Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Victimage and the Rhetoric of Oppression

It seems like a paradox, but in rhetoric, there is no stronger position to have in a dispute on justice than the position of the weak and helpless.

According to the historical sources, rhetoric was invented by Corax and Tisias in Syracuse during its transition from tyranny to democracy. The tyrant had just been deposed, and rhetoric was brought in as a method to help mediate the property disputes that naturally followed with this transition. It got the reputation for "making the weaker case strong, and the stronger weak," a revolutionary turn of events for those days.

Part of the reason for this paradox is based on the idea of justice itself. There are many definitions for justice, but the main feeling we connect with it is that something has happened which disturbs the natural order and balance in nature or society. We feel "a disturbance in the force" if you will. An offence has been given, a wrong must be righted, a manifestation of hubris needs to bring the arrogant tyrant to his knees. Justice basically is our desire to see that balance restored. Since the restoration of balance will naturally favor the oppressed, the weak, or the injured party, it was quickly recognized that whoever could frame the debate in such a way as to situate themselves as victims would naturally have the upper hand in any dispute on justice.

Hitler was a master at this technique when he portrayed the plight of Germany to his own people. A lot of them believed, up until the very end, that the 2nd World War had been a defensive war, fought for the survival of Germany, not world dominion. Look at how he carefully draws the lines between the oppressors and the oppressed in his declaration of war against the United States before the Reichstag:

"Ever since my peace proposal of July 1940 was rejected, we have clearly realized that this struggle must be fought through to the end. We National Socialists are not at all surprised that the Anglo-American, Jewish, and capitalist world is united together with Bolshevism. In our own country we have always found them in the same community." See how the entire world is out to get Germany? Even racial groups that have had tensions and economic ideologies that are fundamentally opposed join forces against this poor, oppressed country.

"Allied with us are strong nations that have suffered the same misery and face the same enemies." This is presented as quite the emancipatory struggle against colonialists and world bullies. He even pulls in America's wealth to make this a class struggle: "The American President and his plutocrat clique have called us the 'have not' nations. That is correct! But the 'have nots' also want to live, and they will certainly make sure that what little they have to live on is not stolen from them by the 'haves.'" Rich America thinks its privileged position of economic power means that it can dictate to the weaker nations of the world to do its bidding, and now they even want to steal what little this poor nation has left. Sound familiar?

Even in as inconsequential contests as sports we naturally root for the underdog. This tendency becomes all the more dominant when real lives are at stake. There is nothing as rhetorically effective as showing the victimage of women and children. Why is that the case? Because they are already seen as the weaker parties in society, and therefore the power used against them seems ten times more oppressive, overbearing, and attrocious than violence against grown men. The weaker party in just about any conflict seizes our sympathies. This was the very argument made by so many statistics shared on Facebook and other social media during the last great confrontation between the Palestinians and Israelis.

The logic of this argument is not necessarily the most compelling. Just because more people die on one side doesn't make the other side right. Many more Germans died in WW2 than Americans, did that make them the right side? Would we feel the same way for the Israelis if the Palestinians were more successful in their efforts to kill Israelis? Logically, always favoring the weak would lead to an eternal war, where our sympathies would switch to the other side as soon as one side gets the upper hand. This kind of logic is brilliantly satirized by Monty Python in the character of the highwayman Dennis Moore.

Yet the persuasive appeal of the statistic above is undeniable. Like watching a small hometown team being beaten by the big city stars, it feels heavy-handed and almost screams of unfairness. To make matters worse, it shows the "advantage" in casualties increasingly going the way of the Israelis. Of course, one could make a similar statistic about the casualties of September 11th compared to Arabs, Afghans, or Iraqis killed since then in "retaliation" and make the same kind of argument. Or indeed, one could look at the casualties of just about every war America has participated in since its founding, and equate military success with them being the oppressors of every nation they won against in any war.

The rhetoric of the oppressed works in all facets of our society, since our sense of justice is manifest in every aspect of it. It is perhaps most clearly manifest in politics, where both Republicans and Democrats claim to be the defenders of the weak and the persecuted. It was a paradox commented on by many that the President was able to run against Romney as an underdog, despite his obvious advantage as an encumbent and holding the power of the presidency. Yet the single most effective email plea sent by the Obama campaign was titled "I will be outspent" (though he ended up with a considerable advantage in spending). Millions answered the call of the underdog president to give donations to the sum of over 46 million dollars in one single week. It is definitely active in the current Supreme Court case on same-sex marriage, where the proponents of same-sex marriage have painted their opponents into a corner by labelling them proponents of hate and bigotry and by very clearly seizing the position of the weak and oppressed who are the victims of hate and bigotry.

I am grateful for the rhetoric of oppression and its benefits. It is really a manifestation of the innate sense of justice and fairness that exists within human beings and should be manifest in every society. It is a safeguard of civil liberties, and gives the truly downtrodden and oppressed a voice and a certain amount of leverage which it can use against parties that may be more affluent, better connected, or in any way more powerful in any normal contest. But it is important to be aware that it is also a rhetorical strategy that can be used by anyone, as shown by the example of Hitler.

One of the effects of seeing yourself as the underdog is that it justifies using dirty tricks. If you see the game as already stacked against you, you may feel like bending the rules is justified. After all, who made the rules? The powerful, right? Such a logic has the potential to break down just about any rule of civility, law, or social contract that has ever been established. Hitler knew this. Right after describing Germany's desperate struggle for survival, he says, "During a time in which thousands of our best men, the fathers and sons of our people, have given their lives, anyone in the homeland who betrays the sacrifices on the front will forfeit his life." Pretty drastic, right? Yet, if seen from the perspective of someone in a desperate life and death struggle, not so much. It is the same logic that the hit show "Leverage" uses to justify its heroes in commiting all kinds of crimes in their service of the oppressed against the powerful. We applaud it, we love it when they take down the powerful, and we never imagine that the same tactics and justification could ever be used against us . . .