The rhetoric of the left

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We must not resort to aggression, slander, and personal insults because we favor elegance

By Valerio Arcary*

Oratory is one of the most complex forms of human communication. It is essential in politics anywhere in the world. But in Brazil, for various reasons, political discourse is concentrated in the oral form. And agitation prevails as a rhetorical form. Agitation is meant to champion a few ideas for many.

Abuse in the use of profanity is very common in the Brazilian political struggle, because it is dramatically effective. The profanity and cursing are shocking. The brutality, ferocity, and truculence can make a speech seem radical. But it is one of the most abject, despicable, and abominable forms of demagoguery.

Swear words are functional because they carry enormous concentrated emotional potency. The theme has resurfaced because one of the spontaneous forms of rejection of Bolsonaro, at Carnival, at Rock in Rio and in street demonstrations, has been the recurrent “Bolsonaro will take it in the ass”, an expression that is clearly homophobic. It was not the left that popularized this slogan, fortunately. But she is uneducated. We don't need name-calling to defeat our enemies. We need good arguments. We can be more than that.

Using profanity in political speech is not cool. It's rough, it's coarse, it's rude. And it's wrong. Not everything is worth in oratory. There is a difference between the private dimension and the public dimension of social life. Words make sense. Agitation with profanity and insults is an offensive and disrespectful resource, first of all, to those who listen to us.

We have seen how the extreme right has no greater embarrassment in resorting to the most infamous lows. The provocations are chronic. Trade unionists, black and women's movement activists, student, popular or environmental activists, the entire left is systematically insulted: thieves, bums, scoundrels.

There is no more expressive and direct way of expressing criticism of someone than cursing. And neo-fascists have no qualms about insults. To the offenses are outrageous, humiliating disgrace. We must reject, condemn and eradicate this kind of brutal rhetoric on the left. She is unworthy of socialists.

We must not resort to aggression, slander, and personal insults because we favor elegance. Our class enemies don't deserve our kindness. Yes, the political leaders of the Brazilian bourgeoisie deserve to be cursed. But we shouldn't do that. We don't need to prove that we are decent, well-educated people. We don't do it because we are honest militants. Socialist eloquence aims at the political education of the exploited and oppressed. And our fight is a fight against capitalism, not just against incumbents. The leaders who represent the interests of the capitalists can easily be replaced by others.

Militant oratory wants to awaken what is best in people, not what is meanest, most selfish, most alienated, most cruel. It is at the service of the fight against bourgeois political domination, and it wants to stimulate the union and cohesion of the exploited so that they can organize themselves independently, raise their level of conscience, fire their imagination, inflate their confidence. We want you to believe that the transformation of society is possible. It is a pedagogical oratory because it has an educational role.

A militant oratory is a delivery, a donation. A militant discourse aims to present in a clear and forceful way everything that pulsates in the minds of thousands, but has not yet found conscious expression.

Socialist oratory wants to awaken, in each one of us, what is highest in the human condition, our ability to be solidary. That which is almost instinctive, which sometimes we cannot express with words, but exists within every human heart and every healthy mind: the thirst for justice, the aspiration for social equality and the appetite for freedom. Within every human being there is this desire, this thirst, that there should be more freedom and more equality. Both are indivisible. Because freedom between unequals is not possible.

For a popular fighter, the banner of equality and freedom is the fairest, highest cause of our time, and its name is socialism. There is nothing more important than championing this cause. The resources we will use must be selected to defend this flag. Means and ends are indivisible. Improper means do not increase, on the contrary, they diminish our struggle.

However, a technique is only a resource and can be perverted. It can be used in the service of miserable, petty interests. Therefore, as we learned in the school of life, there is a moral dimension to oratory. These are techniques that must be used responsibly. They must be used for a just cause. They cannot be used, demagogically, to defend petty, personal, selfish interests.

The greatest danger of oratory is vanity. More than in other tasks, oratory allows public exposure, which is very dangerous. Exposing oneself publicly takes a degree of recognition that seems non-transferable, or irreplaceable, and can inflame egos and feed envy, enhancing unnecessary and destructive rivalries.

It turns out that we are all imperfect and vanity is therefore a childish attitude. No one combines all capabilities to the maximum degree. Nobody is irreplaceable. Every day, in each strike, in each combat, new fighters are born who will be able to develop extraordinary qualities, if they find a support point, an organization in which they can develop their potential. The militant collectives are, in the first place, leadership training schools. It is just an optical illusion, therefore, a false conclusion, the idea that the most experienced speakers are the ones who have proven themselves in the past. Younger activists will be surprised if they are given opportunities to develop their skills.

Vanity should not be underestimated. Some degree of vanity is plausible, even among more experienced militants, but it must be balanced by the pressure of teamwork. Socialist militants must be educated in the perception that the applause they receive is applause for the ideas they defend.

In the political and social struggle, in the sphere of trade unions, social movements and parties, all militancy must be teamwork with division of tasks. Even if the comrade is chosen as a spokesman for a collective, at a given moment, this does not authorize him to conclude that he is the “king of the black coconut”. Whoever loses the sense of humility is an immature person, without a sense of proportions, “without a clue”. Personalism, stardom, egocentrism, therefore, individualism is ridiculous. Sad and pathetic. Militants must be, in the personal dimension, discreet about themselves.

Mastery of an oratory technique is a form of power. A power to influence others, to win in the struggle of ideas. When knowledge is used in the service of a miserable cause, it becomes the opposite of what it should be. It ceases to have an emancipatory function, and starts to have an alienating, oppressive function. A great orator in the service of a petty project, such as winning the leadership of a union or a movement to use a springboard in search of privileges, is a monster.

History is replete with examples of leaders who turned monstrously into criminals. Therefore, it is really important to always know what interests you are fighting for. When someone forgets that, when the use of oratory becomes an end in itself, to maintain positions of power, of prestigious positions, the tendency is to become brutal. Those who act like this dehumanize themselves.

We are not instruments at the service of oratory, nor the opposite. Oratory is not an instrument at our service. We are, each one of us, our body, our will, our voice, our mind, our emotion, militants in the service of a cause that is much grander than us. When someone takes the floor and the lights are focused on him; when you take the microphone and the others are sitting and listening, the responsibility is immense. With the domain of oratory come the responsibilities of those who are building themselves as leaders.

*Valerio Arcary He is a retired full professor at the IFSP (Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology).

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