In a time of heated political debate, knowledge of rhetoric as the art of persuasion is needed more than ever, says writer and rhetoric specialist Roxane van Iperen.
Comparing Trump, or any political leader, with Hitler is non-constructive and pretty much ends all discussion. Rereading Kenneth Burke's influential essay 'The rhetoric of Hitler's Battle' provides helpful insight, hopefully creating ways towards more constructive debate.
Due to recent developments in American politics, people have been comparing President-elect Donald Trump's (or Geert Wilders', Marine le Pen's and more political leaders') use of language to World War II fascist language. To put things in perspective and gain more understanding of this complex yet important matter, going back to the influential essay The Rhetoric of Hitler's "Battle" - 'My Battle' being a translation of 'Mein Kampf' (1925) -, by American philosopher Kenneth Burke can be helpful. Burke, who was also a literary theorist, studied the persuasive component in literature.
Be aware that Burke wrote the essay for an American magazine in 1939 shortly after the English translation of Mein Kampf became available, but before he, or anyone, could contemplate what Hitler would do to the world in the years to come.
The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle offers insight in Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany in the 1930's. The people of Germany were suffering due to falling industrial production and unemployment; they were longing for stability and the possibility of greatness seemed far-fetched. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, the first lines of his inaugural speech were:
“The misery of our people is horrible to behold! Along with the hungry unemployed millions of industrial workers there is the impoverishment of the whole middle class and the artisans. If this collapse finally also finishes off the German farmers, we will face a catastrophe of incalculable dimension. For that would be not just the collapse of a nation, but of a two-thousand-year-old inheritance of some of the greatest achievements of human culture and civilization …”
Step by step, using words as tiny doses of arsenic, Hitler fed the people his plan back to greatness. The idea of unlocking a greater potential that was only being obstructed by some - a group molded into scapegoats - appealed to many. Much of Burke's analysis focuses on Mein Kampf. Burke identifies several pillars underneath Hitler's 'unifying' rhetoric, a lot of which is based on Christian values - values people can identify with. Taking note of these pillars can be helpful these days.
There is one archetype human being that is defined as naturally born with dignity, to which all others are inferior. This archetype is designed to appeal to the majority, where others - minorities due to their religion, ethnicity or politics - are abnormal, or even dangerous. They are inferior to the archetype, and existing prejudices are used to identify them.
In a society under pressure, people start to question themselves. Their potential, their system, their values. Using a 'vehicle' to transfer your flaws to, is a simple tool to empower people. By creating a scapegoat, or several scapegoats, self-doubt is eliminated and a joint cause is created: if we battle the scapegoat, we can be great again (no pun intended). By simplifying problems and offering clear-cut solutions, getting rid of the scapegoat becomes a plausible strategy for the benefit of a greater goal.
The reward for doing this - fighting for a common goal while facing difficulty and opposition -, is some kind of promised land. A place for the benefit of all - that remain. Instead of focusing on morally flawed statements and actions along the way, these become justifiable means to an end: a place where the morals of the majority will be back in place.
To get back-up (and literally: funding) for this strategy leading society back to greatness, an important pillar is providing noneconomic interpretations of economic problems. Some kind of false competition that explains it all. In 1930's Germany, economic difficulties were attributed to Jewish moneylenders, suggesting that if they were removed, "German" or Aryan finance would rightfully be back in control.
Comparing current affairs to the situation leading up to World War II is mostly unsatisfactory and offensive; an end to a discussion that, now more than ever, needs to flourish in public discourse. It is recommendable, if not a must, to have knowledge of the instruments that are used to lead people down a sliding moral scale. In language lies the power of persuasion and even manipulation. But instead of muzzling people or calling for censorship, unmask their rhetorical tricks with your knowledge, leaving them harmless.
The full text of Burke's essay can be found here.