We can learn a great deal about how to write well–and argue persuasively–from Joe Romm’s new book, Language Intelligence. This is actually a terrific guide to share with all our kids in high school and college; it is an invaluable resource, and an inspiration. Here are Joe’s thoughts on how to talk about climate change, connected to Martin Luther King’s rhetorical strengths.
This was written by Joe Romm:
Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is an opportunity to learn from his strategic thinking and mastery of rhetoric. That is especially true on the day Obama will be delivering his second inaugural address.
Consider King’s powerful words about the civil rights struggle, which echo today in the climate battle:
We are faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.
Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’
Note how King repeatedly uses key figures of speech — alliteration, metaphor — and extends the metaphor of another master of rhetoric, Shakespeare (Julius Caeser), all of which are classic oratorical strategies (see “How to be as persuasive as Lincoln, Part 1: Study the figures of speech and Shakespeare“).
I think science has mostly told us what it can about the fiercely urgent need to act swiftly to avoid adding the bleached bones and jumbled residues of our civilization to the pile (see “A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice“). Our urgent need now is for much more persuasiveness (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1 and Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”). I have a dream that progressives will some day have the winning words to match their vital ideas.
King’s most famous speech illustrates the rhetorical principle of foreshadowing, as I discuss in my new book, Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga, excerpted below:
As a theatrical device, the essence of foreshadowing can be found in Anton Chekhov’s advice to a novice playwright: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.” Create anticipation and then fulfill the listener’s desire.
Foreshadowing is related to the figure of speech ominatio (Latin for omen), which, one Renaissance rhetoric text explains is “when we do show & foretell what shall hereafter come to pass, which we gather by some likely sign, and in ill things we foretell it, to the intent that heed may be paid, and the danger of avoided; and in good things to stir up expectation and hope.”
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has a soothsayer famously and futilely warn Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March”-a foreshadowing ominatio that Caesar famously and fatally ignores: “He is a dreamer,” shrugs Caesar. “Let us leave him.”
Bob Dylan’s tragic “Like a Rolling Stone” heroine is similarly warned, and by many: “People’d call, say, ‘Beware doll, you’re bound to fall’ “-which she also unwisely pays no heed to: “You thought they were all kiddin’ you.”
Dramatic foreshadowing has an even more important rhetorical counterpart. The golden rule of speechmaking is “Tell ‘em what what you’re going to tell ‘em; tell ‘em; then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” The first part of that triptych is the rhetorical foreshadowing of the main idea of your speech, the introduction of the dominant theme of your remarks.