Rhetoric matters

Extremist rhetoric helps create an environment of incitement, which encourages susceptible individuals to engage in hateful, immoral and violent acts.

ISIS militants (photo credit: ARAB MEDIA)
ISIS militants
(photo credit: ARAB MEDIA)
Rhetoric has been a useful tool of democracies since ancient Greece. But even then there were various schools of thought on its purpose. The Sophists, for example, were criticized by the Platonic school for abusing rhetoric and poetry to manipulate others by exploiting emotion and omitting facts. Higher rhetoric, Aristotle taught, was one of the three key elements of philosophy, together with logic and dialectic.
Even a cursory glance at how democracy is being served by rhetoric today indicates that the Sophists won the debate. Their descendants, however, are using extremist rhetoric in the service of totalitarianism.
The terrorists of Islamic State, for example, are eager to murder infidels in their path, because they have internalized teachings that sanction violence in the name of God. They are merciless in their barbarity, because they see their victims as the enemies of God.
And some of the Islamists end up as suicide bombers, persuaded to sacrifice themselves by the rhetorical promise of heavenly rewards for their “holy martyrdom.”
There are parallel dangers of extremist rhetoric in the national political sphere, particularly during an election campaign, but these are seldom lethal. A tragic exception, of course, was the escalating campaign of extremist rhetoric that preceded the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Complex economic, social and political issues do not lend themselves to simple, consensual solutions. Democracy requires and thrives on open debate, and the abuse of rhetoric impoverishes public discourse. Sloganeering and reducing reasoned debate to easily digestible sound bites diminishes the capacity of the populace to address and solve problems intelligently.
In 2007, Prof. Amy Gutmann wrote in Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences: “Serious extremist rhetoric has two defining features. First, it tends toward single-mindedness on any given issue. Second, it passionately expresses certainty about the supremacy of its perspective on the issue without submitting itself either to a reasonable test of truth or to a reasoned public debate...
“Why, then, do nonextremists go to rhetorical extremes and sound like true believers? Because they can gain at least a short-term tactical advantage by sounding extreme. Outrageous, inflammatory remarks make for good copy, and it is often easier to speak in extreme sound bites than in moderate ones. Politicians can use extreme rhetoric in a calculated way to capture the public’s attention, to rally support of single-valued interest groups, and to mobilize voters.”
Israel has long been victimized by the extremism of Arab rhetoric. But not only Israelis have become inured to much of this verbal violence; the Western world has long since ceased to pay attention to Arab references to “holy martyrs” when describing people who murder innocent bystanders by blowing themselves up – in the name, of course, of “resisting the occupation.”
It is somewhat reassuring to note Arab voices against extremism and violence, such as Al-Fadl Shalaq, writing a year ago in the leading Lebanese daily, As-Safir: “Extremists dare strike at our societies with their murderous actions because we’ve always allowed them, for ages, to control the political and ideological discourse around us. They appropriate societies because we remain the prisoners of the same logic upon which political Islam was founded; and extremists are but the offspring of said political Islam. They only dare harm us with actions, because they have been allowed to ideologically smother us. Arab elites espoused their rhetoric prior to using them to terrorize our societies.”
With Islamic State rampaging through the Middle East and foreign volunteers streaming to Syria to join the jihad, the president of Egypt made a groundbreaking speech on New Year’s Day at the seat of Islamic higher learning, the thousand-year-old Al-Azhar University. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged the imams to change their radical rhetoric and lead a “religious revolution” that embraces peace.
With extremists groups such as Islamic State, Boko Haram and al-Qaida killing thousands of innocent people and the increase of radical attacks throughout the world, most in the international community no longer view Islam as a religion of peace, Sisi said.
He noted that Islam is not the only religion with a history of killing in God’s name, citing the Crusades, but argued that extremist Islam has never been able to abandon the violent rhetoric that mandates killing those with whom it disagrees or who insult the prophet Muhammad. This kind of violence is only “antagonizing the world,” Sisi said.
Extremist rhetoric helps create an environment of incitement, which encourages susceptible individuals to engage in hateful, immoral and violent acts.