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Rhetoric of Identification and Young Men of the Alt-Right

Last Friday, members of the alt-right group the Proud Boys violently attacked a number of innocent people in New York City. This group is one of a number of groups that are united by some combination of white nationalism, misogyny, and other prejudicial ideologies—with some prejudices outranking others for some young men. Young men are drawn to these groups by the demagogic promise of “us vs. them” that we see at Trump rallies or similar events.

I want to look at an instance of language use by one of these individuals in a Reddit forum on the alt-right (NOTE: there is some ugly stuff in the comments). By paying close attention to language, there might be something of value to consider about strategies to dissuade young men from the notion that these politics are tenable. It’s just one moment of language use, so I can’t claim that we can generalize much from it. Take this, instead, as a provocative analysis to think about ways to understand an important kind of rhetoric and potential rhetorical strategies against it.

An Attitude Analysis of the Alt-Right on Reddit

Below, I have the post with certain sections italicized followed by bolded brackets that comment on the italicized text. This approach is a simplified version of an attitude analysis via appraisal theory (read a good introduction to appraisal theory here). Affect is marked when an agent in a sentence is showing emotion; Judgment is when an agent is evaluating human behavior; and Appreciation is when an agent is commenting on an object’s inherent qualities.

The left has done everything possible [judgment: tenacity] to get their sick fantasy of a multicultural society [appreciation: reaction-quality; implied judgment]. As someone in CA I can tell you multiculturalism sucks [appreciation: reaction-quality] because there’s no social trust [judgment: propriety], no unity [judgment: propriety], and the state abuses [judgment: propriety] its citizens with high taxes [appreciation: valuation] to support the useless members of society [appreciation: valuation].

I find it really enraging [affect: un/happiness] knowing not that long ago we had a united population [judgment: propriety], with a shared culture and beliefs [judgment: propriety], and high social trust in a not so distant past [judgment: propriety].

And my final point. Why can’t we just be left alone [judgment: propriety] from the left? They have done everything to make sure [judgment: tenacity] this sick fantasy spreads [appreciation: reaction-quality; implied judgment] to whole country and mock anyone who doesn’t want to be a part of it [judgment: propriety]. The biggest threat [judgment: propriety] to the United States is them not us, not Russia, not China, no it’s definitely them.

The writer comments on the left’s persistence (“done everything possible”, “They have done everything to make sure”) as bookends—it begins with a comment on the left’s tenaciousness and this attitude returns in the last paragraph. This implies that people like the author will have to ratchet up their own persistence in combating it. “Multiculturalism” appears as shorthand for appeals to inclusion and perhaps other things these individuals perceive to be anti-American, anti-white, or anti-Western. It’s evaluated twice as a “sick fantasy”, which by implication is a judgment of those who hold this sick fantasy, that something is wrong with them. Multiculturalism divides, which is an ethical problem for any society (e.g., “no social trust”, “no unity”) and this is related to a state that compounds this division by abusing its citizens through bad practices such as “high taxes” that only benefit members of society who are “useless” and therefore undeserving.

The next paragraph highlights an overt emotion: the author is enraged by the tenacious left’s insistence on a certain way of life. Before, there was a unified society with “shared culture and beliefs” along with “high social trust.” There was nothing—or at least very little—to be mad about. Like the authoritarianism literature points to, the perceived changing social norms brought on is seen as a “threat” by the author in the final sentence.

Conclusion: What to Do?

This is a politics of victimhood: this force of multiculturalism is being inflicted on these poor souls by a persistent elite doing everything in its power to ensure its reign. It is an “us vs. them,” but just as important, it speaks to Kenneth Burke’s notion of identification—the rhetoric is powerful here because it unifies the audience with the speaker by positioning them both as one against something else.

So what do we do with such attitudes? Can language assist us? If we maintain an open stance to any person, text, or culture—something Krista Ratcliffe claims is possible by rhetorically listening—than there is something we can do to reach out to people who could potentially be swayed by an appeal to this brand of victimhood. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Rhetoric of Identification and Young Men of the Alt-Right”

  1. You picked an instructive message. The one assertion that astonishes me the most is this: “not that long ago we had a united population, with a shared culture and beliefs.” This is to say, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, return to some past Golden Age. Who can actually believe this? American history is required in every school in the land, and any text and teacher should put the lie to such a belief, on every page and during every class period. Yet here we have it. It is the old cargo cult, set in the past instead of in the future.

    1. Agreed. Having K-12 courses dedicated to civics in conversation with history always seemed like an easy move to thwart nostalgia propaganda. I think what is odd with the younger folks is that they really never lived this history (I think distorted memories of older people missing the “good ol’ days” makes easier psychological sense to me). My guess is that a lot of them may be thinking of times where they felt more powerful. I wonder if we live in a culture that assures young boys that they are powerful–and then once they grow up and see this is not so, they can be easily persuaded that they are persecuted in adulthood. Just thinking out loud here.

      1. In other words–there is something about childhood and masculinity with the alt-right types that sets them apart from, say, someone middle-aged or older who has fond memories of everyone going to the same church in town.

  2. Thanks for illustrating the usefulness of Systemic Functional Linguistics (of which Appraisal is a part) for textual/rhetorical analysis. I ‘m thrilled to see more people picking up on this in the US, as I’m slogging through the self-teaching process myself. I dream of the day I no longer have to toggle back and forth from generative linguistics (devoid of context) to writing studies (which refuses to study language). This post (and DD/RFP in general) makes me feel less alone.

    1. Thanks, Amy! I’m a comp/rhet person through and through, but SFL seems useful when paying close attention to language. It doesn’t always feel like there are good methods for studies more rhetorically inclined in comp/rhet, so that is how I found my way there. It is intimidating, though. When I first opened up that Intro the Functional Grammar, it was rough. I still don’t think I could gather all that much from all that material. The appraisal stuff is easier to get through for me, and luckily, probably most relevant to my research on statistical writing in public texts. As another self-taught person on this stuff, solidarity!

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