Margaret Thatcher and Martin Luther King Speech Comparison


23 Mar 2015 14 Dec 2017

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With reference to the two speakers Margaret Thatcher and Martin Luther King, compare the way in which English may be used for rhetorical purposes in political and religious speeches.

Collins Dictionary defines ‘rhetoric’ as ‘the art or study of using language effectively and persuasively’ and it is no surprise that such a skill is often in evidence with great politicians or religious leaders. The need to actively promote ones message in a good light, especially if it is a controversial decision that will be open to debate, is vital and can mean the difference between success and failure. Indoctrination or persuasion of the masses has, since the very dawn of primitive communication, set opinionated beings against each other and propelled those who are able to work effectively within the recognised techniques of rhetoric into the limelight of society. Indeed, historical figures from Gandhi to Hitler have used vocal stimulus to spread their message and influence the masses, and through various techniques, well constructed rhetorical speeches are effectively ‘audience management devices’ giving their listeners cues, reference points and the suggested positions of applause.

Within this essay, I will be investigation Thatcher’s and King’s manipulation of such techniques.  Beginning with Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the Conservative Party Bournemouth conference in 1990, it is interesting to note how she begins her speech with an impassioned mention of a former colleague killed in Ireland. Building up to what will later become a key issue in her speech, she utilizes emotive language ‘Before he was murdered by the IRA, Ian taught us how a civilised community should respond to such an outrage’ insinuating the absolute guilt of the IRA and to set a tone of compassion within her rhetoric that must have softened the hearts of her audience and helped gain ‘their approval and support for her and their messages and sentiments.’

However, in Martin Luther Kings 1963 ‘I have a dream’ address to a great wave of protesting civil rights campaigners, the tone is somewhat different. Rather than speaking to a more contained group of political figures, he is responsible for enflaming the hearts of thousands of concerned individuals who may well however have come from all walks of life, and his opening rhetoric seems to reflect this. Rather than Thatcher’s heartfelt vote of sympathy for a colleague presumably known by most within the conference, Luther Kings audiences only common ground is their struggle and desire to take action, and he attempts to arrest the feeling of this need. ‘I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.’  Here, King is dealing in emotive absolutes, building up the importance of the event, and stirring he crowd into excitement and attentiveness, ready to take in the rest of his great speech.

Indeed, religious and civil rights speakers, like Luther King, often depend rather more on verbal eloquence and spontaneous creativity than their political counterparts. In a setting that is less formal and subject to passions rather than cleverly crafted spin, little of these speeches may be scribed in advance and an old African tradition of ‘call and response’ has been noted by the linguistic researchers ‘Keith and Whittenberger Keith (1986.) Indeed, this is evident several times over in Kings speech, firstly as a call to all in the first line, and then again with open comments ‘Let us not wallow in the valley of despair’ and of course, the famous ‘I have a dream’ statement. Both of these lines, and more in the speech besides, showcase this ‘call and response’, while one notes that in Margaret Thatcher’s speech she appears to address and name check ‘Mr President’ when she addresses her audience, offering a more official line of diction.

It is also evident that King, in the style of such old African or Pentecostal preachers, uses stark proverbs and a great deal of imagery within his words to ensure that his point is shown starkly to the many different sections of the community, both educated and not, that may be watching him perform. Using metaphor in describing his peoples struggle to being dealt an unfair deal in society, ‘In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check,’ he constructs an entire paragraph around the paradigm of the need for money, a common problem everyone can relate too, and thus brilliantly engages his audience. Thatcher of course has the luxury of a fully engaged audience and prefers to allude to very real policy discussion, and witty asides that a fully educated audience of Conservative members can appreciate, once again proving that targeting ones audience is extremely important in the process of exploiting rhetoric.

However, despite these subtle differences, it is noticeable that the arts and techniques of rhetoric, as studied and scribed by the researcher Atkinson, are commonly used in both King’s and Thatcher’s speeches. Obviously, despite being different types of rhetoric, quasi-religious/political and straight political, an underlying need to hold attention and elicit response is needed and so it is unsurprising that the ‘three part list’ is noticeable in both of these speeches. In Thatcher one such example is ‘They're quite short speeches. [laughter][fo 9] Monosyllables even. [laughter] Short monosyllables’ and within Kings address ‘We cannot walk alone; and as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.’ Both obviously important moments in the speeches, Thatcher’s to insinuate a sense of party unity and witty aside, while Kings insists unrepentant solidarity and progress, the use of this ‘three point list’, simply a point made via the use of three specific components, is vital in amplifying general ideas and stimulating audience response.

Coupled with this, and often obvious within such triplets, is the use of repetition, and to some extent rhyme, that is produced in these speeches. King repeats ‘I have a dream’ at the beginning of eight sentences rising to a feverish crescendo of spoken word politics to amplify and continuously reinforce his message (see end of his speech) and Thatcher uses the device more sparsely to achieve similar results. ‘new jobs. Better jobs. Cleaner jobs.’ Such ‘rhyming’ words coupled with exciting imagery within them (King uses ‘sweltering’ and ‘Oasis’ to compare the contemporary situation and his future vision of the state of Mississippi) can excite an audience and also give them a cue to respond in applause or a ‘holler back’ situation, depending on the nature of the address itself. Of course, we must also remember that these speakers will have used intonation and gesticulation not available in the transcripts of these speeches, but these are also very important in the art of successful rhetoric.

The use of contrasts, and occasional symmetrical contrasts are also evident in both of these speeches; both Thatcher and King drawing on failures of others to highlight the superiority of the speaker’s favoured position. ‘I seemed to hear a strange sound emanating from Blackpool. And I thought at first it was seagulls. [laughter] Then I remembered that Labour was holding its annual Conference there’ and ‘And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.’ Although, of course, the tones of these voices are very different, Thatcher taking a ‘cheap shot’ at the Labour party while King is striving to keep his protest on the ‘high plane of dignity and discipline,’ they both contrast their message with failures of a rival institution or the system as a whole. Cynics could of course dismiss this element of rhetoric as merely a desperate attempt to cover up ones own lurking bad points with those of others, although if skilfully done, it can help immensely to highlight these problems and bring down the audience perception of what could be seen as a rival problem.

So, in conclusion and despite the differing social and political contexts of the situations, Thatcher’s and Kings speeches, although unsurprisingly differently constructed and clearly intended for different audiences, contain many similarities in the type of rhetorical devices they use to get their messages across. Thatcher’s arguably more familiar and amusing speech is certainly more frivolous and snide at times, while Kings ‘I have a dream’ seems more spontaneous and impassioned, but in terms of historical importance, this seems unsurprising. Indeed, even looking at a more modern speech, that of Tony Blair’s 2003 declaration of British war on Iraq, similar techniques can be witnessed. Repetition and rhyme, ‘not why does it matter? But why does it matter so much?’ within a rhetorical question in this case; the use of a three part list ‘What changed his mind? The threat of force. From December …What changed his mind? The threat of force. And what makes him…? The imminence of force’; and even an element of media call and response is in evidence ‘And now the world has to learn the lesson all over again.’ Of course, unlike Thatcher, there is no political backstabbing at a rival party, the situation would be deemed to important to go along that route, but he does nevertheless compare the way Saddam Hussain ran Iraq to the way the world should, in his view, progress. Indeed, it seems the art of rhetoric is largely formalized in terms of techniques, but can be used skilfully to push any doctrine in a creative and personal manner by an individual.



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