I. What is Kairos?
Kairos (pronounced “KAI-ros”) in Ancient Greek meant “time” – but it wasn’t just any time. It was exactly the right time to say or do a particular thing. In modern rhetoric, it refers to making exactly the right statement at exactly the right moment. So what makes the moment “right”? And what makes a statement just “right” for a particular situation?
As you might suspect, kairos is a complex concept, and not exactly a “device” or “technique” in the usual sense. Whether or not text has kairos depends on its context. To make matters even more complicated, kairos is somewhat subjective – what may be exactly the right moment for one reader or listener might be all wrong for someone else! Like “beautiful” or “persuasive,” “kairotic” is a partially subjective judgement. But by examining a few examples, we should be able to understand at least what it means to say the right thing at the right moment.
II. Examples of Kairos
Before Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, most people in America thought of the Civil War as a fight over territory and federal law, and most people did not yet see it in abolitionist terms (i.e. that the war was about slavery). But the horrors of the Battle of Gettysburg were so extreme and traumatic that the nation needed to believe that they were fighting for a higher purpose than constitutional politics. Lincoln’s speech gave them that higher purpose. The war became a moral quest, and suddenly the nation’s will to fight was restored. Thus, in addition to its structure and eloquence, the Gettysburg Address was successful due to its kairos.
In 2013, college campuses around the country celebrated the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as president. They marked the occasion by reading Wilson’s inauguration speech. This was highly kairotic because so many of the economic issues faced by Wilson were similar to those facing the country in 2013, when Americans were facing economic issues from the 2008 financial crisis. The concept of “too big to fail,” which was in the spotlight in 2013, was foreshadowed by the unruly behavior of large corporate conglomerations in Wilson’s time.
The 2013 film Her deals with issues of isolation, artificial intelligence, and the artificiality of life in a digital world. The film was released at a time when it became normal for everybody to have smartphones, with artificial intelligence, like Siri. It raised questions about what effects this technology might have on our minds and societies; people were becoming more aware of the higher rates of depression and loneliness in our society.
III. The Importance of Kairos
Kairos is important because audience is important. Since rhetoric is about communication, you have to think about your audience – what they bring to the table, how they think about the issue, and how they’re likely to respond to your message. Naturally, kairos is part of that. Readers and listeners are not abstract entities, but concrete human beings who live in a certain place and time. That place and time affects the way they receive your communication, so it’s crucial to take it into account.
IV. Examples Kairos in Literature
George Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1949, around the same time that political theorists were beginning to develop the concept of “totalitarianism.” Orwell’s book explained the horrors of a totalitarian system using a compelling narrative approach that was much more accessible to readers than books of political philosophy. But because the United States and Europe were hovering in between WWII and the Cold War, the issue of totalitarianism was very much in the public eye, making people much more receptive to Orwell’s book.
Political essays and op-eds are almost always kairotic – or at least they attempt to be. Read any opinion piece in your local newspaper and you’ll find that the writers are trying to integrate their message with the day’s news and thus show the relevance of their opinions.
V. Examples from Pop Culture
“The Matrix” was one of the first movies to take on the idea of human beings being wired (literally) into their computers and operating in a wholly digital world. With the real development of smartphones, wearable technology, and almost universal Internet connectivity, the film delivered its message right at the moment of a genuine revolution in our relationship to technology, making it highly kairotic.
The film Selma, released in December of 2014, may be seen as highly kairotic given the massive social movement that was then (and still is) under way in many American cities. Because the protesters see themselves as modern inheritors of the Civil Rights movement, many people are curious about Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, and the movie ties into conversations about protest and racial injustice throughout our society. It seems as if news stories about racially motivated conflicts in our communities have become more common over the past few years, making the release of the film highly appropriate.
Sometimes, a writer or speaker will attempt to create his or her own kairos without depending on the context. Think of all the commercials that use messages like “supplies are running out” or “act now!” These commercials are inventing a special moment in time – a time constraint – so that their message will seem more kairotic. They want their viewers to think, “Good thing I saw this commercial now, or it would have been too late!” Of course, these time constraints and limited supplies are often made-up just to sell more product.
VI. Related Terms
Decorum and Pertinence
The concept of kairos is basically one way of thinking about what’s appropriate for a given situation. But there are other sides of appropriateness – such as decorum and pertinence. These terms refer to qualities of “good manners” and of good argumentation; decorum refers to what is “socially appropriate” and pertinent refers to what is relevant and to the point. And these are part of kairos.
For example, an anti-American speech would be inappropriate (i.e. rude) on the 4th of July. But it would also be bad kairos because the message would make your audience less likely to listen to you on that day.
However, sometimes decorum and pertinence are at odds with kairos. In Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, for example, Dr. King responds to critics who believes that his message of civil rights was coming at the wrong time. These critics opposed King’s impertinent push for the end of racial discrimination at a time when they thought it would be more appropriate to work quietly in the background and bring about gradual change. But for King, the impertinence of the moment was part of the point; King wanted to make people realize how urgent the issue was and how wrong it was to accept racial discrimination for any length of time. So to him, it was kairotic to make some of his listeners uncomfortable and speak at the moments that were inconvenient for his listeners, so as to shake them out of apathy and normalcy. You might call this a kind of “kairotic impertinence.”