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Rhetorical Strategies

How language creates crises and shapes minds?

24 June 2022

The barrage of crises and events in the Middle East, the west as well as across the world, revealed different approaches embraced by the media to cover similar events, and showed that politicians use different rhetoric to comment on events that are similar in everything except that they occur in two different regions. A good example is the media coverage of the flow of refugees from Ukraine as opposed to the coverage of the flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Recently, the New York Times found itself drowned in a wave of ridicule over a headline that said Al Jazeera’s Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh “dies at 51”, without mentioning the cause of her death, as if she died of a natural cause and not at the hands of a killer. The headline was in complete contrast to the American newspaper’s coverage of the death of one of its American journalists near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in similar circumstances as Abu Akleh, but the headline read “Brent Renaud, an American journalist, is killed in Ukraine.” One word was all it took to expose the bias of the same media outlet covering two similar incidents. 

Within this context, this article seeks to shed light on “language” as an essential tool in shaping and framing public opinion, and as a major factor utilized in many security and political crises but is rarely taken into account by political analysis, especially in the Arab region. 

Language and historical crises

Language has a major impact on our life and can even change the fate of states. One word is all it takes to pit peoples or countries against each other. In a famous gaffe- which was not funny at all when it occurred back in the 1970s- freelance linguist and interpreter Steven Seymour, who was tasked with translating a speech given by former US President Jimmy Carter in 1977 during a visit to Poland, made Carter appear to express sexual desire for the then-Communist country. It turned out Carter had said he wanted to learn about the Polish people’s ‘desires for the future’. Seymour also turned Carter’s words into “Carter was happy to grasp at Poland's private parts”. The misfortunate translation surprised the Polish people and sparked popular anger in the then-communist country, although the gaffe later became a popular joke. 

But the consequences of wrong words are not always that nice. One misused or misinterpreted word can spark wars and cause the extermination of a whole people. Japan was hit by atomic bombs that changed history forever because of a mistake in interpreting a comment by then-Prime Minister Danshaku Suzuki Kantaro on a declaration of surrender terms submitted by allied leaders to Japan. Because Japan had not yet reached a decision on this threat, Prime Minister Kantaro said he was "withholding comment," utilizing the word “mokusatu”. Mokusatu is derived from the word "silence". International news agencies reported to the world that, in the eyes of the Japanese government, the ultimatum was "not worthy of comment." Mokusatsu, a word that we could very well translate as "no comment", or "let me withhold comments for now", was translated as “unworthy of public notice.” 

Angered by the comment, despite not being the sole reason, the United States made a decision to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagazaki instantly killing some 200000 people. As a US magazine put it in 1986, this was the most tragic interpretation in history.

In the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq, the word “failed”, used in the English version of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which adopted the results of the work of weapons inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iraq, was translated into the Arabic word for “refused” in the Arabic version. So the sentence read Iraq “refused” to cooperate fully and unconditionally with UNSCOM and IAEA weapons. We are all aware that the word “fail” means “be unsuccessful in achieving a goal”, suggesting there is an effort made but did not yield results. But the misinterpretation of the word in the UN Security Council resolution was used to suggest that Iraq intentionally refused to cooperate with the inspectors, because the aim was to prepare the Arab public opinion for the US invasion of Iraq and even to legitimize this invasion on the basis that it was because of Iraq’s intransigence.

While the previously mentioned mistakes show how dangerous it is to underestimate the impact of language and how grave and costly unintentional interpretation mistakes can be, the intentional manipulation of language which aims to send across certain implicit and indirect messages is in fact the order of the day. A great deal of media content and political rhetoric imply linguistic tactics designed to influence whole peoples the way speech writers want. Even extremist groups learned and used these tactics in their rhetoric. A good example is Malika El Aroud, Belgium’s famous “black widow”, who once said “It's not my role to set off bombs -- that's ridiculous. I have a weapon. It's to write. It's to speak out. That's my jihad. You can do many things with words.”

Manipulation of words, and minds too

Manipulating words is what many media platforms do to influence the collective awareness thus serving their own agendas. In doing so, they follow the “framing theory” long discussed by political linguists. According to the theory, linguistic frames expressing ideas can impact the audience’s perception and impact their ideas. A study conducted in the US by Sniderman & Theriault (2004) found that respondents, when asked whether they would favor or oppose allowing a hate group to hold a political rally, 85% of respondents answered in favor if the question was prefaced with the suggestion, “Given the importance of free speech,” whereas only 45% were in favor when the question was prefaced with the phrase, “Given the risk of violence”.

The following are linguistic strategies which are used by linguists to influence public opinion about certain matters, and also by some media organizations across the world. 

1- Self and others:

Renowned linguist Van Dijk believes that one of the most effective ways of ideological influence is to divide people into groups and parties i.e. self vs others. Accordingly, there would be positive self-presentation and negative other-presentation are two complementary strategies. State-owned Russia Today, divides the world into Russia and allies (self), and the West led by the United States (others). The platform’s headlines keep its focus on the victories and achievements of “self” and the defeats and disgraceful attitudes of the “other”. Articles in the Arabic edition of Russia Today celebrate Russia’s success to abort plans by the United States and NATO in the Sea of Azov, Saudi Arabia’s support to Russia against attempts to push it out of the oil market, as well as the opening up of new venues for strategic cooperation between Russia and Iran, the importance of Russian energy supplies to the West which would have been otherwise crippled. On the other side, the English-language edition of Russia Today focuses on negative positions taken by the United States. Good examples include articles with topics such as the Democratic Party’s taking advantage of a mass shooting at a school in Texas, Latin American countries’ potential boycotting of the United States, the United States’ failure to honor its commitment not to use military intervention in international issues, President Joe Biden’s inability to control his emotions and statements when talking about China, and shortage of powdered baby formula in US stores and how it reflects economic deficit etc.  

However, the media in the United States and the rest of the West, which have the highest readership and viewership and are the most influential, are using the same tactics.

2- Half-truths:

Other linguistic tactics discussed by Van Dijk is to discuss a topic using ambiguous terms and wording and stating some of the facts and showing certain aspects of an issue while ignoring other aspects. A good example is coverage by Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya news channels of a summit of Muslim leaders held on December 18, 2019 in Malaysia. Linguist Dominica Kazarova noted that Al-Jazeera focused on the summit’s agenda for five major issues of concern for Muslim countries and the attendance of leaders of major Muslim countries. Al-Arabiya, on the other hand, kept its focus on the absence of leaders of major countries.According to Kazarova, one would think the two channels were covering two different summits, but the fact is that neither one was lying. That is, some of the leaders attended the summit while others were absent, but both channels intentionally ignored a very important part of the truth, which is the number of leaders who attended the event: the aim is to uphold the summit (Al-Jazeera) or underestimate the event (Al-Arabiya). 

3- Rhetorical questions:

These questions are posed by someone who does not wait for the response because they already know the response but want readers/viewers reach the same conclusion on their own using inference. The aim is to indirectly frame the audience’s mind within a certain idea so as the recipient appears to do so without being dictated. This type of questions represents the most popular ways of convincing others. The Jerusalem Post, for example, used this tactic to raise doubts about the identity of the gunman who shot dead Al-Jazeera’s reporter Shireen Abu Akleh. The Israeli newspaper highlighted that the Palestinians insisted on not handing over the bullets recovered from the site of the incident to the Israeli authorities. By posing questions such as: Why do they insist on refusal? What is it that they are trying to hide? the newspaper was suggesting that because the Palestinians tampered with the evidence, they should be held responsible, one way or another, for the killing of the Palestinian journalist. 

4- Repetition:

Some linguists believe that repeating certain words or phrases in any rhetoric represents an attempt by the writer/sayer to implant a certain idea in the mind of the recipient. Psychologists agree and believe that repetition makes the concerned idea more likely to be credible. Politicians invoke this strategy while preparing their important statements to the media. Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, who was Iraq’s information minister during the US invasion of the country, frequently used words such as uluj and mercenaries to make his audience believe that the allied forces are only a group of militants that can be easily crushed. Former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, in his last speech to the people, repeated the word “legitimacy” 52 times over the 45 minutes as a way to reiterate his right to the presidency. Additionally, former US President Donald Trump used to repeat the phrase “when was the last time?” to highlight the United State’ stand and power during his term and Barack Obama’s term. His aim was to indirectly criticize the Obama Administration’s policies. 

5- Figures of speech:

Using similes, metaphors and other figures of speech is a highly important tool for convincing recipients. They embody ideas and make it easier to influence the hearts and minds. Many extremist ideologues are very good at using this tactic. They possess a wide repertoire of words that enables them to attract and recruit sympathizers and supporters. The linguistic tactic was aptly used by the team of Rumiya, one of the most influential publications issued by ISIS. It is well known that the media represent one of the most effective weapons used by ISIS. In an English-language article authored by terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, published over 3 issues of the online magazine (issues 11, 12 and 13), as many as 17 figures of speech were used to give advise and guidance to the jihadists. Some of these promote a great deal of violence and cruelty to pit the audience against their enemies. These include “showdown between the right and the wrong”, “aggressors are usurp our land, wolves, and even dogs that he said were emboldened against us”, “like strangers, their faces is slapped by the wind of isolation and lonliness”, “the struggle between the right and the wrong”, “Islam is waging war against the infidels”, their bare feet are bleeding from the extreme heat of the desert that was sparked by enmity.”

In conclusion, language represents a powerful weapon that can provide protection and can even be lethal. Many politicians and media persons recognize the power and importance of this dangerous weapon, and use it to promote their ideologies and achieve their goals using language tricks.