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On Rhetoric, Posturing and the Politics of Hate

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The previous Soundings (July 20, 2020), featured some of the work afoot in the sciences and social sciences concerning individual predisposition, partisanship and willingness to accept false and misleading rhetoric.[1] In that essay, I explored the links between genetic disposition and specific value valences that may incline individuals to support authoritarian leaders, leadership and rhetoric. I described the relationships between such research and inquiry into specific narratives now dominant in many rural communities that rationalize and embrace the delegitimation of governance and overt discrimination against specific minority population groups. This commentary examines the character of the rhetoric that plays a catalyzing role in animating these undemocratic actions and provides recent examples of it.

 I first highlight an essay written during the Second World War concerning the power of rhetoric, properly understood. I turn thereafter to illustrate one of that article’s central themes via another classic essay, concerning the power of language. Thereafter, I revisit a song from a popular Broadway musical that concisely treated the question of the effort needed to acculturate people to hate, suggesting that such does not occur by itself. I then provide two examples of individuals demonstrating a willingness to accept fantastical rhetoric that undermines the rights of others to accord with their dispositional values and partisan orientation. I conclude by briefly outlining what these examples suggest concerning the challenge now confronting the nation as it seeks to rebuild an effective civic bulwark against continuing systematic efforts to degrade freedom and self-rule via demagogic rhetoric. I highlight the fact that this country has a tradition of leadership and moral courage on which it may draw for that purpose.

The playwright, writer and theologian Dorothy Sayers was classically educated at Oxford University (Greek and Latin, theology, literature and philosophy) just prior to World War I, but did not receive her degrees until some years later, when that institution began to award credentials to women for the first time. Known for the clarity of her prose, she was deeply respected by C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, G. K. Chesterton and many other intellectuals of her era for her luminous intelligence. In her 1941 book, The Mind of the Maker, Sayers warned her fellow English citizens of the power of the rhetoric Hitler had unleashed over his nation’s population while highlighting its close connection to the beastly scapegoating on which the dictator’s words ultimately rested. Her argument reminded friends of freedom that words matter, that they can obscure and mislead as well as inform, and ultimately, that they are not merely constructs on a page or elements of speech. They convey ideas and concepts that can and do affect the psyches and sense making of the individuals receiving them. Here is a salient excerpt from Sayers’ volume:

The habit, very prevalent today, of dismissing words as ‘just words’ takes no account of their power. But once the Idea has entered into other minds, it will tend to reincarnate itself there with ever-increasing Energy and ever-increasing Power. It may for some time incarnate itself only in more words, more books, more speeches; but the day comes when it incarnates itself in actions, and this is its day of judgment. At the time when these words are being written, we are witnessing a fearful judgment of blood, resulting from the incarnation in deeds of an Idea to which, when it was content with a verbal revelation, we paid singularly little heed. [2]

George Orwell also addressed the power with which the English language was increasingly being employed by elected leaders to obscure and to mislead their audience just four years after Sayers wrote, in 1945:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. … But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.[3]

Both Sayers and Orwell noted that the point of debased rhetoric is to persuade its audience of constructs that those individuals should ideally know better than to adopt. Such oratory deliberately obscures and its architects self-consciously employ it to mobilize their targets around fears and anxieties of all stripes. In short, demagogic rhetoric exists and is deployed to mislead and to persuade its audience to adopt its false claims to make sense of their reality for purposes of serving the vision and or interests of the inciter. In politics, such efforts are very often aimed at encouraging individuals to hate and “other” without thought or deliberation.

Thus, President Donald Trump has sought in recent days repeatedly to blame China for his own incompetence and unwillingness to address the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. He has similarly striven to portray individuals protesting his efforts to discriminate indiscriminately against specific populations as bent on “setting the nation’s cities aflame.” [4] Empirically, his claims are spurious, but he is not using the ugly rhetoric he offers to describe reality, but instead to create a false consciousness among those willing to listen to him that encourages them to other and blame targeted groups to “explain” their own conditions and to validate their dispositions. Both Orwell and Sayers warned of the harmful consequences of such processes for human rights and freedom.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II famously took up this concern in their immensely successful Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, South Pacific, in 1949. One song Hammerstein created for that show focused on the fact that human beings are not innately disposed to hate; they must instead be acculturated or educated to do so. Here is the lyric from that production’s “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” which was sung by the character Joe Cable, a U.S. Marine lieutenant:

[Verse 1]
You've got to be taught to hate and fear
You've got to be taught from year to year
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught


[Verse 2]
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade
You've got to be carefully taught

[Verse 3]
You've got to be taught before it's too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught.[5]

Othering and scapegoating are not automatic, but they can certainly be encouraged by those persistently willing rhetorically to play on anxieties or fears or resentments, real or not, among those who will listen. Thus, it was in the fall of 2018 that Trump sought to convince Americans that a “caravan” of refugees consisting primarily of women and children would soon “invade” the United States across our border with Mexico, requiring the dispatch of U.S. troops to that location.[6] No such event was ever in prospect, but it served Trump’s political purposes to seek to inflame the social anxieties of Americans willing to listen to him. He has continued to offer such demagogic lies daily. Recently, for example, he has argued that federal forces are needed in several American cities to quell civil disturbances within them to protect federal property, despite being informed by the relevant state and local authorities that no such action was desired or necessary. Indeed, by all evidence available, it is not needed. Instead, Trump’s actions have made matters worse. Trump’s point was never actually to assist, in any case, but to persuade an audience of those willing to pay him heed that such a problem existed in the first place and could be ascribed to out-of-control partisans of the other party, terrorists or worse.

Trump’s strategy has found willing adherents. Here, for example, is how one writer framed his views concerning protests occurring in U.S. cities in a recent opinion piece in The Roanoke Times. The author attributed the nation’s protests against the murders of several Black citizens by police in recent months to projections of unhappiness encouraged by the Devil. The paradox of the piece is that the projection described was, in fact, the author’s own, as he accepted a misleading characterization offered by Trump of what was occurring in those largely peaceful protests:

In its psychological usage, projection is when a person or group of people project their own troubles, shortfalls, or emotions onto another person, group of people or institutions. … Before we start attacking these outside straw men, each of us needs to look inside ourselves. … Will erasing history, shouting, burning and looting in the streets make your life better? Or will it just pass on and create more evil in the world?[7]

Trump’s rhetoric notwithstanding, there has been no widespread “burning and looting in the streets,” and as for “erasing history,” those protesting the continued display in public places of honor of statues of individuals who embraced racist visions of human inequality and sought treasonously to preserve and extend chattel slavery are hardly calling for their elimination from history. They can and will surely remain historical figures, if repugnant ones. The appeal instead has been that those individuals no longer be publicly enshrined and legitimated in stone on display as heroes for their embrace and pursuit of horrific ideas.

The day after this writer’s commentary appeared in The Roanoke Times, that newspaper printed a letter to the editor embracing another dangerous presidential rhetorical claim with no basis in reality. This writer argued:

Anyone with two or more brain cells knows this whole corona fiasco is nothing but an attempt by the Democrat (sic.) party to get Trump out of office. … Writing articles like this probably makes him [a Roanoke Times columnist] feel like he’s doing his part to get rid of Trump, but the fact is masks do nothing to prevent the spread of anything. Instead, they promote fear, which is what the Democratic Party has always been fueled by. I hope even more people push back against this corona nonsense … by not wearing masks.[8]

This description of a virus that has now killed more than 153,000 Americans and sickened more than 4.5 million of the country’s residents is a vicious absurdity. Following the writer’s demand and not wearing masks would only increase the chances of spreading the virus and cause still more Americans to fall ill and/or die. Nonetheless, this author was parroting the position that Trump has taken: That the entire pandemic would soon “disappear” and that it had been overblown to hurt him politically. Moreover, until recently, Trump had personally and pointedly refused to wear a face covering or to call on Americans to do so. That is, Trump has deliberately politicized a public health precaution while endangering the welfare and lives of millions in so doing. Both the op-ed essay author who embraced Trump’s lies that those protesting had set the nation’s cities aflame and were “erasing history” and the letter writer, who was prepared to sicken and endanger untold others, rationalized their stances with paeans to cruel and absurd rhetoric. Likewise, each author ascribed evil to unnamed “others,” and one went so far as to discount widespread death and illness in the name of a poisonous fealty to an abstract “othering” of those with differing beliefs.

None of this would be news to Sayers, Orwell or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Each of the examples above suggests the profound power of rhetoric as a facilitating agent in persuading individuals to adopt positions that do not reflect reality and that visit cruelty and even death on “others.” Nevertheless, it is also likely the case that neither of The Roanoke Times writers accepted the positions they assumed solely because of Trump’s depraved speech. Their perspectives are doubtless also partially the result of individual capacities, dispositions, values, life experiences and more. Nonetheless, Trump’s rhetorical demagoguery and lies were plain in their contentions. As Sayers observed, words do become actions.

All of this suggests at least three major lessons for devotees of democratic governance. First, such governance, by definition, can only be so strong as the citizens who must sustain it. A willingness among millions of individuals in a demographically diverse polity to hate in the abstract, on the basis of difference, however defined, constitutes a crisis of the first order for effective governance. We are now in such a moment and Trump has self-consciously and irresponsibly led the nation into the deadly morass in which it is now mired.

Second, rhetoric matters in the ways that Sayers and Orwell and Hammerstein highlighted. Individuals can be encouraged to hate and scapegoat, or they can be called on to dignify and listen. Citizens can be mobilized to support one another in the common cause of freedom or in protecting each other’s health, or they can be called upon to demonize and attack the rights of selected others among them. The Jews were a convenient scapegoat for other Germans’ economic anxiety, anger and shame following World War I. Trump has used minorities, immigrants and refugees similarly as targets for the anxieties, anger and prejudices of millions of Americans during an era of growing income inequality and rapid globalization. His Party has strongly supported him in his course and a large proportion of GOP partisans is now willing to risk their own and the lives of unknown numbers of their fellow citizens in misplaced loyalty to the farcical and mean-spirited vision Trump has offered. Trump’s claims regarding COVID-19, globalization and immigration are an abhorrent fantasy built on a mountain of misinformation, but one that a share of Americans have adopted, regardless of its implications for their own rights and freedom or for the polity they share with those whose rights and well-being they have shown themselves willing systematically to degrade.

Finally, as Hammerstein observed so concisely in ”You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” human beings are not born hating. Education and acculturation matter and our schools at all levels must do a stronger job teaching Americans about the values and deliberative capacities necessary to foreswear hatred and cruelty as otherwise easy ways to avoid reality and responsibility. This challenge follows decades of declining results in producing a citizenry aware of its Constitutional rights and responsibilities. As a result, it is by no means clear whether the nation can rise to address this imperative. If it does not, and if a substantial share of the population continues to accept a rhetoric of lies and cruel denigration, we may expect that our citizens will learn earlier and earlier to “learn by six, or seven or eight to hate all the people [their] relatives hate,” with predictable results for those they attack, for their own freedom and rights and for those principles for which the nation purportedly stands.[9]

Against this dark possibility stands a tradition of American leadership exemplified by Abraham Lincoln and John Lewis, among others who might be cited. Lincoln consistently called on his fellow citizens to unite as one people to pursue their common end of freedom. As he noted unforgettably in his Gettysburg Address in honor of those who perished in that terrible battle:

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[10]

John Lewis, a major figure in the modern effort to secure full civil rights for African Americans, spent virtually his entire lifetime pursuing the belief that Americans are one people united by the common cause of their birthright of self-rule and freedom. Rightly dubbed “America’s Moral Lighthouse” in an essay honoring him at his recent death,[11] Lewis once remarked to an interviewer: “My philosophy is very simple, that you’re only here for a while and you have to do what you can with others to enhance the dignity of all humankind.”[12] In his recent eulogy for Lewis former President Barack Obama remembered him by observing:

He believed that in all of us there exists the capacity for great courage. And in all of us, there’s a longing to do what is right, that in all of us there’s a willingness to love all people and extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. So many of us lose that sense. It’s taught out of us. We start feeling as if, in fact, we can’t afford to extend kindness or decency to other people, that we’re better off if we’re above other people and looking down on them.[13]

As Hammerstein observed, too, individuals may be acculturated and choose to honor and dignify all whom they encounter, as Lewis spent his life seeking to do, or they may learn and elect to heed calls to hate and demean themselves and their democratic polity as they do so. Lincoln and Lewis pointed to a higher possibility than revelling in smallness and hatred.  One may hope in the coming months that our collective citizenry realizes the moral and practical significance of these two leaders’ fond aspiration and the nation can set out on a fresh path favoring freedom as joined purpose.

Notes

[1] Stephenson, Max Jr. “On Rhetoric, Leadership and Democratic Community,” Soundings, July 22, 2020, https://ipg.vt.edu/DirectorsCorner/Soundings/Soundings072020.html, Accessed July 27, 2020.  

[2] Sayers, Dorothy. The Mind of the Maker, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1941(1971), 6th ed. p.109. See also: Sayers, Dorothy, “From The Mind of the Maker,” https://www.hjkeen.net/halqn/mindmkr2.htm.

[3] Orwell, George. “Work: Essays: Politics and The English Language.” (May 1945). https://k-1.com/Orwell/site/$country=us;cart_id=TpeOVGQ3Oe9bb6DDoYBsu$/work/essays/language.html Accessed July 27, 2020.

[4] McQuade, Barbara. “Trump’s Portland Strategy: Look Tough and Beat Biden. But He’s Making Cities Less Safe,” USA Today, July 22, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/07/22/trump-portland-federal-agents-law-and-order-beat-biden-column/5481342002/, Accessed July 27, 2020.  

[5] Hammerstein, Oscar II. “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” South Pacific, (Lyrics), https://genius.com/Richard-rodgers-youve-got-to-be-carefully-taught-lyrics, Accessed July 27, 2020.

[6] Mears, Michael and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Trump Sending 5,200 Troops to the Border in an Election-Season Response to Migrants,” The New York Times, October 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/us/politics/border-security-troops-trump.html, Accessed July 27, 2020. 

[7] Fame, Tom. “Let’s Stop Projecting,” The Roanoke Times, July 24, 2020, p. 9.

[8] Daniels, Jason. “More People Should Not Wear Masks,” The Roanoke Times, July 25, 2020, p.2.

[9] Hammerstein. South Pacific.

[10] Lincoln, Abraham. “The Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln Online: Speeches and Writings, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm, Accessed July 28, 2020. 

[11] Gupta, Vanita. “Losing America’s Moral Lighthouse,” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, July 18, 2020. That title appeared in an email/letter sent by the Conference to supporters on July 18. The Conference’s similar formal statement on John Lewis’s death, issued on the same day, can be found here:  https://civilrights.org/2020/07/18/the-leadership-conference-statement-on-the-passing-of-congressman-john-lewis/, Accessed July 20, 2020.

[12] Lewis, John. “Reflections on Brown,” in Explorations in Black Leadership, Co-curated by Phyllis Leffler and Julian Bond. University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, https://blackleadership.virginia.edu/transcript/lewis-john, See: “You Must Have  A Vision,” Accessed July 27, 2020. 

[13] Obama, Barack. “America was Built by John Lewises,” USA Today, July 30, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/07/30/barack-obama-eulogy-john-lewis-funeral-full-transcript/5544048002/, Accessed July 30, 2020. 

Publication Date

August 3, 2020

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