HCAW Blog #4: The Power of Rhetoric in 2020

Alex Murphy @alexmurphykc27

2020 has been a unique year in many ways, but a sudden preoccupation with the clarity of political messaging has united anxious populations around the world. Shifts in the UK from the ‘Stay at home’ message, to ‘Stay alert’ and ‘Hands, face, space’ in short order (alongside the brief diversion into ‘Eat out to help out’) have met with uncertainty and varying public commitment throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The mixed success of these messages, and their counterparts internationally, has demonstrated the continued importance of political rhetoric and its power as a tool for communication and behaviour change.

The study of rhetoric was a foundational discipline in previous ages, a subject of influential instruction, criticism, and satire in Ancient Greece, and celebrated practice in the Roman Republic. Rhetoric has since slipped from the pinnacle of syllabi, but the persuasive power of language casts an appealing spell in the popular imagination and continues to be marked through the canonisation of eloquent speeches or striking political campaigns around the world, as well as concern over its use and misuse.

Political rhetoric in 2020

Effective political communicators have adapted to changing media landscapes but certain fundamentals have endured, with effect­­­­­ive rhetoric tailored to its medium, audience, and context and resonating with the values, aspirations, or myths of a moment.

For example, it is impossible to understand Boris Johnson’s electoral success without reference to the power of his campaigns’ messaging,  with ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’ conveying pithy and popularly appealing messages in the EU referendum campaign and 2019 general election respectively. Similarly, the effectiveness and discipline of ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’ in the early days of the UK’s coronavirus outbreak surpassed expectations, finding unprecedented buy-in from the public and, ultimately, proving difficult for the government to supersede in its series of subsequent communication stumbles.

Elsewhere, controversial populists such as Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, and Jair Bolsonaro have attracted continuous outrage from sectors of their populations in recent years. At the same time, their symbolic positioning as tough or direct have frequently immunised them from any backlashes from their bases and allowed them to divert attention and craft their own narratives through canny messaging.

Rhetoric and hate crime

In all of these cases, rhetoric seems to have trumped reality in key policy areas such as criminal justice, economics, and responses to the pandemic, and the support of many followers appears divorced from the achievements of these administrations. For each, a significant section of support also seems to be enthused by the extreme rhetoric itself.  The inflammatory effect of rhetoric in instigating division has been an issue of widespread public concern in recent years, with numerous examples of discriminatory messaging sparking concern over the role played by politicians in provoking hate crimes and social disruption. At the same time, the gap between persuasive messaging and administrative success has been laid bare by the relative failures of some countries in dealing with the undeniable onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The issue of how political rhetoric influences hate speech is at the centre of my doctoral research, and the political dimensions of hate crime are a frequently underappreciated part of their dynamics. There is a wealth of evidence backing the power of political rhetoric generally in shaping public sentiments, and an abundance of anecdotal evidence of how the political atmosphere inculcated by leaders filters into the experiences of demonised outgroups. Increasingly, scholars have also pointed towards a direct connection between exclusionary rhetoric and the victimisation of minority groups, with instances of hateful speech appearing to play a direct role in influencing the rates and nature of hate crime while inclusionary messages can apparently reduce it. This research fits alongside the established part that so-called ‘trigger events’ such as terrorist attacks play in provoking or legitimising hate crime against minority groups, and the powerful positions that leaders assume at these times of maximum social tension is a subject of justified scrutiny as they soothe or inflame division. 

Ultimately, given politicians’ unique accountability to the public, the notion that their rhetoric can lead to the victimisation and marginalisation of citizens is a troubling one. Populist successes in recent years have shaped the tone of governments and movements across much of the world, and the divisiveness that has driven and reflected these shifts has shaped understandings of the pandemic and the inequalities that have been exposed.

Lessons from history

In this context, political leadership, and the symbolic and practical direction that it involves, has had perhaps a more immediate and perceptible impact on people’s lives than at any point in recent history. When Donald Trump pushes the ‘China Virus’ label in defiance of his own officials, and as hate crimes against Asian-Americans continue to surge, the impact is very real and demonstrates the irresponsibility of this messaging. At the same time, it diverts attention, and externalises the need for focused action away from the US administration. Oratory that fires up the base has obvious political upside, but in the present context the Athenian statesman and orator Pericles is worth noting. In his final speech, in 430 BCE, Pericles attempted to win over a hostile assembly who were fatigued from the war with Sparta that he had disastrously championed as well as an escalating viral outbreak:

‘So far as I am concerned, if you are angry with me, you are angry with one who has, I think, at least as much ability as anyone to see what ought to be done, and to explain what he sees, one who loves his city and one who is above being influenced by money. A man who has the knowledge but lacks the power to express it clearly is no better off than if he never had any ideas at all.’

Sadly, Pericles’ celebrated powers of expression did not prevent his and thousands of others’ death from plague a few months later.

Alex Murphy is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and Postgraduate Researcher in the School of Criminology at the University of Leicester. His doctoral research is centred on the relationship between political rhetoric and hate speech.

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