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 armoury 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

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14 Responses

  1. Perhaps the problem in Hungary is that people are taught in school to learn what they are told rather than to reason. This must leave them very vulnerable to crafty rhetoric.

  2. In that case, you should start to agitate against Facebook and Twitter etc. if those are what you mean.

  3. Hungary is a Country straining, reaching out to find itself again against the forces that that took away its identity, self esteem and faith. After a thousand years of history, surviving through the Romans and Turks, the country was devastated, loosing 70% of its land and people in WWI and stripped of its identity in WWII and the doors closed by the Russians with the support of China in the 1956 Revolution. The 45 years of extremely efficient ideology repression was a genocide of the culture leaving only bewildered “Russians” speaking a language that didnʼt match who they are. The uniqueness of the language made it many times more vulnerable and you can’t compare Hungary with other countries who went through the same fate.
    A short video of the Hungarian language –
    what happened is not apparent when you are in Hungary because people must survive and adjust. It lies beneath, seen in there faces and actions. So many black circled eyes, dejected looks, their youthful beauty turned ugly with age from the ravages of the repressive times. They shrug their shoulders when they talk – oh well, thatʼs the way it is – . They donʼt smile because they never learned how – they had nothing to smile about. They say “nem lehet” – it canʼt be done – because they were taught to only do what they are told and not to think. “What is yours is mine but what is mine is not yours” is what goes around. The churches are empty.
    Their self esteem is gone, and the cycle continues with each generation because they donʼt now the difference – they were born into it.

    Very few critics realize that they have fogotten how to use the question WHY. They should go back to school to refresh themselves – go back not to their PhD alma mater but to their Kindergarten. Its there the answer lies, its there that it is most often used, and its there that the answere we give them will form their identity for the rest of their llives. It is at this stage the the ideological suppression was so extremely effective. The answer given when the kids asked why was because the “little Red Book said so”, which essentially told them you must not think but due as your are told. This has passed on to three generations and the teachers are teaching this because they have been born into it and don’t know any different.

    The ideal solution is to reverse the proccess using the same efficient system and honestly answering the kids when they ask WHY? I was very hearthened to see the many flicker of candle lights at the peaceful demonstration, indicating there is still hope and they are willing to take a chance and trust the government ( St Stephen did it). If we start now we wil have our Hungarian identity coming back (and democrocy) in 20 years, because people will have their thinking tools back. If we let the very slow but safe democratic process do it it will also do the job in a 100 years. By then we will be maybe speaking English or Chinese and Budapest will be a world heretage museum.

    Hopefully I have given a good shot at your question WHY and the answers help you make sense of everything. Maybe in 20 years the real Hungary will stand up.

    Actually my family is putting a book together that might well be titled “Will the real Hungary please stand up”. Its the story of our family’s journey to the USA in 1945 (I was 4 years old) that includes the exciting REAL story of how Hungary’s gold reserves, St Stephen’s crown and National treasures were saved by the Americans. Its told by our parent who met and worked at the Magyar Nemzeti Bank. Hopefully it will be out this year, we just have some translating and editing to do.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Steve, and for sharing your perspective. ‘Because the little Red book says so’ is an interesting refrain – and explains a lot. But I am confused – I thought Hungary currently has democracy and has had it for many years… and it’s only recently that this democracy has been endangered. The type of democracy I’ve seen here in the last 18 months has been far from ‘slow and safe’. The church I go to (Hungarian) is fuller than any church I’ve been inside in Ireland in recent years, no matter which mass I go to. In fact, next to Malta, Hungary has the fullest churches I’ve seen anywhere in the last twenty years – and if anything, in the last six months, the pews are fuller. Let us know when the book is published. It sounds like an interesting read.

  4. The foreign media on Hungary is biased, one-sided. That’s it.
    “The protest in Budapest showed that most Hungarians still support the government – why wasn’t it reported?

    Read more:–wasnt-reported.html#ixzz1kpyfIiN5

    For Steve Tarnay: Hungarians were never under the rule of the Romans in case you refer to the Roman empire. Indeed the Turks ruled on third of Hungary for 150 years (a second part were under Austrian rule and the third was the independent protestant Transylvania ruled by such astounding Calvinist princess as Bocskay or Bethlen Gábor who were the champions for the right of Hungarians but also for protestants. )
    I would not describe Hungary only with bad mood or black stroke.
    Past is past, bygones are bygones. Turkish past in Hungary does not hinder me to like the Turks (the boogeyman for the Balkan nations) to whom some Hungarians feel at least some Turanian brotherhood or at least sympathy.

    1. The protest march was reported, worldwide. I don’t see the bias there. Being closed off to one side of any argument is what has the world where it is – our inability to see anything from any perspective other than our own. We differ greatly on this, Erik. It’s not just foreign media and foreign journalists that are reporting it, either. And, even if only a fraction of it is true – it’s still cause for concern.

      In 2008, there were supposedly 2 million people on the streets to back Fidesz. So if most Hungarians still support the government, where were the 1.6 million on Jan 21st? And why has the ‘no party’ vote risen to over 50%? The numbers don’t add up, Erik – they don’t add up.

      Mary Murphy

      1. What about New York times who ignored it? What about Washington post
        who wrote falsely that it consisted only of a couple of thousand demonstrators? But yea the 2 January demonstration was aired worldwide though they hardly reach 50.000 only by overcounting.
        If we are speaking about the support parties have in Hungary you should know that Fidesz is still head away. And the so called opposition Mszp and Lmp have even shrank, while Jobbik have got ahead of them.
        Many of those who earn their living by manual labour and voted in the Mszp who do you think they support? Not Mszp for sure. Even many of them support the ranks of Jobbik.

        The numbers do add up if you look closely.
        Regarding 1.6 million : applying what you wrote one can deduce that MSZP or LMP is supported by almost 0%.

        1. I didn’t know about the NYT and while I’m no great fan of the Daily Mail (on any day of the week) the cause of balanced reporting took a blow by its silence. Yet the numbers don’t add up for me Erik – I think it’s a mistake to think that everyone on the street on Jan 21 is happy with what the government is doing. Are we confusing two things here: the way Hungary is portrayed by the world press (not good) and what the government is doing in the name of democracy (not good either)? Being on the street on Jan 21 doesn’t necessarily mean that you support both motions.

          “Those who are here, many of us also think things are not going in a good direction,but these mistakes should not lead to speculative attacks that serve the interests of nobody except the speculators.” From one of the participants in the Jan 21 demo. How many more?

          Read more:

          Mary Murphy

  5. What you see on the surface in Hungary is Democracy. What lies beneath is the fallout of the “Little Red Book” – and of course they don’t match. That is the answer to the question WHY – and now everything you see in Hungary makes sense.

  6. One thing cannot be eluded that it was a demonstration in support of government which speaks for itself. My opinion is that the government is doing the best for Hungary and there is no other force which could lead the country to a better future. Every government in the world has it’s failures, the current Hungarian one has it’s own mistakes mostly in communications.
    And I give a damn about such liberal intellectuals like Heller or Konrád who are pissed off just because their party did not enter the parliament and now they spread lies in the foreign press labeling their political opponent from fascist to dictator. They do not comprehend that the ones who will benefit from the failure of the present government are not their circles or not even MSZP or LMP.

    Thank you Mary for the reading materials. I provide my ones too.

    1. Hey Erik – thanks for the intro to Frank Furedi. He agrees that Hungary is in a mess: As has been widely noted by the media, the legislative programme of the Orban government is a product of autocratic ambition. Its economic programme is a confused mix of pragmatism and nonsense – privatisation of industry, slashing welfare benefits while nationalising people’s pension schemes, and so on. In the domain of politics, the Orban government’s key impulse is to centralise control over the key institutions of public life, including the media and the judiciary. The Orban government has also passed new electoral laws that seem designed to entrench its power for years to come. This authoritarian approach is justified by the government in the name of upholding traditional Hungarian values. The new constitution reads like a caricature of a 1930s Balkan autocracy. It is thoroughly anti-liberal (in the classical sense of that term) and appeals to the Christian heritage of Hungary, the family and the nation. and rightly reckons that Hungary should be left to sort out its own mess. Makes sense.

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