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Public rhetoric creates a society in which truth comes a poor second to propagand Paper

Words: 2598, Paragraphs: 49, Pages: 9

Paper type: Essay , Subject: Communication

Rhetoric has been defined and analysis in different ways, therefore to study the role of rhetoric in society it is important first to define the term itself. Rhetoric according to the dictionary is the ‘Art of effective or persuasive speech or writing’1. Farrell defines rhetoric as the ‘collaborative art of addressing and guiding decision and judgement’2 and suggests it is a ‘public language’3 for successful cultures. Rhetoric therefore means ‘the art of using language to persuade or influence the human subject. It is usually applied to persuasive attempts directed at an audience, often in some formal or institutional setting.’4

Rhetoric plays a huge role in influencing public opinion therefore in order to confront the idea that “Public rhetoric creates a society in which truth comes a poor second to propaganda” it is important first to outline the meaning of the two terms ‘Truth’ and ‘Propaganda’. The dictionary suggests a broad definition of the word truth: ‘Truth- Quality or state of being true’5, this definition however, does not give a substantial enough meaning of the word. Truth is ‘something that you believe to be right, a testing of ideas that are believed to be reliable’. This is my own definition of truth, which I believe outlines what truth constitutes of.

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Jowett and O’Donnell define propaganda as ‘means to disseminate or promote particular ideas’6 the definition goes further in explaining that ‘Propaganda is the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist’7. This definition of propaganda focuses on the communicative process and most specifically the purpose of the process, the purpose being to send out an ideology to an audience with a related objective. My own perception of propaganda, in its most neutral sense, is that propaganda is ‘a set of ideas put out politically’.

This essay will consider the way in which public rhetoric can be used for persuasive purposes. Political speech/es and movie speeches will form the basis of my analysis.

Talk is often called a speech event. “A speech which urges the audience to do, say, feel, or think something”8 A speech event is orientated to achieving goals predicated on the existence of an audience and is described by the linguist Hymes as an ‘occurrence of speech within a larger context’.9 Political speeches operate within this context.

When a speech event takes place it is important to note that what is said is governed by the intention of the speakers within a given context, (both the immediate situation and the wider social context), as well as by the available discourses in the language and the situation in particular. The discourse used will consist of a particular form and content, taken from a set of available discourses.

In Tony Blair’s speech (July 17,2003) he addresses the U.S Congress in accepting the Congressional Gold Medal. The speech is given in a formal setting. Blair as a leader has authority and his authority is acknowledged by his followers or sub-ordinates, this assembly of such individuals create the appropriate conditions of speech making, however, Blair is not only addressing these individuals but also the electronic public sphere, so his speech becomes for public consumption.

The speech opens with a direct address to ‘Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President (and the) honorable members of Congress’. The audiences both locally present and listening to the broadcast are also being addressed in this speech. The prime minister first shows respect for the status of the distinguished individuals, then later cleverly reduces them all to the common level of citizen’s of the great republic making them all seem equal.

“We were all reared on battles between great warriors, between great nations, between powerful forces and ideologies that dominated entire continents.”

Immediate uses of rhetorical devices are evident in this statement. Here we witness, the employment of the inclusive ‘we’ along with the repetition of the word ‘between’ to emphasise his points. The use of the personal pronoun ‘we’ attempts to position the audience, the idea being that this type of address attempts to represent the interests and opinions of Blair and audience as identical.

‘Public speaking attempts to ‘position’ its audience’ (Atkinson, 1984) Therefore there is a strong link between language and power, what is being said is related to Blair’s power as Prime Minister. Blair affiliates himself with his primary audience the ‘U.S Congress’ aswell his secondary audience ‘the public’.

Within the first few lines of the speech we see the uses of antithetic parallelism. The first antithesis is in a “not…but” structure.

“…by showing them (service men and women) and their families that they did not strive or die in vain, but that through their sacrifice future generations can live in greater peace, prosperity and hope.”

Here we witness assertion, an example of contrast or juxtaposition and an affiliation with the public expressed with the use of ‘families’.

All writing and texts make references to the world that we know and Blair too does this in his speech:

“Through the troubled times since September 11th changed our world, we have been allies and friends” “September 11 was not an isolated event, but a tragic prologue…”

From this statement we get reference to the accepted existence of certain events. All writing or text depends on ‘pre-existing themes’ to make its point. (Barker, 1989) Blair later addresses themes about terrorism.

The Prime-Minister voices his opinions openly and is interested in colloquial language, sympathetic circularity and the habit of ‘speaking from experience’. He presents himself as a reasonably ordinary person and talks about his son.

“Actually, you know, my middle son was studying 18th century history and the American war of Independence…’

Here we witness, the use of colloquial language ‘you know’ and yet another form of identification with the public. The lexis of the speech comes from everyday speech, there are no specialists or obscure terms and most sentences are simple structurally, this therefore allows an easier understanding in the audience.

He then goes on to talk about belief:

“In the end it is not our power alone that will defeat this evil. Our ultimate weapon is not our guns, but our beliefs”

Belief is a firm conviction in the existence or rightness of something, however this differs from position. The belief of a politician and the expression of that belief differentiate greatly. What Blair says is not necessarily what he believes. However, all politicians are aware that they have to act in a particular context bearing in mind the welfare and well being of an audience. All social actors “have goals, make moves, take turns, employ tactics and work out strategies’ (Nofsinger, 1991)

He continues:

“There is a myth that though we love freedom, others don’t; that our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture; that freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law are American values, or Western values; that afghan women were content under the lash of the Taliban; that Saddam was somehow beloved by his people; that Milosevic was Serbia’s savior”

The key word here is ‘freedom’. Freedom can be economical, cultural or political, in this sense he talks about Freedom for all, not just for those in a western society.

“…Ours are not western values; they are the universal values of human spirit. And anywhere…Anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law; not the rule of the secret police.”

Here he presents a series of oppositions and makes use of contrast to put his point across. His points consist of a three part list and include the repetition of “anywhere” emphasizing the idea that freedom is a universal value and can be present anywhere in the world. He uses further parallelisms to get his point across:

“The spread of freedom is the best security for the free. It is our last line of defense and our first line of attack. And just as the terrorist seeks to divide humanity in hate, so we have to unify it around an idea. And that idea is liberty.”

In other words, in oppositional terms, the terrorists attack and divide and the allies (Britain and America) defend and unify. This could be described as what Jowett and O’Donnell call ‘White propaganda’. ‘White propaganda is when the source is identified correctly and the information in the message tends to be accurate…Although what listeners hear is reasonably close to the truth, it is presented in the manner that attempts to convince the audience that the sender is the “good guy” with the best ideas and political ideology.’10

Each speaker has a purpose; Blair for example, has the purpose of increasing the morale of the British and American people after or throughout the ‘war on terror’. Politicians have a tendency to use the word freedom vastly in the public arena, both in speeches and party election broadcasts. Blair’s speech is built around a tired clich�- the importance of freedom, the need for it, how other cherished values depend on it and how it will triumph. This is his way of justifying the war in Iraq.

He concludes his talk on freedom with the words of Abraham Lincoln:

“We must find the strength to fight for this idea and the compassion to make it universal. Abraham Lincoln said “Those that deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves” and it is this sense of justice that makes moral love a liberty”

The speech is bombarded with references to ‘freedom’ and ‘being free’. Rhetorical questions, assertions, three part lists and contrast and juxtaposition are present throughout the speech till its end, and these are all common features of public rhetoric. Some of the most famous examples of public rhetoric have been produced by military leaders preparing troops for battle. These speeches, both real and fictitious, usually demonstrate the great motivating power of what Aristotle calls ‘pathos’. Pathos (emotional proof) is the feeling the speech draws from the hearers.

In the film ‘Braveheart’ (1995) the scene in which ‘William Wallace’ addresses the Scottish Army at Stirling provides such a speech. Wallace establishes his credentials and introduces himself. He then goes on to address the idea of freedom:

“You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What would you do without freedom, will you fight?”

He uses the personal pronoun ‘you’ to address the whole collective. The basic difference between Blair’s speech and Wallace’s speech is that Blair talks about making freedom a universal theme as many countries do not have it. Wallace speaks of freedom in a patriotic manner.

“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom”.

In this context, the soldiers answer back and have the right to speak-one of the key concepts of freedom. In a political context, only the speaker expresses his beliefs and ideas and the audience is positioned in a way to accept these beliefs and ideas imposed on them.

The movie scene in which General Maximus Meridius addresses Caesar Commodus in the film ‘Gladiator’ (2000) provides another example of Rhetoric in movie speeches.

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance in this life-or the next”11

The speech begins with a formal mode of address; he introduces himself and creates an assertion. He then goes on to assert his authority, ‘Commander’; ‘General’; ‘loyal servant’; ‘Father’ and ‘Husband’ are all terms or names linked with authority. The second, third and fourth assertion consist of a three part list reiterating his authority, however his fifth, sixth and seventh assertions express an undesired state of affairs. His wife and child have been murdered and he wants his revenge. In this short address a narrative is established, which consists of a storyline used by the storyteller. The themes which emerge most clearly in the course of the narrative concern masculinity, power, heroism and the nature of group leadership. Narrative should not be seen as simply a ‘fictional’ practice, as human beings report everyday events and encounters in the form of narrative.

Central to the study of rhetoric is the audience. Responses to persuasion


In addressing the idea that “Public rhetoric creates a society in which truth comes a poor second to propaganda’ I conclude that public rhetoric has both a positive and negative condition to it in society. In Blair’s speech there is a sincere concern for the welfare of the audience. Certain ideas and messages are selected by him and imposed on the audience, this does, therefore mean that the selection of this information is biased as he chooses what to tell the audience and what to keep from them, however Blair does not use rhetoric in a negative, manipulative or dishonest way, he simply uses persuasive techniques to get his point across.

In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle, with regard to persuasion indicated that “a crafty person could artfully manipulate the instruments of rhetoric for either honest or dishonest terms. Depending upon which end is desired, the use of rhetorical devices is judged accordingly: “if…the aim be good, the cleverness is praiseworthy; but if it be bad, it becomes craft.”12

A speaker faced with having to articulate a message on a public platform e.g. Tony Blair with the knowledge that it would gain a wider circulation, would perhaps be more circumspect in his subject matter or address. More Importantly, Blair might frame the message using a rhetorical construction as I have shown.

Propaganda is a form of communication that is different from persuasion because it attempts to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist. Blair’s message is not that of propaganda. ‘To identify as message as propaganda is to suggest something negative and dishonest, words frequently used as synonyms for propaganda are “lies”, “distortion”, “deceit”, “manipulation” and “brainwashing”.’ Many of these synonyms are suggestive of techniques of message production rather than purpose or process. Blair’s purpose is to keep the interests and well being of the public audience at heart, he does not lie or distort information, however he may hide the truth from us in places are he believes it is for the best. ‘No audience, no matter how perverse in its own needs, will put up with hearing that they are being manipulated and used to fulfill another’s selfish needs. Thus the propagandist cannot reveal the true intent of the message’. 13

However, as Althusser argues ‘the media are ideological state apparatus; they produce meanings in the audience. The voice of the author in a novel, speech, advertisement or television program guides us through, the text or story; therefore it is not necessarily true as we as readers are not allowed to align ourselves with a particular character, person, and situation. In Blair’s speech, what you see on the surface does not necessarily tell you about the truth of the world. There are structures that you can’t see for example, the economic status, political status or public relations between classes and races. We are colored by dominant ideology which influences our beliefs and ideas; so on the other hand, manipulation can be seen as an instrument of ideology. In comparison to Blair’s speech, the speeches in the examples given, although fictitious, rhetoric is used in a positive retrospect as both characters do not try to manipulate their audiences but try to persuade them.

About the author

This academic paper is crafted by Mia. She is a nursing student studying at the University of New Hampshire. All the content of this sample reflects her knowledge and personal opinion on Public rhetoric creates a society in which truth comes a poor second to propagand and can be used only as a source of ideas for writing.

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