What Is Violent Rhetoric?

Mark Wollacott

Violent rhetoric is defined as any form of speech or discourse that uses violent terms and images. Rhetoric is an ancient form of argumentation dating back at least to ancient Greece and Rome. Public speakers or rhetoricians try to use rhetoric to persuade listeners to agree with them or their point of view. Violent terms and images have been used by some, like Adolf Hitler, to inspire violence, or violence can be a byproduct of the speech itself.

Adolph Hitler used violent rhetoric in his speeches.
Adolph Hitler used violent rhetoric in his speeches.

There are several means by which rhetoricians make violent statements. In ancient times, such rhetoric was either performed in a public place on the stump, in the forum, or within a political chamber such as the curia in Rome. Rhetoric and discourse can also take place in the written medium. Examples include the use of pamphlets and books.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined rhetoric as the use of speech to make a listener agree with a particular viewpoint.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined rhetoric as the use of speech to make a listener agree with a particular viewpoint.

In the modern world, violent rhetoric not only takes place at rallies and speeches, but in the homes of millions, if not billions, of people. This is because the major political speeches are often caught on camera or radio. Not only that, but if someone makes an inflammatory speech, the rhetorician’s words will be broadcast across the world and their impact amplified.

There are several motives for using violent rhetoric. The most common reason is to get noticed. If a politician says something violent and inflammatory, his words will be repeated more often and will be discussed on radio, television and in the papers. This spreads the words and the person's name. These kinds of speeches may appear rhetorical, but they are not intended to persuade people; they are intended to gain publicity.

Another reason for violent rhetoric is that it motivates the base. The base is the core set of voters who are very unlikely to change their vote. Many politicians believe that winning elections is not about convincing swing voters, but about getting their existing base to come out and vote. Violent rhetoric makes people’s blood boil; it motivates people to vote against what is being denounced and it increases prejudice — all of which are good for the rhetorician.

Some rhetoricians, however, want there to be violence. These speeches, such as the Red Army’s Ilya Ehrenburg telling his troops to “kill the German” or Hitler’s rants against dissidents and Jews, are designed to have a deliberate effect. There are countless examples of violent rhetoric with the intention of causing violence against another element of society or against specific people. The speeches of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe are an example. In his speeches, he urges people to crack down on opposition supporters and to seize the land of white farmers.

Aristotle believed that rhetoric was designed to persuade people to take up a particular course of action. It is, therefore, not surprising that some people who hear violent rhetoric will do exactly what the rhetoric called for. There are often two reasons for people to do violence as set out in rhetoric. First, the person knows that his or her action will be condoned. Second, the individual is lacking mental brakes that pull most humans away from violence.

When violent rhetoric causes actual violence, the politicians who spouted the inflammatory words are often the first to distance themselves from the violence itself. Words have a power over people and rhetoric is designed to persuade people to a certain course of action. Public speakers and politicians should, therefore, not be surprised that their violent words are met with actual violence.

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