Political history is often determined by hindsight judgment and attempts to connect the success or failure of particular political enterprises with perceived virtues and beliefs of each side compared to actions used to promote said political agendas.
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However, as it often is in politics, major leaders rarely say what they think, instead of relaying what the public expects of them. This duplicity is enforced upon politicians by circumstances and opposition alike, as when it comes to political debate, the strengths of evidence often plays a secondary role when compared to the perceived image of the person relaying the message. The paper was written by Krebs and Jackson, titled “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms: The Power of Political Rhetoric” which examines the concept of rhetorical coercion and its influence on political outcomes worldwide.
The authors define rhetorical coercion strategy used to put the opponent in a rhetorical Zugzwang – a position where they would either be forced to defend their viewpoint under unfavorable connotations or agree to the viewpoints propagated by their opponents. It is possible to see that neither of the options is beneficial for the party that coercion is used against.
The basis of rhetorical coercion, according to Krebs and Jackson (57), was formulated by Machiavelli in his monumental political work, titled “The Prince.” According to the Italian politician, every political leader must create an aura of capability and virtue around themselves, even if they do not possess such virtues. To extrapolate, every politician that has a hope of success in the political field must appear honest, well natured, patriotic, and without major character flaws to the majority of their political allies and adversaries.
A failure to do so would invoke doubt and discord, making the electorate dismiss the candidate or an idea based on the unspoken argumentum ad hominem rather on argumentum ad factum. Thus, rhetorical coercion aims to put the opponent in a position where they have to choose – either concede on an important matter to save reputation or continue defending their position after being put in an unfavorable position, risking damage to their reputation in the long run.
It must be noted that the researchers do not believe in the honesty of the majority of the politicians during debates. In many cases, politicians are forced to defend positions they do not have a personal stake in. Or, to be more specific, that it is impossible to determine for sure which political views does a leader truly share and exhibit during a debate, as such would require entering the person’s mind. Nor is it possible to determine whether a person is genuinely convinced by the opponent’s words, or if they are coerced to agree by the strengths of the opponent’s argument coupled with the public appearance of the debate. In public debates, who is objectively right is not as important when compared to who appears to be right to the public.
Coercive Rhetoric and Stereotyping
For coercive rhetoric to be successful, it must appeal to the public’s senses of what is right and just versus what is considered wrong and unjust. The goal is to present the proposed idea not from the perspective of its actual feasibility but rather from the perspective of justice, righteousness, or even common sense. This removes any common ground necessary for the debate, as the opponent, should they choose to oppose an idea already painted as just and righteous in the public’s mind, would automatically appear as unjust or nonsensical.
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Historically, coercive rhetoric was used by various political leaders to promote injustice under the guise of common sense. Hitler, famous for his oratory skills, propagated intolerance and hatred against Jews by appealing to the views and beliefs of many Germans that Jews sold Germany out during the First World War. While that view was profoundly incorrect and was largely born of long-lasting stereotypes coupled with revanchist tendencies in German society, it also made the points of anyone trying to defend the minority less credible.
When analyzing historical examples of coercive rhetoric, however, one must keep in mind that the collection of common views and beliefs differs based on geographical positioning and historical timeline of the event or debate. Different countries at different points in their history provided different frameworks to be used for formulating and utilizing coercive rhetoric. Krebs and Jackson (49) state that certain arguments that were viewed as just and reasonable at one time would sound like reprehensive from a modern point of view.
For example, one of the coercive arguments against proponents of women’s voting rights in England was that since women are unable to contribute to the defense of the nation by serving, they have no right to decide its fate. This argument is based on two coercive arguments: that full citizenship correlates with military service, and that women are allowed into military service in the first place (a common belief in the 19th century). This argument was popular among men and even some women. By modern standards, however, such argumentation would be viewed as profoundly sexist.
Effects of Using Coercive Rhetoric
As the name suggests, coercive rhetoric is used to coerce the opponent into following an agenda. However, as Krebs and Jackson (37) pointed out, it did not always work as intended. The balance always lied between the opponent’s willingness to concede and the matter at hand. The example given by the authors involves presenting the case of Druze – an ethnical minority within the Israeli state, using coercive rhetoric to force citizenship concessions out of the Israeli government.
It was presented that since Druze were a small minority that posed no political threat to the ruling Israeli dominion, they were able to get away with using such rhetoric for their political means. Had the Arabic citizens tried the same, they would have been denied, as perceived dangers of being granted full citizenship in Israel vastly outweigh any risks of being portrayed in a bad light from suppressing the opposition.
The authors have presented a strong argument for the concept of coercive rhetoric as a benchmark in analyzing political events in past and present history. Rhetoric is what earns political leaders public support, and the use of it to coerce political opponents to subside or weaken their position by putting them in a disadvantageous situation is what makes an efficient orator. Personal beliefs and dedication to what they are saying cannot be used as an objective instrument of analysis, whereas the presence of coercive rhetoric can. Rhetorical contestation shapes political and policymaking processes, and the implications for constructivist analyses are equally valuable and profound.
Krebs, Ronald, and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson. “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms: The Power of Political Rhetoric.” European Journal of International Relations, vol. 13, no. 1, 2007, pp. 35-66.