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"The Process": The Importance of Ethos

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In which a writer who had held his tongue until this point, as he didn't want to seem elitist or (gasp) be judged for judging, scratches the itch we've all had since Derek Mason first opened his mouth as VU's head football coach.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the problems with anti-intellectualism: 1) It assumes anything not easily understandable is intentionally obfuscating the truth.  2) It uses the rhetoric of populism, and the statistics of popular opinion, to justify an action that goes against expert recommendation.  3) It assumes, worst of all, that there is no possibility for expert opinion, and as such, that all opinions are equal.  4) It misunderstands scientific consensus (see the people who cling to the 3% when they read about 97% of scientists agreeing on global warming).  5) The degree of specialization inherent in any academic pursuit removes all but colleagues from the pertinent discussions, so the masses will always not understand what's being put forth unless we fix the delivery system.  All of which feeds the beast of anti-intellectualism.

Here's the problem with Descriptivism: 1) It forgets that people judge other people innately.

For those who didn't understand any of that, pat yourselves on the back, as you're going to have a pretty easy time fitting in in our society, and know that contemporary discourse favors you.  In a society where political discourse is judged not by the strength of a candidate's ideas, but by the focus group response to his or her fashion choices and stage presence, the intelligent among us often shrink into the shadows, afraid to be labeled an other, or, more likely, are hammered down for standing out.

In such a society, you can pay a man millions of dollars to do a job which requires public speaking, and yet still be viewed as an elitist if you criticize him on his inability to convey his thoughts in a clear manner.

As such, consider what follows the "opinion" of an "elitist": Derek Mason loses all credibility the minute he opens his mouth.

When I was recently asked to speak to the debate team, I opened with the story of Socrates and the Sophists.  In short, Socrates questioned his students in the eternal pursuit of truth, whereas the Sophists promised their students - for a fee, of course - that they could teach them how to make the weaker argument the stronger.  I then expanded on that idea by giving a lecture on Logical Fallacies, using scenes from The Simpsons as examples of each category of fallacious reasoning.  At the conclusion of this, I told them, in no uncertain words, that the judges will be aware of all of these manipulative tactics, and though they often work on the general populace, ad hominem attacks, scare tactics, post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, etc., will not work on the judges.  As such, such tactics should be stricken from their arguments.

I closed by saying, "Let us be like the students of Socrates, continually striving for truth - unless we're given the other side.  Then, sophistry it is."

I say all of this not just because I've been a fan of So-Crates since his performance in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but as a reminder in the importance of knowing your audience, and the importance of Ethos.  Ethos, essentially, is the "credibility" side of the Rhetorical Triangle (Logos, Pathos, and Ethos).  There are many ways to achieve credibility, such as citing expert opinion or making a connection with your audience (shared experience, humor, etc.).  In the above example, I achieved Ethos through citing a recognizable historical figure (Socrates) and borrowing his expert credibility.  I took this further by making a personal connection (appealing to their desire to win and conception of their judges) and making each of these difficult concepts more digestible via humor (using The Simpsons as a teaching tool).  However, none of that is remotely possible without an expressible credibility.  In writing, this is shown through elements like grammar, style, and structure.  In speaking, it's that plus confidence.  Derek Mason, with every mumbling, stumbling, process-laden pile of nothing that comes out of his mouth, demonstrates a complete lack of expressible/performative credibility.  As such, his triangle has, at best, two sides, and crumbles accordingly.

Let's take a quick look at how two different coaches handle the "post-blowout press conference."  In the first clip, we have Derek Mason, following an unexpected blow-out loss to Temple.  In the second, the coach who is without a doubt the best at handling this particular situation - Steve Spurrier.


Scroll forward to the one minute mark, when Mason's asked about why he pulled Patton Robinette.  His response: "At that point in time, man, we just felt like, we just felt like, man, we just needed to... you know, maybe establish, you know, a different type of rhythm.  We needed to... uh, we needed to find ourselves in a situation, uh, where... where, where we were just trying to uh you-know-I-mean jump start, um, or cardiac our offense a little bit.  You know, just in terms of what it was because we had, you-know-I-mean, gone through that process... uh... you-know-I-mean I thought Patton you-know-I-mean missed a couple of throws early, you-know-I-mean was under duress a little bit... uh, they pulled his eyes down a couple times... but this... this isn't about one guy."

Oratorial style aside (which was terrible), I'm not sure I can even begin to unpack what he was trying to say.  As a student/player/employee, when the message is impenetrable - whether it's overly reliant on jargon or so unclear as to be non-sensical - you leave with nothing but confusion and an eroded sense of confidence in your leader.  The odd thing is, this wasn't a difficult question.  Even the least eloquent of speakers (paging Mike Ditka, John Madden, and many other inelegant speakers who are still able to convey their message) would be able to boil that down to a simple "We felt like a change needed to be made" or "We weren't getting the job done."  Sure, things like that provide reporters and journalists with nothing to write about, but at least they're conveying a message.  That message?  This is my team and I'll do what I think is best.  Whatever Mason's message was - and I'm still unsure that it's even decipherable - all it conveyed was "I am in over my head."  The fans saw that, and reacted accordingly.  The players, we can only assume based on how lost they look out there - especially on the offensive side - must be equally befuddled.

Contrast that press conference with Steve Spurrier's brutally honest explanation after losing badly week one against aTm.


Spurrier came out and took charge of the situation.  Before fully reaching the microphone, Spurrier opened with: "It's obvious the odds-makers didn't know what the heck they were talking about.  That team was so much better than us, it wasn't funny.  Out-coached us.  Out-played us.  Better prepared."  He was honest.  Visibly frustrated, but honest.  He said everything that needed to be said before the first question was put forth.  You can trust that guy.  You might not like the product he put on the field, but you can trust he's going to bring the appropriate level of anger to the situation and whip his team into shape.  I was never expecting Mason to be Spurrier, but think about how differently you would react to these two leaders after a brutal setback.  With Spurrier, I'd feel confident in his ability to assess the situation, and work harder.  With Mason, I'd see someone who is completely lost, and, if only subconsciously, lose hope.

With his success as a Defensive Co-ordinator at Stanford - particularly his success at shutting down the best offense in football (Oregon) - I don't doubt Mason has the proper Logos (evidence/statistics/reason) to succeed.  I've even seen, in brief moments, signs that our defense, if allowed off the field for longer than three plays at a time, could be really good in a year or so.  That brings with it more than a little credibility.  What I doubt is his ability to communicate this Logos to his players.  That's no small thing.

*Author's note: I was originally going to look at clips from every time Derek Mason has spoken as our head coach, but I didn't want this to be another 10,000 word behemoth, and I could only find this, the "process" speech he gave when being introduced as coach, and a Jim Rome interview.  If any of the commentariat wants to find a clip and provide analysis, please do so in the comments section.