Rhetoric of Hate
AP English class unmasks racist propaganda on the Internet
Jeffrey H. Morgan
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
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
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
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.
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.
Students Through Literature
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.
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
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
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.
Hate Web Sites
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
section of the essay titled "But I Don't Want To Hate Anyone!"
the author explains that the NAAWP "doesn't stand for hating anyone,
and more importantly it never has. It's about building a new, better
society." The next two paragraphs, under the heading "As
American as Apple Pie," read as follows:
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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.
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.
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!").
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.
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:
characterizes the rhetoric of hate?
identifiable purposes behind the rhetoric of hate?
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?
defend a hate group's right to free speech on the Internet if it were ever
challenged? Why or why not?
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.
Morgan is an English teacher at the