Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? Today we're going to model close readings of two of the greatest argumentative essays written in English, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and "Politics of the English Language" by George Orwell.
Known as one of the great speakers of his or any generation, Martin Luther King Jr. was also a master of argumentative writing, and his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" stands as one of the great literary feats in the American canon. Written in 1963 while he was in jail for participating in nonviolent protests against segregation, King's letter was ostensibly written to a group of white clergy members who had publicly denounced the protests. Oh, and I should note for anyone familiar with this text, terms like Negro and colored that King uses here were, at the time, more socially acceptable terms for African Americans than they are now.
King's letter contains great examples of all three forms of rhetorical appeals. For example, King uses ethos, or appeals to credibility, by consistently referring to biblical passages and his experiences working in the clergy. Given that his audience were themselves church leaders, this builds credibility by showing them that he's not just a protest leader, but a Christian leader, one who, like them, is devoted to his people and to doing what he feels is right.
Here's a passage that demonstrates this kind of appeal. "I'm in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their 'thus saith the Lord' far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.
Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid." Obviously, this kind of demonstration of his knowledge of the subject matter they all share an interest in, and his application of it to the matter about which he's arguing, would serve King well. After all, it's an appeal to the highest authority his audiences would recognize.
He also makes masterful use of pathos, or emotional appeals, demonstrating the injustices of the cause against which he's fighting in several parts of his letter. Here's my favorite example. "I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, wait. But when you've seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted in your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she's told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness towards white people; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodyness,' then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."
In these two sentences, King invites his readers to share in his perspective. Using the direct address, you, he shows us part of what it is to be black in his time and space in America. It's a great way to refute an argument, in this case, that he and his fellow protesters should wait for justice to come to them. By using the emotional impact of all the images of the second sentence-- which, by the way, were more numerous than this, more than I could take for just one excerpt-- King makes his readers see how little they understand, and practically forces them to empathize with the people who have to live with this experience. King manages to avoid any kind of blaming here, any kind of you-don't-understand statements. Instead, he simply shows his readers how little they understand.
He was also a master of logos, or logical appeals. Here's an example of how King uses reasoning to undermine the position that he and his fellow protesters were in the wrong because their protest was illegal. "You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision in 1954 outlining segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws.
One may well ask, how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others? The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws. There are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal.
On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal, and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was illegal. It was illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany, but I'm sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers, even though it was illegal."
By first discussing and then dismantling the apparent parallel between segregation laws and anti-protesting ordinances and then comparing the Birmingham authorities to those of other unjust governments, King uses reasoning to reveal the unstated-- and, I would add, unsustainable-- assumptions behind the counterarguments about the illegality of his actions.
Now, this has been a necessarily brief analysis of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a text that I invite all writers and students of writing to read in its entirety. Because each example of King's rhetoric that I've managed to reproduce here is just that, a reproduction, and a pale one at that.
Another masterful example of argumentative writing, George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," published in 1946, is a stinging criticism of many writers' use of language. Orwell uses examples of poor sentence construction and cliche phrases to advance a claim that not only is lazy writing indicative of lazy thinking, but that one promotes the other. This essay, and Orwell's writing in general, can be hard for modern readers to get through. But still, it's worth the time to read this piece carefully, looking not only for the arguments that Orwell makes, but the way he makes them.
His control over the language is impressive, as is made clear by his ability to pick apart and find the weaknesses in other professional writers' texts, and then use them as evidence for his own claims. His goal for the essay seems to have been to point out the laziness of many writers relying on stock phrases and overblown meaningless terms instead of really thinking about what they're trying to say and then saying it. He uses the example of political writing in speeches to demonstrate the kind of mindless language he's talking about.
"In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. 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. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
Orwell discussed his four primary types of language weakness in his essay. The first he discusses are dying metaphors, which he says are those that have lost the fresh imagery of a new idea, and are instead the stock phrases that lazy or inept writers use instead of actually thinking about what they're trying to convey. He's also against what he calls operators, or false verbal limbs, which are unnecessarily complex verb structures that serve more to hide what's actually being said than to convey information.
He gives examples of this, especially those used to discuss war and politics, including render inoperative, rather than just destroy; exhibit a tendency to, rather than do; and unnecessarily long and imprecise phrases, like brought to a satisfactory conclusion, or deserving of serious consideration. He's also against pretentious diction, which means using words that are unnecessarily long or foreign, especially from Latin or Greek, when a more commonplace term would've done the job just as well. It's a way of disguising ignorance, he claims, of hiding the lack of anything worth saying behind the big words being used to say it.
Finally, he focuses on meaningless words, terms and phrases writers use to avoid really saying what they think. As he writes, it's particularly common to come across entire sentences of art or literary criticism that are completely without meaning. As an example, take this. "When one critic writes, 'The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality,' while another writes, 'The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness,' the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion."
This is also an example of Orwell's sense of humor. You get the feeling that he's really quite offended by this kind of meaningless writing, and as such he's also perfectly willing to make fun of anyone using it. It makes me wonder how many friends he might have had in the art criticism field.
And to better close off this analysis of Orwell's argument, I'll leave you with the last lines of his essay, which perform the essay's final call of action better than any summary or paraphrase of mine never could. "The present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvements by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects. And when you make a stupid remark, its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.
Political language-- and with the variations, this is true of all political parties from Conservatives to Anarchists-- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits. And from time to time, one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase-- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse-- into the dustbin where it belongs."
So what did we learn today? We learned about the way two very different masters of argumentative writing put together two very different, but I would add equally powerful, arguments. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.