People like to think that they make decisions intelligently, considering the outcomes, and using logical thinking. They would be shocked to hear that their decisions are often made unconsciously, and that they are often targeted by companies who rely on the fact that people let how they feel trump what they think. Think about the last time you purchased something based upon a commercial that advertised the product. If you really thought about it, most people would say they bought the product because the commercial was funny, because a celebrity they liked endorses the product, or because the commercial somehow convinced them that they needed it. Was your decision based on logic, or was it based on the tricks used in the commercial to appeal to you? The use of rhetoric, the art of persuasion, can be seen on just about every advertisement(Crewell, Draper, and Mitchell). Most people are not familiar with the tricks of rhetoric, and they are not aware of when they are being used against them. Rhetoric operates by being subtle and using the fact that people tend make emotional rather than logical decisions. The problem with reasoning based upon emotion is that your emotions often cloud your thinking, and decisions are made without rational thoughts. It is important to be familiar with rhetoric so that people do not take advantage of you by toying with your emotions. It has been proven that rhetoric is a great manipulation tool, and one arena where it is often employed is politics.
Every political speech uses rhetoric to persuade the audience to vote , act, or think a certain way. An excellent example of the use of rhetoric in a political speech is John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address which was delivered on January 20, 1961. John F. Kennedy was elected president during a very tumultuous time in U.S. history. The Cold War between Russia and the United States was in its early stages. The first nuclear weapons had been built and Americans lived in fear that there would be a nuclear attack. Americans did not know who to trust as the Red Scare and the fear of communism turned them against each other. Overall, the country was very divided, and citizens were uncertain if the country was going in the right direction. Kennedy knew that he needed to use his inauguration speech to unite the country and encourage them to be active citizens. He wanted to renew America’s trust in the government and create peace between the United States and the rest of the world. In order to unite the citizens, Kennedy utilized several rhetorical tricks to write a eloquent speech that quietly instilled a sense of patriotism to the American public, flattered them in to believing that they were a key component to promote change, and convinced them to devote their lives to the progress of the country.
In her essay entitle “Propaganda: How Not to be Bamboozled” Donna Cross defines glittering generalities as “virtue words” that make a person feel good even though they have no set meaning(Cross 125-126). Kennedy’s used a plethora of glittering generalities about patriotism in his inauguration address to evoke a sense of American pride within the citizens. A few examples of glittering generalities in Kennedy’s speech include “our ancient heritage,” “rights of man,” “peace,” “liberty,” and “national loyalty.” In her essay, Cross explains that the problem with glittering generalities is that people automatically have a positive response to these words without deciphering the real meaning behind them(Cross 126). For example, what are the rights of man? What does it mean to have national loyalty? What do the words peace or liberty really mean? Any person would classify those examples from Kennedy’s speech as positive words and phrases but few people would be able to give solid definitions as to what the words really mean. In fact, a problem arises because those words mean different things to different people. Overtime, however, those words have become glittering generalities because most people do not stop and think about the context that the words are being used in and simply regard them positively without thought. Kennedy included glittering generalities in his speech because he knew that the audience would react to those words and feel the sense of American pride that is automatically generated by those words and phrases. In order to complete his main goal, to make Americans want to actively support their country, he knew he had to revive their patriotism, and he did that by using glittering generalities.
Kennedy also used the persuasive tool glory by association. This technique takes an idea and associates it with something with as positive connotation, so that the idea is linked to it and it is also viewed positively(Cross 127-128). When JFK closed his speech by saying, “let us go forth to lead the land we love… knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own,” associating God with the job that he is urging the American public to do. Therefore, the American people believe that becoming an active citizen, and supporting America is what God would advocate. The problem with glory by association is that the comparison is often made between two subjects that are completely unrelated. Does supporting the president and the government or being an active citizen actually have anything to do with God? Glory by association relies on the well known person or idea, in this case God, to create a positive shadow on the new person or idea, supporting America, so that the audience will unknowingly review the new person or idea in a positive way automatically. JFK definitely ended his speech on a very powerful note by tricking the American people into thinking that the mission that he is giving them is so important that it is what God would want them to do.
JFK’s most obvious and most powerful rhetorical skill used in this speech is stroking. Stroking is a rhetorical trick where the author compliments the audience and tells them what they want to hear to gain their favor(Cross 126). Kennedy’s inaugural address is littered with examples of stroking because he wanted to make Americans feel like they were necessary in helping the country and the world become a better place. He refers to Americans as, “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed,” and says that that Americans “shall pay any price, bear and burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Kennedy is praising the American people for always standing up for what is right and portraying them as heroic. By complimenting the American people he is making them feel good about themselves and gaining their support. After assuring the citizens that they need to and can make a difference he urges them to go forth and do so. Stroking is similar to pathos which is another rhetorical technique JFK used persistently.
Pathos, appealing to emotion, is used by JFK to boost the egos of the Americans by making them feel proud and significant (Crewell, Draper, and Mitchell). By claiming that, “only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger” he makes the citizens feel important and of value to the country. He told the people that, “ in your hands… more than mine, will rest the final success or failures of our course.” Did the American people really hold more power than the president in making decisions to better the world? Of course not. Kennedy made such claims to make the American people to feel esteemed so that they would stand up and speak out against the injustices in the world. JFK appealed to a different emotion, sadness, when he mentioned, “the graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.” He wanted to acknowledge that the challenge he was issuing was so imperative that people were willing to risk their lives for it. Therefore, citizens who were unwilling to give their lives to the cause would feel guilty that they had not made any effort to help America and would want to speak out and rise to JFK’s challenge. By the end of the speech when JFK delivered the famous quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you- -ask what you can do for your country,” he had implanted the idea that that generation of Americans was so critical and special that they needed become involved to prevent the country from failing.
JFK’s inauguration speech is one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history. Most Americans can recite lines from it even if they have never heard the entire speech. The reason that the speech is so recognizable is because it employed rhetoric so well. Rhetoric is a powerful tool that can encourage people to do something that they normally wouldn’t (i.e. buy a product that they do not need, or become an active citizen as opposed to a passive one.) Kennedy had a very specific goal when giving his speech, and he used the tricks of rhetoric to persuade his audience and reach his goal. First, he talked about the transition that the country was facing and what the country needed to do in order to protect human rights. He used glittering generalities and glory by association to create a patriotic atmosphere and to present his argument in a positive light. In order to get the American public on board, he used stroking and appealed to their emotion. The tricks used in the speech worked by making the citizens feel like they were an essential part in creating the world that JFK envisioned. He finished the speech by challenging his audience to do whatever they could to help the country. If John F. Kennedy had come outright in his speech and asked Americans to become actively involved citizens the response would probably not have been as large, and the speech would not have gone down in history as one of the best speeches of all time. The reason that his speech was able to have the effect that it did is because JFK was able to conceal the speech’s message behind the tricks of rhetoric and manipulate the audience.
In the future when you see commercials or hear a political speech, stop, think, and consider the motives behind them. Are you being appealed to through your emotions? If so, try to reason about the advertisement in a logically sense instead or being guided by your emotions. Familiarize yourself with rhetorical tricks so that you will be able to pick them out. If you are able to prevent rhetoric from being used against you then you will be free to make better decisions that are based on logic and not on emotion.
Cross, Donna. "Propaganda: How not to be Bamboozled." Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. Ed. Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rose, Virginia Clark. Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin's, 2005. 125-128. Print.
Crewell, Dustin, Melissa Draper, and Colin Mitchell. "The Art of Rhetoric: Learning How to Use the Three Main Rhetorical Styles." N.p., 1996. Web. 29 Sep 2010. .