Speaking and Barking – the power of rhetoric

While I’m always happy to speak out against needless pollution and wars, I tend to avoid discussing politics.  It’s not that I think no one else should talk about them, it’s just that my small brain can’t quite get my head around most of the issues.  Is one tax rate better than another?  What are the appropriate consequences for certain crimes?  Who has the right to a piece of land, the people who’ve lived on it recently or the people whose ancestors were kicked off or tricked out of it in the past?  These questions are all WAY beyond my doggy brain.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of what’s going on around me.  In my country, the United States, these last few months have been consumed by an election – in fact, if it weren’t for the global pandemic, I’m not sure anything other than the election would have even made the news!  But what was different about this election from others was that we didn’t hear all that much argument about policies or general stances.  This election was almost completely about one person – and whether a voter loved or hated him (not too many felt any lesser emotions!).  And often, about whether you loved or hated the things he said.

Now most of you Pack members don’t live in this country, and the election is over anyway, so I have no reason to bring up what’s good or bad about the candidates.  But it turned out that that one who was so central to everything lost – far more voters decided against him than for him – and so won’t be in charge anymore. 

And because of that, there will be all sorts of questioning about how he got power, what he did with it, and whether that was right or wrong, good or bad.

But I want to focus on one thing he has been downright brilliant at, and which enabled him to overturn centuries of tradition of this country.  His Rhetoric.

Rhetoric basically means the art of speaking and arguing.  Sure, we all know that it’s best to speak your words clearly enough to be understood, and to use logic in your arguments.  Even a dog understands that!  But Rhetoric moves beyond those, to questions of how one moves people, how one uses words to affect them emotionally – and very much in this case, how one can use Rhetoric to overpower logic and facts.  Think of it like this – there’s speaking and there’s barking.  Speaking exchanges information, while barking creates emotion.  Rhetoric is about the crossover between the two.

Maybe you’ve seen or read Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, where he dramatizes the two great speeches given after Caesar’s death.  Brutus speaks sensibly, explaining why he agreed to join the conspiracy against the late leader.  But he’s followed by Marc Antony, who uses brilliant Rhetoric to rile the crowd against the conspirators and start a civil war.

Now our finished leader hasn’t achieved that, or tried to exactly.  But he has been able to use words to accomplish lots, and in ways that other leaders could borrow.  And – and here’s my main point here – doing so will overpower facts and logic yet again. 

So I want to go through a bunch of what he did, so that you, my wonderful Pack members, can see these tricks when they’re used in your countries, and then see past them to decide what you really want in your leaders.

Almost all I’m saying here is derived from an amazing book, Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Logic of Donald Trump by Jennifer Mercieca.  She’s a professor of Linguistics and Rhetoric, and studied every word Mr. Trump put out – in speeches, debates, and social media – during his victorious 2016 election campaign.  And she found six major techniques he used.  Which I’ll go over here.

First, Argumentum ad Populum, or Appeal to the Crowd.  You see this one when a speaker compliments the group they’re speaking to “What a beautiful audience!” or argues that their crowd proves they’re right, “How can anyone argue with this?!”  Now there’s nothing wrong with this in, say, entertainment, when the argument gets made “How can 50 million Queen’s Gambit fans be wrong!”  But when someone argues, in your country, that a crowd of tens of thousands proves they’re the majority opinion… it’s just not true.  Maybe tens of millions are completely against them!

Second, Patriotism.  Hey I love my yard as much as anyone could, so I sure understand loving your hometown or country.  Cheer them on at the Olympics (when they return) and support your police and your soldiers who work to protect you, absolutely (especially your Canine Patrol if there is one!).  But when a speaker argues that your country or people are the best in the world… get suspicious.  And when they say that your country ought to be in charge of the world, and would be if you just put them in charge… get afraid.  Lots of leaders have tried this, and the last to really succeed was maybe Genghis Khan or the Roman Empire, depending on your views.  Napoleon failed, Hitler failed, and so will anyone else who tries.  Don’t give them the chance.

Third, Paralipsis, from the Greek for “To Leave to the Side.”  This one is my favorite, where one says, “I’m not saying _________, but I’m just saying _________.”  Like I might say “I’m not saying cats stink, but everyone knows cats smell really bad.”  Or maybe I say “Lots of experts say that cats stink – now I’m not saying it, I never would, but I just thought you should know that the experts say they just reek.”  It’s a cowardly way of saying something bad.  But it can be very powerful.  On one hand, it enables the speaker to say something mean or untrue without having to take responsibility for having said it.  But also it can make listeners feel like they’re part of an “in-crowd.”  Like the way any of you who don’t like cats might have snickered at my comments above.  But hey, that’s just you snickering.  I didn’t say anything bad about sweet little kitties!  I never would!  (heh heh)

Fourth, Argumentum ad Hominem, or Appeal to the Person…  but this kind of “appeal” isn’t a positive one.  This is where the speaker argues that what a person says doesn’t matter, because of some fault in them (real or imagined).  “Ahmed says I took five dollars from his wallet?  Well everyone knows Ahmed is a fool – remember how we all laughed when he got that a zero on the math test!”  Or “Indira says she saw me kick a dog?  Well she’s always been a liar.”  In both cases, the speaker didn’t even deny the accusation.  They just ignore it by insulting the other person.  In politics this can go even further, “My opponent says my tax plan will hurt our nation’s education.  Well you can’t trust her because her husband cheated on her!”  (As silly as this sounds, this worked in my country!)

Fifth, Argument ad Baculum, or, and I hate this term, Appeal to the Stick.  Threatening force or intimidation to overwhelm the speaker’s opposition.  “That newspaper said I stole money from my business partners.  Well clearly they’re just against me, so when I’m elected I’m going to put them out of business!”  Or just talking over your opponent all the time, or stalking them in a threatening manner (we’ve seen these happen here too!).  Or “Hey there’s a protester against me in the crowd, I hope someone punches him in the face!”  Again, it’s a cowardly act – if someone did punch that person in the face, the speaker would instantly deny all responsibility for it, saying “Oh I was just expressing my frustration; I didn’t tell them to do it.”

And Sixth, Reification, or turning people into things.  We see this most often in war.  It’s very hard for anyone to go off to overtake or kill someone when they see them as people, so leaders in war will work to dehumanize their opposition.  “They’re not people, they’re animals!”  Or “They’re godless, and our God orders us to kill or convert them.”  But you hear it in politics in subtler ways.  “The other party can’t think for themselves, they’re just a mob.”  And of course, “We’re the real (name your country here).  The ones who vote against me are against (your country).”

Now my friend Handsome added one more to Merceica’s list, from the world of Psychology, which is Projection. In the usual meaning, that’s when someone sees or is bothered by a quality of theirs in another person.  Let’s say you tend to be a flirt, but then you’re horribly bothered when you see someone else flirting.  Or else, you accuse someone else of flirting when they’re not even doing it at all!  But in this case, it’s the speaker accusing their opponent of exactly what the speaker does.  Maybe you’re a constant liar, and your opponent isn’t, but you keep saying they are enough to get your supporters to believe it.  Or you’re physically unfit, but you always accuse your opponent of being far weaker than you.  This both hurts your opponent and makes you look like you don’t have the fault, even if everyone can see that you do!

There are, of course, countless other Rhetorical tricks that one can use to achieve success in politics or other arenas.  But these are the ones that we’ve been watching, and in many ways suffering from, here for the last few years.  It would be a wonderful thing if all of you, wherever you live, could learn from our experience.  And, at the same time, if you can learn to use some of these tricks yourselves, but just use them for fun or even good positive reasons, then that’s all the better.

Meanwhile, I’m going to go back to the only way I know how to be – honest, troublemaking, loving, and optimistic that better days lie just ahead, for all of us.  And that’s not just an idle bark!

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LadyFi - November 19, 2020 Reply

Thanks so much for this. I wish we would teach this stuff to everyone in school. A required critical thinking course where we learn all this and more to create a good defense from rhetoric used for manipulation or bad purposes. Is there a way we can make this required, or at least start teaching this as much as possible? Some kind of “rhetoric literacy” movement…

    shirelle - November 22, 2020 Reply

    Oh LadyFi – If I could change what’s taught in schools I’d be so happy I’d chase my tail all day! And yes, this would be way up high on my list! Thanks!!

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