Sunday, February 28, 2010

Precis: MLK Jr.'s "A Time to Break Silence"

In contrast with "Report from Iron Mountain," in which Lewin Leopold unsuccessfully employs the rhetorical device of satire to explore attitudes concerning the concept of peace /war and critique "superficial logic" of "think tanks," MLK Jr. takes a different avenue or rhetorical approach when discussing peace in "A Time to Break Silence." Unlike Leopold's piece, which NYTimes critic Robert Lekachman states is "conscientiously devoid of personal style or picturesque phrasing," MLK Jr.'s straightforward, powerful speech exudes MLK Jr.'s personal flavor and rhetorical genius. In an effort to better understand how MLK Jr.'s speech is functioning and why it is so compelling and enormously influential, I will take you through a navigation of "A Time to Break Silence." In tracing the trajectory of his argument, I will chart some of his central rhetorical moves, such as his thesis, intended audience, historical narratization, juxtaposition of figures, use of anaphora and pathos appeal, and "Othering." In rhetorically dissecting MLK Jr.'s speech and mapping out the salient contours of his argument, I will stitch together my idiosyncratic relation to the text. (Before I lead you through a navigation of the text, I am compelled to make a disclaimer: my precis only begins to scratch the surface of MLK Jr.'s speech, which is pregnant with rhetorical goodies-- so do read his speech if you have not already done so because it is absolutely brilliant)

At the beginning of his speech, MLK Jr. informs the audience of his location, as well as his purpose for speaking: he is at the meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City because he is in "deepest agreement with the aims of their work and organization concerning Vietnam." Though he does not explicitly state his thesis, he hints that his speech will serve as an expansion and extension of the committee's opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." His thesis concerns his aim to "make a passionate plea to'' his country to "move past indecision to action" and "find new ways to speak for peace and Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world." Though we might assume his thesis is limited to the discussion of Vietnam, it is not. Towards the end of his speech, we see that Martin Luther King Jr. makes an interesting move: his plea transcends the specific discussion of Vietnam, opening up to discuss a "genuine revolution of values" where "every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind.. an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men" While his argument starts out as a call for action in Vietnam, MLK opens up the discussion to call for a "revolution of values" and international "fellowship of brotherhood." Although MLK Jr. genuinely wants to persuade the US citizens to mobilize and stop the Vietnam war, he also uses the subject of Vietnam as a vehicle to express his vision of a moral universe that is centered around peace, justice, security, and equality. MLK Jr.'s speech is two-fold with respect to its content matter, as well its historical and temporal specificity.

After delineating this elastic thesis, MLK Jr. explicitly informs us of his intended audience in the seventh paragraph. When discussing his intended audience, MLK Jr. employs a tactic that he frequently uses (as seen in his definition of "love"): he negates several subjects as candidates of his intended audience before unveiling his positive description of his intended audience. In other words, he emphasizes that he was not at the meeting to speak to "Hanoi or the National Liberation.. nor to China or Russia..." After establishing who he is not addressing, he finally informs us that his target audience is his "fellow Americans." By using a negative form of argumentation, MLK Jr. builds up suspense, directly capturing the attention of American citizens. He heightens their complicity in the Vietnam war using this tactic, setting the stage to unravel the rest of his argument, which is a "call to action."

After "calling out" his "fellow Americans," MLK Jr. delineates a blueprint of the 7 major reasons to bring the Vietnam war to end based on his moral vision: "Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision." In making this statement at the beginning of the paragraph, MLK Jr. establishes a structure to his speech, providing guidance to his listeners and readers about the purpose and direction of his argument. This organization and guidance is especially important for MLK Jr.'s project. The success of his speech partly depends on this moment, when MLK Jr. is attempting to provide justification for his role in speaking out against Vietnam and establish credibility so that his audience will be receptive to his ideas. In an effort to effectively pre-empt and refute possible criticism, establish his credibility, and reassert his moral vision, MLK Jr. makes a self-conscious movement by plotting these reasons (which I have synthesized):

1)He believed that the Vietnam war undercuts his civil rights struggle, as the war took away vital resources from programs for the poor ("I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube").

2) He wanted to draw attention to and speak out against "the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools"

3) He believed that change in America would come through non-violenct action. For the sake of the "life and health of America," he thought it was his duty to speak out against the violence of the oppressed. ("Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war")

4) As a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, he believed it was his commission to work beyond national allegiances for the "brotherhood of man."

5) Because he had a commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ and because he shared with all men the calling to be a son of living God, he had this vocation of sonship and brotherhood that is "beyond the calling of race or nation or creed"

6) He speaks the voice for the voiceless of Vietnam, for the "people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now"

7) He speaks out because "he is deeply concerned about the American troops" ("Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor")

After mapping out his reasons for speaking that night, in which he explains that he has a vocation of "sonship and brotherhood that extends beyond national borders," MLK Jr. paints a historical narrative of the Vietnamese people, who he frames as "our brothers." In fleshing out a historical narrative of the Vietnamese people and their struggle for independence from oppressive forces, MLK Jr. reminds American citizens that it was the "intervention of deadly Western arrogance" that led to the current situation, as the US rejected the revolutionary government seeking self-determination in Vietnam and "supported French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam." In painting an overarching narrative, MLK Jr. positions the audience to understand the broad scope of the conflict and their complicity in the story. In addition to using the rhetorical tactic of framing and "narrativization," MLK Jr. emphasizes the US's, and by association the US citizens, responsibility in the war by employing the figure of the bomb. In my opinion, MLK Jr. creates a particularly powerful moment when he juxtaposes the image of the leaflet and bomb: "All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy." In juxtaposing these images-- one that represents our motivating ideals as liberators and the other that represents our destructive reality as aggressors--, MLK Jr. underscores the hypocritical status of the US. MLK Jr. successfully juxtaposes these images to convey a biting and poignant criticism.

In addition to employing the technique of "narrativization" and juxtaposition of figures, MLK Jr. also employs a pathos argument when fleshing out a portrait of the everyday lives of women, children, and aged who: "watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury... They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers." With this description, which spells out the horrors and suffering the Vietnamese children and women experience, MLK Jr. makes a pathos appeal-- or rather, an appeal to the audience's sympathies and imagination. In mobilizing a pathos appeal, MLK Jr. makes the lived situation of the Vietnamese children and women less abstract and more palpable. In this section, MLK Jr. makes his pathos appeal more forceful with his adept handing of the rhetorical figure "Anaphora," or the repitition of a phrase at the beginning of sentences. In employing the repitition of phrase "they see," MLK Jr. emphasizes that "they"-- the Vietnamese" see the pain and destruction, but "we," the US citizens, who are inflicting the harm, do not see. In emphasizing the fact that we Americans do not see, MLK Jr. enhances the guilt and sympathy that US citizens should feel. MLK Jr. mobilizes anaphora again when explaining how "we have": "destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of -- in the crushing of the nation's only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men." In using repitition of sequences of "we have" after the "they see" sequences, MLK Jr. highlights our role in the destruction of Vietnamese lives. He uses the combination of the pathos appeal and anaphora to frame the situation and key players (Vietnamese="good guys" and US="bad guys") in an effort to awaken the US citizens' slumbering consciences and incite action to pull out of Vietnam.

To further emphasize the US citizen's complicity in the destruction of Vietnamese lives, MLK Jr. assumes the enemies-- the "Others"--point of view. He makes a self conscious movement, stating that he will assume "their" perspective ' so that "we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition." He fleshes out the Hanoi's perspective to remind the US citizen of the complicated, complex situation of the war, where much of the culpability for the war resides not with the Hanoi, but western aggressors. MLK Jr. reminds US citizens that the situation in Vietnam can not be reduced to a simple scenario or simple characterizations. We can not succumb to the logical fallacy of giving the enemy a "blanket name:" "How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent communist, and yet insist on giving them the blanket name?" In fleshing out the nuances of the situation, in which MLK Jr. reminds Americans of their own responsibility in the war and warns them against falling into the trap of creating fallacious schemas, MLK Jr. tries to make clear the reasons why the Hanoi "do not leap to negotiate." He even employs the tactic of "rhetorical questions"-- asking a host of rhetorical questions such as "What must they think of the United States of America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem, which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the South?"--- to get us to "understand their feelings, even if we do not condone their actions; to see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence; to see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarfed their greatest acts." In assuming the voice of the "Other" to tease out the complexities of the conflict in Vietnam, MLK Jr. bulldozes the blanket image of the "enemy," showing Americans another reason why they should mobilize action to stop the war. His rhetorical tactic of reverse "Othering" serves to buttress his overall aim in the speech.

Finally, after delineating an arsenal of reasons why Vietnam is in his moral vision and mobilizing reasons why we should pull out, MLK Jr. cuts to the heart of his argument: the US needs to be stop being silent and start being "mature." The US needs to take responsibility for its mistake in entering the war and for its destruction of Vietnamese homes, culture, and lives. The US must pull out of the war. MLK Jr. explicitly enumerates a road map for how we can "atone for our sins," calling for five concrete things that the government "should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict": 1) an end to all bombing in Vietnam 2) unilateral cease fire 3) prevention of battle grounds in Southeast Asia 4) recognition of National Liberation Front 5) a set date from removal of all foreign forces from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Convention. Before "stopping there," however, MLK Jr. proceeds to say something that is "even more disturbing."

At this point in the speech, we see an interesting thing happen-- this is where the second part of his thesis unfolds. MLK Jr. shifts from talking to Vietnam and elaborates on "the deeper malady within the American spirit," of which the war in Vietnam is a symptom. After explaining how the US's pattern of suppression in the international domain and the privileging of "things" over "people" leads to the dominance of the "giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism," MLK Jr. states that "we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values." For three paragraphs, MLK Jr. teases out how America can lead a "true revolution of values." He even states that "there is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war." Although it may seem subtle at first and susceptible to a quickly glossed over reading, MLK Jr. states that the US is headed for "spiritual" death if it fails to re-prioritize its values. As we learned in rhetoric 10, MLK Jr. at this point in the text employs the language of violence to promote non-violence. In addition to using the language of violence, MLK Jr. also aligns the positive revolution of values with the fight against Communism, stating that "we must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice." At this point in the text, MLK Jr. is making an interesting move, attempting to alter the "Cold War" mentality by illustrating that democracy-- and the fight against poverty, injustice, and insecurity-- is the best means in fighting against communism. Instead of remaining "complacent," MLK Jr. argues that the US should "recapture the revolutionary spirit" and make a commitment to "go into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty racism and militarism." In his effort to incite action, MLK Jr. mobilizes the language of revolution, tapping in to Americans' sentiment of their revolutionary origins. Instead of being anti-revolutionaries, he urges the US to lead the way and support the men who are revolting against the system of exploitation and oppression.

After urging the US to lead a revolution in values, MLK Jr. extends the discussion of "revolution of values" to address the world: "A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional...This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind." After explaining his vision of "worldwide fellowship," in which he redefines love as the "force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life," MLK Jr. reminds listeners of the urgency of the matter at hand. He cleverly weaves in the concept of time to rally momentum for action. After introducing the concept of time, MLK Jr. confronts listeners with a choice: "nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation." MLK Jr. plays on listener's mounting guilt, saying if we don't act or make the right choice, America will be dragged into "shameful corridors." After building up the weight and urgency of the decision at hand, MLK ends (and softens) his speech with a poem by James Russell Lowell, which addresses the issues of a once-in-a-lifetime decision, love not war, good not evil, light not darkness, and God's watchful eye over his people.

In stitching together my own preoccupations with MLK Jr.'s "A Time to Break Silence," I hope to have delineated the salient features of this text and elucidated some of MLK's brilliant rhetorical maneuvers. In tracing his rhetorical maneuvers, I am particularly impressed with the different folds of MLK Jr.'s argument. In other words, I am impressed with how he took a subject matter--the Vietnam War-- and opened it up as a space to discuss a host of issues, such as the fight for justice at home, the US's need for a "revolution of values," and an international "fellowship of brotherhood." It is MLK Jr.'s rhetorical prowess that has enabled this speech, which began as a call to action to stop war in Vietnam, to transcend its historical location and ossify as a monument to "world peace and justice."

For me--especially after reading Leonard Lewin's "Report from Cold Mountain" and Eisenhower's "Farewell Speech"-- this text was enormously enjoyable to read. Did you guys have the same experience? Also, were than any rhetorical operations in this piece that others found particularly interesting, brilliant, strange, etc?

--Tess Ranahan

1 comment:

  1. A very comprehensive analysis of speech--as you said--"loaded with rhetorical goodies." I think if we consider the general framework of the speech, then we see that it's a classic jeremiad, condemning the fallen state of present society while also issuing a hopeful call to action.

    These forceful--and very apocalyptic--words are the words of a courageous man, not afraid to call an evil, an evil and to condemn those deserving of condemnation.

    It's sad how these kinds of words are considered "un-American." I think Reagan really hegemonized the idea of being a "proud" American, which reduces being an American to the vacuous spectacle of displaying one's "pride."

    Consider the last two presidential elections: if a candidate didn't wear a flag lapel then they weren't considered a "proud" American and therefore considered somehow "un-American"

    If MLK were to give the same speech today, the corporate news media would condemn him like Rev. Wright. Obama would then probably have to distance himself from MLK too...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.