Bill O'Reilly and the Unforgivable Curses

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Rhetoric is a world of wizardry. It contains ancient wisdom and magical words.

Rhetoric is magic. But just like magic, it has its dark side. Just as J. K. Rowling gave her magical world the three 'Unforgivable Curses' -- Imperio, and Crucio, and Avada Kedavra, so rhetoric has it's own. It has Skotison, and Pysma, and Procatalepsis -- word structures designed to befuddle or destroy.

And it's only a matter of time before Bill O'Reilly gets to using them as he finds himself increasingly pushed into a rhetorical corner.

While NBC's Brian Williams recently took the classic disaster management route of acknowledge, apologize, and withdraw, O'Reilly is taking the opposite approach -- overwhelm your accusers with brute force. -- It can only be a matter of time before he turns to the rhetorical dark arts.

Here's what to look out for in upcoming O'Reilly commentary on his involvement in Falklandsgate:

The logic of procatalepsis is to shoot first and ask questions later. We've already seen some of this and we're going to see a whole lot more. For example, O'Reilly has fired volleys at one of his accusers, David Corn, calling him a "liar" and a "guttersnipe".

Procatalepsis is flame and anger, but if used ferociously enough it can discredit your immediate opponents, and intimidate others into silence.

Skotison is an ancient Greek word that means to darken or obscure. Think of the old adage, 'If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with.....', and you're not far off skotison.

Think of Donald Rumsfeld in the lead-up to the 2002 Iraq War:

" we know, there are known, knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknowns unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know..."

Skotison plays for time. It relies on throwing up a big enough smoke cloud that by the time your opponents see through it, the news-cycle has moved-on and you've made your escape.

If Pysma was a Shakespearean character, it would be grasping and aggressive, with sharp wit and and even sharper tongue. Now apply that description to a rhetorical technique and that's exactly how pysma functions.

Pysma is rolled out when contrary evidence starts to build-up. The technique takes the form of a machine-gun barrage of sharp questions:

"Who told you that? Where did they get their facts? Were they there? Well, were they? How do you know they're reliable?......"

Eventually the wrong-footed witness is forced to trip over their own evidence. As a technique it's intimidating and it's nasty but it's also effective.

But here's the good news... Harry Potter and his friends were taught Defense Against the Dark Arts.

All three of the techniques above rely on inspiring panic, confusion, fear, or hostility in the victim. They are traps, and there will be times in all of our lives when we come up against them -- most often from those who seek, for some reason of their own, to intellectually bully us.

The secret to survival is first to recognize these techniques for what they are -- deliberate ploys -- and then to deploy the appropriate counter-measure.

It's meant to confuse you, and depends on your being too embarrassed to admit to that confusion.

Don't be embarrassed! Look confused. Own that confusion. In fact -- revel in it! Then ask the other person to clarify, in plain words, exactly what they mean. There might be a couple of short-lived sparks, but then the smoke screen will abruptly vanish and you'll see that the Emperor has no clothes!

Procatalepsis is simple name calling -- rise above it. Resist the urge to be irritated or angry. Stick to your message.

Whoa... brain-overload of questions, and that's just what's meant to happen. Listen as carefully as you can to the stream. Whatever you do, don't try to answer all of them! Instead, go for the backdoor that's built into the Pysma technique, and answer only the questions that suit you. And do so slowly......

One at a time.

As with so many things in life, the ultimate defence against the rhetorical dark arts - is to keep calm, and carry on!

Peter Paskale is a communications coach and analyst who writes The Presenters' Blog at