The power of words

‘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?

Exercising power

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.

Telling stories

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.

Resisting 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.

Simplifying matters

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