source of it all. Appropriateness denotes the rhetorical responsibility of each orator who has to be an expert on the subject of rhetorical and ethical issues. To be aware of this enormous responsibility while speaking is the unique task of every orator especially today – no matter how small the word or phrase may be by itself.