Effective rhetoric is about the right words, at the right time and in the right place. As we    saw earlier with Burton’s example about Hitler, the right words at the right time can shape world    events. Language is a powerful tool; it can be used as a means of controlling or shaping the    thoughts of others. Tongtao Zheng of the University of Tasmania writes: “Language is a weapon    and a powerful tool in winning public support, especially during the current information revolution    period...it is also a powerful weapon in the struggle of community against community, worldview    against worldview.” (“Characteristics of Australian Political Language Rhetoric,” Intercultural    Communication, Issue 4, November 2000) 

New Terminology

Dr Andrew Cline writes: “The power to define, and make it stick, is arguably the premier political power. To control the definitions of terms is to control the debate by bracketing how the audience may think about an issue. To create new terms is to create new realities.” He demonstrates the power of creating new terminology with an example from April 12, 2002, when White House press secretary Ari Fleischer introduced the term ‘homicide bombers’ for the Palestinian men and women blowing themselves up in public places. He points out that this change in terms is not politically innocent: any terms created or redefined by a political administration have political importance:

In this case, the new term helps further delegitimize the bombers. What's wrong with that? Perhaps nothing, except that the term may also further delegitimize the larger cause of the Palestinian people, which is the establishment of an independent state. In other words, this new term might further aggravate the idea of guilt by proximity, as if all Palestinians think and act alike in regard to the violence.

Suicide bombers might be fighting for legitimate political ends (establishment of a state) by decidedly illegitimate means (the murder of civilians or non-combatants). A "homicide bomber" is simply a criminal who wishes to kill outside of political goals. While it is possible under some circumstances to condone the violence of a “freedom fighter,” this new term adds further distance between any legitimate concept or action and the actions of the homicide bombers. The new term helps the Bush administration put further pressure on the Palestinian authorities to do more than simply denounce violence; it puts pressure on them to actively stop the lawless action of criminals who have no legitimate political claims. (“'Homicide Bombers' Further Delegitimizes Violence," Rhetorica Network, April 14, 2002)

Peter Beinart writes:

…the extraordinary thing about American foreign policy since September 11 is the extent to which it has been shaped by language. In the terrible days after the World Trade Center fell, the Bush administration grasped for words that would capture America's resolve. And it came up with “war on terrorism.”… “Terrorism” meant violence by individuals or groups (but not governments) against civilians, no matter what the cause. “War” didn't connote a merely military effort, but it suggested a broad struggle with the urgency, and Manichaean clarity, of a battlefield campaign.

The phrase soon caught on overseas, and other governments began to use it in order to invest their own conflicts with the same moral authority. Russian called its struggle in Chechnya a “war on terrorism,” as did India with Kashmir, Israel with Palestine, and many others. Beinart points out that partly due to their use of this phrase, US policy swung towards support of the government forces: Russian, India and Israel. However, there are significant differences between the conflicts in these countries and the US fight against Al-Queda. He explains:

The critical difference is that the wars in Kashmir, Palestine, and Chechnya are wars of national liberation. The terrorists seek to end a foreign occupation and create an independent state on a defined piece of land. That doesn't make their demands legitimate: Yasir Arafat's definition of a Palestinian state is clearly grandiose and dangerous (especially given that Israel is so small--and therefore particularly imperiled by such fantasies); Kashmir and Chechnya probably shouldn't be independent states at all. And it doesn't make their methods legitimate either: There's no excuse for deliberately targeting civilians. But as a practical matter, wars of national liberation are easier (though certainly not easy) to resolve politically and much harder to resolve militarily than the kind we're fighting against Al Qaeda. (“Word Play,” The New Republic, April 12, 2002)

In a February 24, 2002 article in the New York Times, Mark Lilla, professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, describes the negative European reaction to Bush’s phrase “axis of evil” to describe adversary states. He compares Bush’s rhetorical style to that of Ronald Reagan during the cold war era. But while Reagan’s style may have been appropriate at the time, the current situation is quite different:

When Ronald Reagan addressed the Soviet leadership, he was dealing with functionaries of a highly routinized, if sclerotic, empire, a state where the passions of religion and nationalism played almost no role. The American rivalry with the Soviet Union was likened to a chess game where each party understood the moves and feints of the other. Today, however, the United States is facing adversaries that are wholly unlike our cold war rivals. They are not part of an empire or even an axis; they are regimes as different from each other as we are from them, and there is no shared understanding of the rules of the game. 

Some are driven by a messianic ideology to seek not temporary advantage or influence, but an impossible transformation of worldly existence. Others are classic tyrannies run by ruthless figures whose moves are wholly unpredictable. And there are states where no one seems in control.

Lilla points out that choosing the right rhetorical style can affect the course of events, suggesting as an example, that Bush's “masterly way of reaching out to Muslims at home and abroad has displayed before the world our principles of tolerance.” (“New Rules of Political Rhetoric,” New York Times, February 24, 2002)


In 1946, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell criticised current use of the English language, particularly in politics. He pointed out the general emptiness of political rhetoric and discussed the increasing use of euphemisms to avoid admissions of possibly controversial actions:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing… Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy… 

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

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