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Fake it Till You Make It: Ethos, Rhetorical Leadership, Code Switching, and King Ezekiel from The Walking Dead

What’s up rhetoric nerds? Welcome back to RhetoricLee Speaking, a podcast committed to banishing banality one speech at a time.

I love King Ezekiel from The Walking Dead. And it’s not just cause he’s a stone cold fox. Although certainly he’s that. 

King Ezekiel from TWD and his tiger, Sheva

No. I love King Ezekiel because he is the most rhetorical of the walking dead characters. And that’s the focus for today: what does it mean to be a rhetorical character? gonna talk about a word you may have heard around the way: ethos. Why Ezekiel’s rhetorical qualities make him the best leader, especially in a zombie apocalypse. And also my complex thoughts on the cliche:

Fake it till you make it. 

Let’s get started by meeting the King in Episode 2 of Season 7 of The Walking Dead. As you’re listening, try and guess what I mean when I say Ezekiel is the most rhetorical character.

We will get back to Carole’s fake ass later. First, let’s focus on Ezekiel.

When I say that Ezekiel is the most rhetorical character on TWD, I do not mean that he is the most persuasive. I do not mean that he is the most able to get people to believe what he says or do what he asks.

I also do not mean that he is the most theatrical, dramatic, or stylish. I think he stands out in those respects because his particular dramatism is unusual to the sensibilities of the show. He wouldn’t stand out, say, in Game of Thrones. 

But on The Walking Dead, a show concerned with the grittiness of survival and the essence of humanity when the trappings of civilization are stripped away, Ezekiel stands out. The other characters are equally dramatic, especially the men (think about The Governor, or Niegan, or the pissing contest between Shane and Rick that occupied almost all of Season One) but their dramatism fits with what the show considers part of its storyworld. 

I also don’t mean that Ezekiel gives the most or even the best speeches. TWD should be subtitled “men who love the sound of their own voice as much as they love beheading zombies.” 

King Ezekiel is the most rhetorical character because he is the most aware that meaning is something that has to be created–that there is no such thing as the “right” belief or the most “authentic” person. There are just different performances.

That doesn’t make Ezekiel a liar or a fraud or a faker. The only difference between Ezekiel and the less rhetorical characters–Michonne, Daryl, Glenn (ugh, pour one out for old Glenn)–is that they think their patterns of language, behavior, and thought are natural. They are just expressions of who they are. Their language just kind of happens because that’s just, you know, what they’re about. 

Ezekiel, on the other hand, knows that his thoughts, behaviors, and language are CHOICES. And, as each choice becomes a pattern or habit, it becomes “who he is.” 

Ezekiel is rhetorical because he reverses the usual way we think about character. There’s this quote, I see it a lot, usually mis-attributed to Aristotle, that reads:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.

Will Durant (not Aristsotle)

This quote is actually Will Durant’s summary of Aristotle’s theory of ethos, fancy Greek work for character.

Now, I don’t particularly care who said it. What I care about is that it isn’t a good way to think about character, which is to say, it isn’t a rhetorical way to think about character. That’s why Aristotle couldn’t have said it; Aristotle had too much rhetorical awareness.

The way we usually think about character–the Will Durant way–is that your habits, your trends of action, of thought or expression REPRESENT or REFLECT who you are inside. 

The same way that if you are sick, the symptoms represent or reflect your sickness. 

But it also works the other way around. Let’s suppose you engage in all of these sickness symptoms, you believe them and complain about them and think about them, and eventually you just “are” a sick person. That’s what a hypochondriac is. Like Bill Murray in What About Bob. 

Bob is a hypochondriac because he has behaved his way into a sickness. To paraphrase Durant, sucks was, then, is an act that becomes a habit.

Ezekiel has behaved his way into a King and the way he has behaved into his Kingliness reflects his beliefs about what a King should be: namely, person with swagger.

whether or not you want your leader to have swagger is the important question to ask. The less important question to ask is “does he have swagger? Does he? Like really?”

Asking “who leaders really are” is so entirely beside the point. It’s Not about “who they are,” but rather, “if this is the way they behave, who do they think WE are.” The choices a leader makes are everything–whether or not they are true, on a global scale, is beside the point.

Remember we are thinking here about habits not about one offs. So whether or not Biden is lying about Tara Reid should be investigated. But knowing that you will never know the answer to that question, you do get to ask another question: “looking at Biden’s habits of behavior, who does Biden think I am and is that the person I want as President?”

Here’s a different example.

Back in 2018 there was this rumor that Trump said the N-word on tape. Short version: former co-tyrant on The Apprentice, Omarosa Manigault-Newman, became one of Trump’s communications people when he was elected. She resigns and publishes a book “Unhinged” in which she claims that she possesses a tape of Trump saying the N-word while they were filming The Apprentice.

The tape never surfaced.

But here’s the thing. What if it had? Would you really know any more or less than you already knew? 

Not really. 

In fact, after Manigault Newman released Unhinged, the Economist ran a poll of voters and found that 77% of white Trump voters agreed that “it is possible that a person who uses the ‘N-word’ while in office can still be a good President of the United States”. And that’s IN OFFICE; so the numbers would be much higher for someone who said the n word prior to being in office as trump is alleged to have done.

 47% of white Trump voters said that they could “definitely” or “probably” “support a presidential candidate whom you knew for a fact uses the ‘N-word.’ 

And 37% of white Trump voters admitted they had “used the ‘N-word’ in private to refer to a black/African American person.”

And that probably doesn’t count people who don’t speak up when or even cheer on other people, people who think it all the time but don’t say it, or people who rap along verbatim to, I don’t know, Megan thee stallion.

Yo if anybody can find someone who knows all of the stallions’s lyrics and is a white Trump supporter I have to know how they make that work.

See, the tape wouldn’t have mattered. The habits of a leader give you more than enough information to make a decision. Sure, you can wait for the deep conspiracy theories to be proven right. You can spend all of your time asking about the underlying truths of “who they are.” Or you can just look at their decisions, as a pattern. You can ask, “let’s suppose this is all just one giant act. If this is the leadership act they’ve chosen, are they the person I want as my leader?”

And that’s what I love about Ezekiel. Let’s suppose that it turns out that the whole King thing is just an act. (Spoiler alert). If this is the leadership act he’s chosen, is he the person I want as my leader?

Hell yes.

You’ll see why in a second. 

Eventually, Ezekiel, being the guy he is, calls Carole out on her fake-ass ass-kissing during the introductions.

Now I find Caroles fakery very interesting. Ironic even, a word I only use when something is actually ironic, which in this case, it is. 

Carole, along with all of the other non-rhetorical characters on this show, is deceptive ALL of the time. She was deceptive when she met Ezekiel, pretending to be sweet as pie when we know that bitch cold AF.

Carole and the other non-rhetorical–probably better phrased as anti-rhetorical–characters lie all of the time about who they are. They do it to protect themselves, sometimes to suss out the enemy. Ezekiel is lying too–the difference is that he does it consistently, he does it with a long-term intention that goes beyond survival. He does it to LEAD..

So I ask you, who would you want as your leader: someone who lies constantly BUT consistently…but their lies create a world that aspires to be better than the one in which you live? Or someone who lies inconsistently (yes, Trump lies inconsistently) to serve their nefarious purpose because they think everyone is out to get them?

Which, spoiler alert, INCLUDES YOU the minute you have a criticism or an aside or a “really? We are doing this now?”

It’s a good scene. A really good scene. But it has two flaws. You know how I know? Cliches. Two in particular: “people want someone to follow” and “I faked it till I made it.”

Later we will see that neither of those statements actually capture what Ezekiel is about. But that’s why cliches stick around—cause they let us skip over the contradictions and just wrap stuff up with a neat little word-now..

“Faked it till I made it” is the thing we are all scared of when we say that people’s character is just their habits, not something within them.

But human brains are pretty limited. Becoming a whole new person and then performing that person, consistently, day in and day out is almost impossible. The phrase “fake it till you make it” implies that Ezekiel just went from being totally not this guy to being totally this guy. 

But as we will learn later, the actions of the King were always part of Ezekiel’s set of habits. He just wasn’t choosing those habits as consistently as he chose other habits.. 

The writer of this scene resorted to a cliche and, as a result, got a sub-par explanation of Ezekiel’s emergence as the King. And in turn deprived you of an opportunity to dive deep into your own understanding of how character operates both as a concept and uniquely in your own life.

So, yeah, you are welcome.

The other cliche is “people want someone to follow.” Maybe. But even if that’s true, that in no way explains why Ezekiel chose the King. I mean, this show has a variety of kinds of people that lead the followers. And all of them share two traits in common: first, they don’t take responsibility for their actions; it’s always “someone else made me do it” or “someone else pushed me to have to do it.” Second, and related, they are all tyrants, obsessed with authority and other people screwing them over. 

Remember Rick’s infamous speech about “this is not a democracy”?

So, if people need leadership. If they need someone to make them feel safe. If most of the other traditional leadership characters all wind up having a similar set of traits, then why not perform those traits? Why isn’t Ezekiel also an authoritarian who does ethically suspect things and then says he did them because he had to?

What does Ezekiel’s choice of his persona reflect about what he believes people need?

Let’s watch the second part of his confession to Carole: 

There are some cliches in this story that send up some rhetorical red flags.

First of all, he sees Shiva bleeding, right, and he says, “I knew the risk. I had to try.”

Why? Lots of people would have been like, really sad and really upset but wouldn’t have taken the risk. They would have had all sorts of excuses and justifications. I don’t know how to fix this. She’s too far gone. Better to put her out of her misery. 

But he tries. Why?

And then, when the zombie apocalypse happened, why did he go back to the Zoo? What’s the reasoning? Did he go back FOR Shiva? That would make sense. But the story is told as if he just wandered back there and Shiva was just there and suddenly he, like, remembered that he loved her? that makes no sense.

And then the responsibility for him becoming Ezekiel is transferred on to Shiva. He says, “She protected me. She got me here, made me larger than life.”

A tiger can’t do that. A tiger is just a tiger. It’s just a fact. He still has to buy into the narrative, let people make up stories about the tiger, choose not to correct those stories, figure out how to respond when people ask, “where’d you get the tiger.” 

he still had to create the personality, construct his way of speaking, practice it, and never let it slip.

And, the most obvious flaw that you see when he code switches between Ezekiel and King Ezekiel: he has to learn to wield language like a 16th century white man. In addition to that being such a very specific choice with no rationale; You don’t just flip that switch on. 

Code switching, for the record, is a cultural (and sometimes physical) survival strategy employed by minoritized persons who have to inhabit two (sometimes more than two) different cultural existences. In particular, Ezekiel is code switching between Standard American English, which is a language of white privilege, and Black English Vernacular, or BEV.

If you want to get deep, code-switching is an instantiation of the double consciousness concept-metaphor that W.E. DuBois famously defined as a sense of “twoness…unreconciled strivings” that characterizes life of Black Americans.

If you’re white, by the way, and have never experienced code switching, rest assured it is a very real thing and it has very real life-and-death consequences. 

It also has run of the mill succeed-or-fail consequences. I see my students use it all of the time. I have a student–well, had, I guess; he graduated–whom I have watched code switch dozens of times over the last few years.

His code switching is entirely compartmentalized; if I heard two recordings of this guy from two different settings, I couldn’t tell you it was the same guy. He would show up in my office and talk to me with just enough formality that I would think, “wow, he’s really well spoken,” but not in that “he’s trying too hard” way.

Then, I’d see him with other people in groups and he would speak with an entirely different set of vernacular. I will not impersonate it. 

It’s the only time I’ve been surprised by seeing a student in two different contexts. I’ve seen plenty of students in two different contexts and, you know, being a public speaking person, I can usually see the crossover. I would notice too much formality or certain vocab being used in one context and not in another. 

Most people just can’t have two entirely different sets of language and jump back and forth seamlessly. 

In fact when I told that same student he was welcome not to code switch around me if he were comfortable, his response was, “I have to keep things very separate.” He understood how precarious the switch was; he couldn’t risk blurring those boundaries. 

For most people, that kind of linguistic strain is so excessive that it is bound to have leakage. Under the best of circumstances, people have difficulty moving fluidly between two languages. But under duress, which is how most Black Americans engage in code switching? It’s nearly impossible.

Which is why I find it VERY difficult to believe that, in the middle of a Zombie apocalypse, as a Black man (an issue the show manages to sidestep) Ezekiel perfects the code-switching that even AOP can’t consistently make happen. And she’s a politician. Also, frankly, no way Ezekiel would disclose his code switch to Carole. That part really gets wrong how code switching works as an act of survival for people of color (no accident the only person on the show to do it is Black).

But that piece aside, for now, at least the show offers up an explanation for the first issue: the fluent code-switching.

NOW we’ve got it. He didn’t “fake it till he made it.” He IMMERSED himself in new actions until they displaced his competing actions. In other words, he spent years and years practicing the code switching when the stakes were low.

He’d be over at the zoo doing BEV—which you could call his “actual self” but really is more the better practiced/more habitual self among his many selves—and then jump on stage to immerse himself in Shakespeare and whoever wrote Martin Luther. 

FYI I’m almost positive Martin Luther here refers to the guy from the Protestant Reformation, a man much closer to Shakespeare in his language sensibilities (roughly the same time period I believe) than Martin Luther King although Martin Luther King, in conversation with King Arthur and Macbeth, would still make sense for Ezekiel’s style of speaking.

I saw some Redditors say Martin Luther is Martin Luther King. But that seems unlikely, especially for a show that, at least so far, has decided that sexism will survive zombies but racism won’t.

We now have the answers to the three questions we were stuck on earlier.

  1. Why save Shiva?
  2. Why return to the zoo?
  3. Why choose the King persona? 

Well, we can assume he saved Shiva because he had unwittingly been immersed, if not in spirit,  then at least in action, in the characters of men who acted bravely for just causes: Martin Luther took down the entire Church for Christ’s sake–I think I mean that literally.

Why return to the zoo? Because of its relationship to the theatre. If the theater is where Ezekiel performed as great men–mythical men with larger than life personalities–then the zoo, where he rescued Shiva, gave him that same sense of mythic purpose that I can imagine one would need in a zombie apocalypse.

Which begs the question: why didn’t he return to the theatre?

Well, as my mother always said when I asked these kind of plot hole questions, because then they wouldn’t have had a Tiger.

And, finally, why choose King Ezekiel? Because as a performer of classic plays, Ezekiel would understand the power of language and the ability for a grandiose and imaginative style to point people to something beyond themselves.

Yes, he could rule as Rick rules, as an imperfect man who is reactive instead of proactive–a realist instead of a visionary.

But he doesn’t believe that is who people are. He doesnt think peoples first priority is really safety—that was a terrible line that the writer of his monologue gave him who have clearly never watched protestors willingly solicit violence from the state to make a point about, well, violence from the state.

Ezekiwl believes people want to be inspired, to be moved, to be captivated. And he was uniquely qualified to do that because of his practice being other kinds of men–which isn’t to say that isn’t who “he is” but it’s also not to say that it isn’t Who “he is not.”

His point about the contradiction, the fairy tale–that’s the only line from that monologue that makes sense. That’s the part that rings true to the other pieces of this puzzle if you look beyond the cliches.

And that means that Shiva didn’t make Ezekiel larger than life. Ezekiel had already made himself larger than life, largely by accident, in his work in the theatre. Shiva was the extra piece of evidence that Ezekiel needed to solidify what he already sort of somewhere knew he could do because he had done it everywhere else except real life.

To put this another way,

Shiva didn’t CAUSE Ezekiel’s larger-than-life transformation. The larger than life transformation was waiting around for the finishing touch that would complete the transformation; Shiva arrived and retroactively Ezekiel’s already larger-than-lifeness was revealed to have already been in process.

Ezekiel is rhetorical because he is a multiple self whose cause and effect patterns only cohere situationally.

Rick is anti rhetorical because he’s just the one person. Before the zombie apocalypse, he’s a cop. After the zombie apocalypse, he’s a cop. 

Your cliche habit is to assume that Ricks consistently of self makes him the better leader because he is authentic.

I hope to have shown you that maybe authenticity isn’t as important in evaluating someone’s character then whether their patterns of choices help create a world in which you want to live.

I know right?. Rhetoric is the fucking COOLEST. 

Stay tuned for the next episode when I’m hoping—assuming something else doesn’t catch my fancy sooner—to teach you the best and ONLY way to tell a decent story with help from a second appearance from King Ezekiel.


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