Teachers know that some of the best lesson ideas develop through incongruous thought processes or at the least opportune times -- while one is taking a shower, for instance, or driving to work. Such was my experience in August 1999, just before the start of a new school year, as I considered my instructional approaches to teaching argumentation and persuasive writing in my Advanced Placement English classes at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Instead of a shower or roadway epiphany, however, this particular summertime teaching idea was inspired by a small-minded act of terrorism.
It was the evening of August 10, 1999, and I had just heard the news. A well-armed man later to be identified as Buford Furrow, a member of the Aryan Nations, had opened fire in a Jewish daycare center in Los Angeles, injuring several people. A short while later, he murdered a Filipino American mail carrier.
When Furrow was finally apprehended and his belongings searched, police discovered a collection of White supremacist books and pamphlets in his car that had apparently influenced his racist views and determined his subsequent targets for violence. Planning my lessons for the coming semester, I thought about this body of persuasive literature that, despite its perverted goals, not only effectively influences its audience's opinions but also persuades certain people to act in ways that send shock waves through our society. Whether I liked it or not, here was rhetoric that "works."
As a teacher, however, I also knew this was rhetoric that most of my students would innately despise and want to dismantle. I decided that, as a class, we would investigate some representative samples of hate-group rhetoric on the Internet as part of our persuasive writing study.
Why submit students to this kind of material? Because hate can be as real a force in their lives as love or compassion. Furthermore, hate usually doesn't come walking through the door with an automatic rifle and a pipe bomb. Hate often moves softly; it is a subtle menace, and this is especially characteristic of the rhetoric used by many of the well-established racist hate groups. Their arguments are sometimes deceptively congenial in tone, and often well developed in a technical sense, but therein lies their dangerous power to persuade. My students' understanding of logical fallacies and their awareness of politically euphemistic language became the tools for dissecting these groups' attempts to justify hatred toward -- and the subjugation of -- entire groups of people.
Preparing Students Through Literature
In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell offers a tidy theory about political discourse: "[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish," he writes, "but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." By "politics," Orwell refers to political leaders and governments, but his use of the term extends to the public language of any individual or group promoting an idea, opinion or argument.
Orwell warns us that clichéd and pretentious language is more than a stylistic nuisance -- it also obscures the truth. Such language is potentially dangerous. It has been used by governments to manipulate public opinion in support of destructive policies.
Enter hate groups. Orwell's particular criticism of the rhetorical balderdash of totalitarian regimes may be easily applied to the language of racist organizations. The two often have similar goals -- the establishment of a racially or ethnically homogeneous society, for example -- and similar means for attaining them -- including propaganda, terrorism and outright war.
Many hate groups, with memberships ranging from the thousands to a few closeted, technologically savvy monomaniacs, may not be as well-known as the Ku Klux Klan, but we should not discount their influence. The Internet now allows hate groups of all sizes to quickly and efficiently spread their messages to anyone, particularly their target audience: young adults.
Such easy accessibility by students makes classroom teaching about hate-group rhetoric important not only as an authentic exercise in understanding how standard rhetorical techniques work in an argument, but also in questioning students' assumptions about the power of political language, bigotry and free speech.
Exploring Hate Web Sites
To begin the lesson, I select three or four Web sites for analysis. I look for sites with either substantive essays about a particular group's purpose or lengthy statements attempting to persuade online visitors to join. I avoid sites with especially vulgar language or offensive images, although finding a hate group site completely free of either is difficult. Students should be prepared for what they might see or read and clearly understand the purpose for going to these sites in the first place. Despite the seeming ridiculousness of some hate-group rhetoric and imagery, the teacher should never treat the material lightly.
I have found that students, regardless of gender, religious background, sexual orientation or ethnicity, have a variety of emotional reactions to hate-group rhetoric. Initially, most are propelled into the lesson by curiosity, and most laugh uncomfortably at what they perceive as the unabashed crudeness of simple or perverted minds.
In minutes, however, the chuckles typically give way to various, more serious reactions: expressions of disbelief or disgust, verbal challenges to the mute voice of the text, and, sometimes, contemplative silence. To date, I have not had a student publicly express support for hate-group ideologies, but I would no sooner single out a white student for his reactions than I would a student of color for hers.
Not surprisingly, students who react most viscerally against the material tend to be all the more interested in dissecting the rhetoric and, therefore, in clearly understanding both Orwell's thesis and the process for identifying logical fallacies. As long as these reactions are authentic, they are as valuable for the learning experience as the formal rhetorical analysis to follow, and the teacher should encourage students to react emotionally as well as logically to what they see and read.
For certain students, especially those who have experienced bigotry firsthand, moving from emotional reactions to the dismantling process of rhetorical analysis can be a liberating experience. In any case, these are not class sessions for which a teacher can thoroughly plan, nor is this an activity for the defensive teacher who feels the need to control all ideas and information expressed in the classroom. Such an approach undermines the potential intellectual growth that the exploration may encourage.
Once on-line, students will discover a veritable subculture of racist extremism. Along with the predictable diatribes against various persons or groups, one finds such troubling curiosities as kids' pages and even dating services. Let students have a look if you feel their doing so will help them comprehend the extent to which hate groups will go to spread their messages.
Ask students to evaluate the symbols and graphics on the site, which are as much a part of the argument as the text. One may see the Confederate battle flag and Nazi swastika. Ask students the following: What is the intended visual appeal of the layout? What do these symbols represent, and what are the rhetorical purposes behind them? What assumptions have the hate groups made about their intended audience by including these symbols?
Now we move on to the text. The following excerpt from the "Opening Message" of the NAAWP (National Association for the Advancement of White People) Web site demonstrates how such groups, not unlike politicians and advertisers, co-opt vacuous but culturally evocative expressions for their own ends.
The men who drafted the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution were all White. Every one of them. They believed in racial separatism. They shared a common cultural background. And none of them wanted racial mixing! Looking back further, to the time of the Pilgrims, the rule existed that if a man would not work, he would not be given part of the meager remaining supplies to eat. Like the NAAWP, they were simply saying that those who are to be part of society must contribute, and those who will not contribute are parasites.
Only recently has diversity and affirmative action been made an issue of national policy. And then, only as a weapon used against Whites. Is it any wonder that so many of our youth lack energy, staring with a vacant gaze into a flickering television screen? They have been bombarded with constant propaganda telling them that White people have oppressed and persecuted minorities, that Whites are all things bad and evil. They don't hear about the great scientists and explorers, the brilliant authors, the hard working inventors that made possible the world of today! The technology we enjoy is almost entirely due to the efforts of White scientists and inventors. And, if we permit our race to fail, the world will descend into a primitive barbarism that can scarcely be imagined.
The essay -- and this section in particular, because it can be dissected fairly easily -- is a good place to begin before letting the class explore and select other passages on their own. We begin by analyzing the passage as Orwell might have done.
Apart from the ludicrously over-simplified historical "evidence," Orwell would certainly have something to say about the heading "As American as Apple Pie." This pat expression is meaningless, but it serves the author's purpose by evoking some ideal sense of American life, which apparently, in the present context, admits Whites only. The phrase, as simple as it may seem, is a fine example of the tendency toward euphemism Orwell observes in deceptive political discourse, for it reveals the following two qualities: "staleness of imagery" and "lack of precision." Orwell suggests that a writer who employs such phrases "either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not."
The NAAWP essay also offers a good warm-up for identifying logical fallacies. The rhetoric of hate -- indeed, the very philosophical construct hate groups use to justify their causes -- relies upon fallacious logic and the gullibility of the audience to accept such illogic as reasonable and truthful.
Generally, one observes two categories of fallacies in most hate group arguments: illogical appeals to feelings, passions and prejudices (including argumentum ad hominem, argumentum ad populum and ipse dixit), and oversimplifications (including either-or fallacies, only-reason fallacies, red-herring fallacies, false generalizations, false analogies, post hoc, ergo propter hoc and the slippery-slope fallacy). The most common refrain, "either Whites will prevail or other races will take over the world!" is an "either/or fallacy" in its unrealistic denial that there ever could be, or is now, a neutral state of peaceful racial coexistence.
In the NAAWP passage, we see both categories of fallacies at work. The first paragraph provides an example of argumentum ad populum (Latin for "argument to the people"), an illogical appeal to emotions and prejudices that coaxes the reader into transferring deep emotional feelings about one issue (the founding of our country and its sacred documents) to another, unrelated issue (the race of the men who drafted these documents and the implication that only Whites contribute to society).
Students may also see this example as an instance of ipse dixit ("he himself has spoken"), another transfer device whereby an author borrows credibility from a great name (the founding fathers, the founding documents themselves) to give weight to an argument.
The rhetorical question "Is it any wonder that so many of our youth lack energy, staring with a vacant gaze into a flickering television screen?" is a red-herring fallacy, an irrelevant, distracting issue thrown in our way to divert us from the writer's ridiculous oversimplification of the affirmative action issue one sentence earlier.
His attempt to explain "why so many of our youth lack energy" suffers from other problems, namely the only-reason fallacy (because our White youth haven't been told how great White people are) and false generalizations ("They don't hear about the great scientists and explorers, the brilliant authors, the hard working inventors that made possible the world of today!").
The passage concludes with a grand example of the slippery-slope fallacy: "And if we permit our race to fail, the world will descend into a primitive barbarism that can scarcely be imagined." This is just a sampling. Once students develop a working knowledge of logical fallacies, they will probably take the lead in disclosing other examples.
When we have finished discussing the NAAWP excerpt, students search for other selections to analyze from the three or four Web sites I have designated. We print these samples to allow students to write their observations on the essays themselves. For the next day or two, students discuss the passages they have analyzed by explaining the writer's basic argument, applying an Orwellian critique, and evaluating the writer's use of appeals and fallacies. As a class, we address the following questions:
- What characterizes the rhetoric of hate?
- Are there identifiable purposes behind the rhetoric of hate?
- What assumptions about the intended audience are apparent in the rhetoric?
- If we can dismantle hate rhetoric and explain why it is, in fact, illogical, is the language no longer dangerous?
- Would you defend a hate group's right to free speech on the Internet if it were ever challenged? Why or why not?
This lesson provides students with an authentic opportunity to see how language can be a powerfully persuasive means of furthering a cause -- in this case, a cause we hope students will be motivated to work against. Decoding and demystifying the language of hate can be important first steps.