Notes on Erdogan’s Rhetoric

Ο Ταγίπ Ερντογάν. Φωτογραφία τουρκική Προεδρία

Athanassios N. Samaras

Rhetoric plays an important role in framing national responses to international emergencies. International crises are considered as rhetorical artifacts: events become crises, not because of unique sets of situational exigencies, but by virtue of the discourse utilized to describe them (e.g. Vatz 1973). This paper aims to put forward some considerations for the analysis of Erdogan’s rhetoric.

“This article treats Erdogan’s discourse as an example of the  cultural paradigm of how to talk people into fighting  wars”. It demonstrates “how political agents concoct a rhetoric of motives which they use to incite their followers to fight their enemies”. “Hyperbole is the idiom of political violence and an essential vehicle for preparing a nation to war”. The speech practices of Erdogan’s administration, “are a paradigm of fighting words – a rhetoric of war motives”. “The effect of this discourse is to draw up a dramatism of patriots locked in mortal combat with enemies”. Political leaders like Erdogan “deploy words much as they do troops in an effort to achieve strategic objectives”. Talk in this from becomes a  “decisive part of the practices that constitute the war system”. “The main effect of war rhetoric is social integration through the constitution of common enemies”.

Every single one of the aforementioned statements could have been excerpted from a rhetorical criticism paper on Erdogan’s recent foreign policy discourse and in particular his discourse towards Greece and Cyprus. Every single statement has been excerpted from Michael Blain’s essay “Fighting words: What we can learn from Hitler’s hyperbole” and refers to Hitler. One just had to change the name of the leader.  A juxtaposition of pre-existing rhetorical criticism research on Hitler’s war rhetoric with Erdogan’s contemporary rhetoric seems to suggest that they both drawn from the same rhetorical topoi, their key statements are generated from the same reservoir of ideas and core images.  This, however, is a research hypothesis that should be systematically examined. The full exploration of Hitler analogy at the level of rhetorical criticism is a meta-communication endeavor of utter importance for Greece and Cyprus. The decoding of historical analogies as part of the Neo-Ottoman discourse  as well as the exploration of historical analogies as interpretative keys to understand and re-frame Ergdogan are two complementary research activities.

An attribute of Erdogan’s discourse that needs to be examined is the rhetoric of victimage, the projection of a wronged victim who is forced to sacrifice himself for a higher and noble cause. The victimage rhetoric, is based on the logic that “a people strongly committed to peace, but simultaneously faced with the reality of war, must believe that the fault for any such disruption of their ideal lies with others.” (Morek,  & Pincus, 2000:5). The victimage rhetoric stands at the core of Ivie’s vocabulary of motives for war (Ivie, 1980). The requirement that just wars can be fought only reluctantly, places a burden on the advocates of war to establish the enemy’s culpability (Ivie, 1980:279). The examination of the attributes of Erdogan’s just war rhetoric is particularly interesting due to the extremely aggressive nature of his policies.

Victimage rhetoric offers redemption through the identification of a suitable and plausible scapegoat. It is important to analyze the construction of national enemies through the neo-Ottoman trope in Erdogan’s discourse. The propaganda construction of enemies is a source of social integration, “it is only by reference to enemies that we became united, and the greater the internal discord within societies, the more powerful will our need for enemies be”. (O’Shaughnessy, 2002:219). A topos of war rhetoric is that the enemy is portrayed as a savage, i.e., an aggressor, driven by irrational desires for conquest, who is seeking to subjugate others by force of arms.  Such topoi are used to articulate “the key contrastive features distinguishing civilized from savage agents while synthesizing several dimensions of meaning into an integrated threat” (Ivie, 2004: 79) The rhetorical topoi used to create the image of savage, the “decivilizing vehicles”, the rhetorical conduits that Erdogan employs to describe the enemy and define their acts is a key point of analysis. While Erdogan is perceived as an aggressor driven by irrational desires for conquest, he none the less constructs the savage image for his enemies.

Cherwitz, & Zagacki, (1986) differentiate between consummatory and justificatory rhetoric. By utilizing consummatory rhetoric a leaders’ discourse constitutes the only official reply, the weaponization of speech aims to achieve goals without a resort to force.  When justificatory rhetoric is employed discourse is from the very beginning part of a larger, overtly military action. This analytical category is particularly useful when examining Erdogan’s rhetoric. Rhetorical criticism needs to identify the attribute and means of persuasion in these two rhetorics as they are employed by Turkey. It is valuable for the formulation of strategic response to be able to identify the occasions that the “war rhetoric” employed by Erdogan constitutes a preparatory process of a military effort from the cases when the projection of a rhetoric of war motives is a propaganda device aiming to achieve goals without the use of military effort, as is the case with Finlandisation.

A final note. Erdogan’s words are employed to arouse emotions and convey ideas. Their effect upon Turkish society and the capacity of neo-ottoman discourse to reshape Turkey’s national self-image should not be under-estimated. However image-projected and image-perceived are two different things; and often strategically projected images might backfire.

Goddard’s (2015) analysis of the British reaction to Hitler’s rhetoric provides valuable insights which might be relevant to the case or Erdogan and Greece. From 1933 to 1938, the UK avoided confrontation and attempted to settle German demands, but after the negotiations at Munich, they abandoned appeasement and embraced a policy of confronting Germany. According to Goddard the roots of both appeasement and confrontation were due to Germany’s legitimation strategies. Until the Munich crisis, Hitler justified Germany’s aims with appeals to collective security, equality, and self-determination—norms central to the European system established by the Treaty of Versailles. After Munich, Hitler abandoned these legitimation strategies, arguing instead that expansion was justified as a matter of German might, and not international rights. As Britain came to see German demands as illegitimate, so too did they decide this revisionist state was insatiable, impervious to negotiation, and responsive only to the language of force. This analysis explains while certain actors have abandoned the appeasement towards Turkey. It is important for Erdogan’s rhetoric to be examined not only at the production but also at the consumption level. How his rhetoric are perceived by other strategic actors? with which nation image these  perceptions correlate and which is the action element of these images?

Bibliography

Blain, M. (1988). Fighting words: What we can learn from Hitler’s hyperbole. Symbolic Interaction, 11(2), 257-276.

Cherwitz, R. A., & Zagacki, K. S. (1986). Consummatory versus justificatory crisis rhetoric. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 50(4), 307-324.

Goddard, S. E. (2015). The rhetoric of appeasement: Hitler’s legitimation and British foreign policy, 1938–39. Security Studies, 24(1), 95-130.

Ivie, R. L. (1980). Images of savagery in American justifications for war. Communications Monographs, 47(4), 279-294.

Ivie, R. L. (2004). Democracy, war, and decivilizing metaphors of American insecurity. In F.A. Beer & C. de Landtscheer Metaphorical global politics (pp. 75-90). East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Morek, E. L., & Pincus, F. (2000). How to make wars acceptable. Peace and Change, 25(1), 1–21.

O’Shaughnessy, N. (2002). The social construction of enmity. Journal of Political Marketing, 1(1), 217-224.

Vatz, R.E. (1973) The myth of the rhetorical situation, Philosophy and Rhetoric, 6, 154-161

Assistant Professor, Department of International and European Relations, University of Piraeus

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