“They weren’t listening to us. We wanted our country back.” So spoke an Englishman of my acquaintance who is an Australian resident, if not a citizen, after he had recently returned from a lengthy trip back to England. He was of course referring to the Brexit vote. The ‘they’ he accused of not listening were the political classes. He didn’t identify from whom he and his allies wished to reclaim ownership of their country. He didn’t list specific races and nationalities. He didn’t have to. That’s how rhetoric works.
This man is not a young man. And he is not a bright man. I’d go so far as to say he is a bit of a buffoon. But that doesn’t invalidate his first sentence. Regarding his second statement, he has lived in Australia long enough that he no longer has voting rights in his ‘own’ country. As far as I know, he is not planning to move back to live in his ‘own’ country so I was struck by his declaration of wanting his country back when he probably won’t be there to enjoy its return. So, there is a bit of a disconnect between the emotional import and apparent righteousness of what is being said on the one hand, and the actual, impacted reality of the speaker on the other. Rhetoric works that way too.
In the context of the Brexit referendum, the US presidential race and a recent general election here in Australia, I have been thinking a lot about rhetoric and sloganeering and oratorical bombast. Specifically, I have been wondering how certain attitudes and beliefs take hold in a general populace. How do certain ideas and perceptions become entrenched to such an extent that canny political playmakers can turn them into capital? Or maybe it is the politicians who put a name on something they perceive in the people – stirrings of discontent, disillusionment and disbelief need a focus before the mob turns ugly and turns on those in power. And as your average western political representative is not a fascist they won’t send in their boot boys to sort out the dissenters – no, why do something so unseemly when a well-chosen rhetorical missile will be just as effective?
Rhetoric is about controlling the message.
“They weren’t listening to us.” This is arguably the rhetoric of underclasses all over the world. But it is rooted in truth. The truth of poverty traps and disempowerment and disenfranchisement. The truth of alienation. In the past, underclasses denoted those living in abject poverty – slum-dwellers and charity cases, people living at the lowest level of society, poor, unemployed, unloved and unwanted. But in the 21st century, ‘underclasses’ has generously appropriated other strata of society so now if you identify as working class or middle class you can rest assured that such distinctions are no longer necessary – you are just part of one, massive, ever-expanding underclass.
Here’s my bit of rhetoric: Life has moved on and most of us are just trying to catch up. That is to say, an affordable life no longer seems to exist. What was an affordable life is now a luxury item. People talk about ‘the haves and the have-nots’ but it is arguably more the case of ‘the always-have-hads and the never-will-haves’. My attitude to this rather unpalatable truth is to breathe deeply and try not to lose perspective. I manage my expectations and succeed in not losing my mind over envy or fear of being left behind.
“We wanted our country back.” Okay, so this one is not rooted in truth. This is odious, insidious xenophobia reduced to a slogan as peddled by the likes of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson. Those three are almost caricatures of rabid, hate-fuelled rabble-rousers but they all successfully tapped into the aforementioned discontent amongst voters in their countries and provided targets on which the electorate could focus its anger. “We are listening” they said. “Don’t be angry with us,” they said, “be angry with them (insert jihadists, Muslims, Poles, Mexicans, opposition leaders etc.)!” The preachers of hate took control of the message and like the consummate illusionists they are, by a process of slick patter and sleight of hand, they got the audience to believe a woman could be sawn in two. Or in this case, a country, a nation, a union. ‘Them’ and ‘us’. This is the rhetoric of hate. Of intolerance. Of division.
So, what made those politicians so effective? It’s simple. They controlled the message. And they repeated the message so often and with such conviction that there was no longer any discourse, there was just a single piece of rhetoric whipping the stinking masses into a frenzy of indignation and righteous finger-pointing. I argue that the anger and frustration is genuine and justified but that what happened in response to those emotions was pure manipulation and misdirection. In the long run, the material gains for all those unhappy constituents will be paltry, piecemeal gestures in an even more broken future.
They controlled the message.
A colleague of mine caused offence in the lunch room the other week when he directed a sexist comment at a female co-worker in response to a bullying scenario she was describing having experienced in a former job. He did not make his comment maliciously or with any sneer or snark attached. It was delivered in a totally matter-of-fact way as if he was giving directions or the time of day. I challenged him on what he said and he countered that my objection was rooted in political correctness. He seemed to blithely believe that the chauvinist slight he had calmly thrown into the conversation was reflective of a received truth. Thinking about it later I reflected that men have controlled the gender-message forever. They have controlled the message about women forever. And the message is: women are ‘less than’.
But how has that message continued to insinuate itself into so many societies, into so many individuals? Or more pertinently – how have men controlled the message? It is because they are the powerholders. Those in power dictate the message. It is as simple as that. And their most effective rhetoric- missile has been to teach women how to hate themselves. Objectification, body-shaming, slut-shaming – tools of reduction, tools of negation. Thankfully, more and more commentators are calling this poison out as and when they see it.
I wonder too about the messages we tell ourselves. We all have our own personalised rhetoric that compounds so much of what we believe about ourselves. Where did that come from? Who started it? When did it become a ‘truth’? Our rhetoric is most often the framework we apply to out successes and failures, our strengths and weaknesses. “Oh, I do that because I’m this way and I never do that, because I’m that way. And this hasn’t happened because of this, and that will never happen because of the other.” Identifying cause and effect is a very useful exercise but we must surely try not to get stuck there in our own little holding pattern. I always try to ask myself – what about next time?
Here’s another bit of rhetoric from me, and one my students are probably sick to death of hearing: You don’t have to accept the message. You don’t have to take it. You can write your own message. Challenge the powerholders. Tell them there is another way. You can reject the received wisdom. Don’t wait for the right moment. This is your moment. Every moment is your moment.
You don’t have to accept the message.
The next time they come calling just say “No, I can’t take a message. Would you like to take a message from me? Because this is what I think -”
What messages have you been receiving? And leaving? Who is listening to you?