Why it is not a good idea to be immediately swayed by speeches

I grew up in the UK on the tail end of the oratorical age, an era where, lacking the immediacy of world wide satellite networks and the internet, in-person commmunications were the currency of messaging.
I was introduced to many famous speeches by leading world figures. Winston Churchill’s jaw-jutting defiance in the early days of World War II where he intoned “we shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them in the hills; we shall never surrender”. JFK’s memorable “ask not what your country can do for you; ask instead what you can do for your country”. (There was also his famous “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” statement, which actually caused some amusement in Germany, where a “berliner” was slang for a form of cake, so, to many people’s ears, JFK was actually saying “I am a cake”). Then we heard Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Harold Wilson’s memorable catch-phrase “the white-hot heat of the technological revolution”. And so on.
However, I was also introduced, via world history studies in high school, to some of the less uplifting, more sinister and malevolent uses of rhetoric and oratory. We watched the German pre-WW II propaganda movies shot by Leni Riefenstahl. There, we watched as Adolf Hitler, Josef Goebbels, Rudolf Hess and Herman Goering, utilizing to the fullest extent the cadence and flow of the German language, whipped huge crowds into a frenzy of applause, cheering and massed salutes with promises of what they were going to do to make Germany Great Again.
These were not uplifting tales about the use of technology for peaceful aims such as space exploration, the extension of life, and world peace. These men were peddling messages based on demonization, extermination of opponents and non-Aryan groups, and the permanent militarily imposed supremacy of Germany and the Aryan race.
What those movies showed me was that there was a way for men to engage human emotions and energy that was not necessarily positive or uplifting. This was not necessarily a new thought. After all, mob rule was a well-known historical feature. Before countries decided that maybe it might be a good idea to start from a presumption of innocence instead of guilt when accusing people of crimes, plenty of incidents occurred where innocent people were persecuted and killed for no other reason than that a large number of people suddenly decided that, yes, they should be persecuted and killed. Somewhere in the middle of that process one would usually find one or more men yelling wild accusations in loud voices, inflaming and activating emotions. A less polite term would be rabble-rousing.
The rabble-rousing pathology lives on in some entertainment contexts such as wrestling, and also in English pantomime. Those, however are choreographed and relatively harmless when compared to actual Nazis, Fascists or demagogues loudly and excitedly threatening to exterminate entire ethnic and religious groups and take over the world.
Given that the emotions aroused by oratory can be extremely powerful, for good or bad, I effectively, without entirely realizing it, began, a long time ago, to pay as little attention as possible to speaking styles, and general interaction modes. I started paying a lot more attention to words and actions. There are quite a few skilled orators who can probably promise the world on a silver platter to eager followers and convince them that the silver platter will arrive Tomorrow. (One of the most charismatic speakers of recent times, Steve Jobs, was so compelling that the effect of the combination of his charisma and oratory became known as a “reality distortion field”).
Delivering on bold rhetorical promises is a whole lot harder. When somebody promises you that world on a silver platter, or promises to make your country Great Again, a perfectly reasonable thought that everybody should have and articulate as a response is “and how do you intend to do this?”. However, that requires intellectual engagement, which tends to get crowded out, in a crowd, rally or emotionally-driven situation, by the more viscerally satisfying instant gratification of emotional connection and affirmation. (“Yeah! Right On!”).
So, these days, when I hear that somebody made a speech, I tend to not watch or listen to the speech. Frankly, some people are go gifted at oratory or speaking that they could read a laundry list and make it sound exciting. (Conversely, some famous people are actually poor at public speaking). I try instead to get hold of a transcript of the speech. Stirred emotions are largely transient, although over time, via repetition, they can gradually and dangerously distort people’s sense of right and wrong.
Written words form a permanent record. They also allow for a careful examination of how the speaker uses language and rhetoric, and allow a separation of content from rhetorical devices.
Using this approach allows for a much more rigorous examination of ideas, speeches and communicated messages, and in turn the proper deployment of critical thinking. This is an essential modern skill, since politicians, business leaders and other front-persons for ideas and ideologies have become very skilled at communicating ideas and concepts, both good and malevolent, using both direct and indirect speech.
George Orwell would be nodding his head today, if he were still here, about how comprehensively “1984” has been adopted as a field guide for all manner of political leaders. Many of the communication techniques first named by Orwell, such as DoubleSpeak, are now part of the communications processes for modern political parties.
So…addition to the sheer physical presence and oratorical skills of modern communicators, the analysis of which requires separation of style from content, we also have to guard against the use of DoubleSpeak and other forms of what is known as Orwellian language.
And…being carried away by the excitement of a speech in a large crowd puts you in a bad place to discern the use of duplicitous, dangerous or malevolent communication techniques.


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