As the tentacles of COVID-19 reach into every crevice of society, we read of how governments are stepping in to give financial assistance to those who find themselves out of work. Welfare payments in varying amounts are paid to those whose employers have had to shut their doors. And yes, some people might be making more from the temporary payment than they did in their full-time job, but they are the exception. Some workers are not getting any help at all, particularly those for whom physical intimacy is an innate part of their job: sex workers. Read more
‘Knowledge, it has been said, is power. And rhetoric is what gives words power. So a knowledge of rhetoric equips [me], as a citizen, both to exercise power and to resist it.’ So says Sam Leith, author of You Talking to Me?
Those who do not appreciate the finer nuances of language often underestimate the power of words; they think them merely words. No more, no less. Certainly, words are what we use to convey our meaning, but it is how we use them that matters: how we sew them together; how we weave them into an eloquent pattern; how we deliver them. Give two people the same text and see how one can use voice, tone, rhythm, volume, speed, and inflection to turn the text into a weapon while the other robs it of all but its essential meaning.
Coleridge supposedly defined language as ‘the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests’. Rhetoric, the art of using language, of structuring it, is what gives words their power, what arms them. From alliteration to zeugma, rhetorical devices can be employed to persuade and influence. The influence of anadiplosis should not be understated, or epanalepsis decried for lack of influence.
History is littered with great orators; men and women who have taken the stage and waxed lyrical about their passions and in so doing, ignited a passion in their listeners: John F. Kennedy, Adolf Hitler, Sojourner Truth, Winston Churchill, Emmeline Pankhurst, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King…need I go on? More recently, US President Barack Obama is credited with bringing back the art of storytelling to the public domain, although there are those who think that his storytelling doesn’t have the requisite heroes and villains to which we are predisposed and is much weaker for it. If we stop for a moment and think about it, our civilisation is, in fact, one big story. We have our history (stories of the past), our news (stories of the present), and our dreams (stories of our future) and those who have the ability to spin a good yarn or tell a good tale are the ones who, for better or worse, get our attention, wield power, and effect change.
Leaving an impression
It is ‘a truth universally acknowledged’ that opening lines of great novels linger in our memory long after we lay them down. This imprint is equally visible in a simple survey of our daily chatter, which reveals how much power those who excel at rhetoric have – I was talked into it; I was swayed by his words; she touched a chord; that resonated with me; I could listen to her for hours; I wish I’d said that. Yes, those who know how, those who know rhetoric, certainly wield great power.
But to those who know the rules, to those who understand the game, to those who themselves revel in rhetoric, this power is resistible. Those who understand hypotaxis know that they ask questions because they are curious; those who engage in parataxis may hear the words and recognise their meaning and remain steadfast in their opinion.
Our language teachers tell us to pronounce a word, syllable by syllable, and then to sum up the parts and create a magical whole. Once we know how magicians work their magic, we then admire their skill rather than claim it is impossible. And we can achieve the seemingly impossible by taking one small step after the other. The key lies in knowing, in knowledge. As Sir Francis Bacon claimed back in 1597, ‘knowledge is power’. We are frightened of what we do not understand; we fear what we do not know. Our gullibility and impressionability turn us into putty in the hands of eloquent potters who know how to shape and mould our thoughts and coax us gently into submission. And yet if we know what to expect, we can resist. If we know what is around the corner, we can prepare.
When we understand rhetoric, and are skilled at using it ourselves; when we fully realise the affect it has on others; and when we learn to appreciate the beauty of words while consciously navigating their message, then we can also see the affect that rhetoric can have on us. We can, as Leith says, both exercise power and resist it.
So, if I understand all this, why am I finding it so difficult to decipher what I’m reading in the news about Hungary? Why is it so hard to figure out what the real story actually is? Why are so many credible sources apparently contradicting each other? Will the real Hungary please stand up!
First published in the Budapest Times 26 January 2012
Earlier this week, I sent out an e-mail to my North American friends, those living within the USA and those living without. I included a link to American author Jake Lamar’s video on why he’s not disappointed with President Obama. I was quite taken with it as a piece of rhetoric, even if his eye contact leaves a lot to be desired. It’s also just a tad on the lengthy side. Semantically, it was pleasing, convincing, and passionate. But I wanted to know about the content. And, as I’m not in a position to judge, not living in the States myself, and being a trifle more concerned about what’s been going on here of late, I asked my friends, each of whom I trust and whose opinion I value, to comment.
Predictably, some really liked it, thought it made sense. They voted for Obama and will vote for him again. Others had mixed feelings – Lamar got some issues right, and others wrong – they’d voted for Obama and would consider voting for him again but their vote isn’t in the bag. And then there were those who didn’t vote for him and won’t vote for him and think he’s the worst thing ever to happen to America.
The whys and the wherefores are neither here not there. I don’t intend this to be a discussion on whether Obama is the man or not. What I’m grateful for is that I have a diversity of friends who are educated, passionate, and up to date with what’s going on in their world. They shared their opinions and experiences with me, pointed me in new directions (e.g. what’s happening with SB1070 in Arizona; and is it really 1963 in America again), and gave valid arguments for their reasoning.
The net result is that I now know more than I did on Monday and am a lot clearer about what I’d do were I in the USA and voting. Consensus is not important. I don’t have to agree with my friends for them to be my friends. In being able to challenge their opinions and likewise to have to stand beside my own, is a very valuable exercise. Diversity is key… diversity of opinion, of taste, of reasoning. Surrounding ourselves by like-minded people while wallowing in the same type of information will simply serve to narrow our perspectives and make us more insular.
So, at the end of this, the second week of 2012, I am truly grateful for my friends and their continuous edification; for opening new doors and beckoning me through.