Martin Luther King Jr. and Toni Morrison statements

Martin Luther King Jr. and Toni Morrison are two of the many great writers of the late twentieth century.  Their styles follow rhetorical guidelines to create persuasive arguments and clear writing.  To show how they accomplish this I will be comparing the rhetorical style used by King in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” with that of Morrison in “Friday on the Potomac.”  Each of these works result from strong opinions surrounding the issue of racial equality in the United States, and each appeals to the desire of achieving that equality.  In order to address a sensitive topic such as racism and achieve the desired results, the authors had to implement various methods of persuasion.  While each author chooses different manners with which to accomplish this, each forms clear writing with convincing arguments.  They achieve this clarity due to their understanding and use of ethos, pathos, and logos as the foundations for creating these arguments.

Before we can examine the writing on the basis of these three elements, we must first understand the meanings of each.  They were conceptualized by Aristotle as the keys to persuading an audience.  Ethos, directly translated, means “worthy of belief,” and deals with establishing credibility.  Pathos involves “putting hearers…into the right frame of mind with regard to certain issues and the speakers persuasive intent” (Smith 83).  Logos includes the arguments that are used to make a point, and involves the basis upon which the arguments were made.  The use of these three elements in harmony with each other will produce a persuasive argument according to Aristotle.  Being that he did “write the book on rhetoric,” I will be using the ideas of Aristotle as the blueprint for effective writing to which I will compare the works of King and Morrison.

First I will examine Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter which embodies all of the characteristics outlined by Aristotle.  The most clearly presented element in King’s article is the use of ethos.  King establishes himself as a credible and learned man early in the letter so that the reader has an immediate connection with him, and then he carries the thought throughout the letter’s entirety.  Within the first paragraph he uses this tactic when he writes, “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence during the day…” (Corbett 302).  This statement effectively creates an image of Martin Luther King sitting in a position of power rather than in the stereotypical labor job all too commonly associated with a black man.  By doing so it immediately breaks down possible underlying stereotypes that would affect the reader’s ability to ration in an unbiased manner.  His response also creates a connection with the clergymen by presenting a scenario with which they can familiarize themselves.

King employs another method that to establish his credibility by comparing himself to notable figures who were involved in struggles resembling his own.  In doing so he uses a different strategy of conveying a vast amount of knowledge concerning the scriptures, to which the clergymen are most closely tied.  For example he compares himself to the Biblical figures of the prophets and of the Apostle Paul when he says “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’…and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the Gospel of Jesus Christ…so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town” (Corbett 302).  He also employs this method when responding to the clergymen’s accusations calling him an extremist.  In rebuttal to the accusation, he states that Jesus was an extremist as was Amos, Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abe Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson.  All of these characters are notable and considered heroes in one way or another.  Comparing himself to them causes the argument of the clergymen to lose its strength and further establishes the importance of his goal.

In keeping with Aristotle’s technique of forming a good argument, King also excels in the act of goodwill, in which you demonstrate “that you have the audience’s best interests at heart” (Smith 81).  King does so by acknowledging that the clergymen “are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth” (King 302).  This strategy prevents them from growing defensive and dismissing everything he says.  He also refers to them later in the letter as “friends.”

By establishing his credibility with the audience, MLK successfully creates a noble character for himself with attributes that are commendable.  The most apparent characteristic is that of his Christian beliefs which are conveyed strongly in his writing.  He also exhibits a great deal of love for his cause to which he lends himself wholeheartedly.  In addition he has a great deal of courage that is especially portrayed in the part of the letter where he discusses having to receive blows without returning them.  This reinforces the notion of the strength of their beliefs.

Thus Martin Luther King establishes an ethos and maintains it throughout the letter.  He followed Aristotle’s blueprint in which there exists three main ingredients for a good ethos.  The first being sagacity, or the ability to demonstrate expertise, is accomplished through the recollection of past events and the selection of proper words.  The next being goodwill, which demonstrates that you have the audience’s interests at heart.  The last is the character you establish for yourself based on the attributes portrayed in your writing.  By demonstrating certain virtues, you gain respect as a person of noble character.

Toni Morrison’s writing establishes credibility in a different manner.  Rather than portraying herself as someone who claims to have all of the answers, she gives this power to the reader.  Her strategy involves offering alternative views of underlying motives that empower the audience to decide for themselves what really happened at the confirmation hearings.  She states that one of the missing elements at the time of the hearings was the lack of “insight-from a range of views and disciplines,” meaning the intellectual elite of the country (Morrison xi).  This insight would allow the general public to extricate reality from the “timeless and timely narratives upon which expressive language rests,” and “distinguish between the veneer of interrogatory discourse and its substance” (Morrison xi).  These abilities are portrayed by Morrison as factors which distinguish the intellectuals from the rest of the general public. By stating this claim she sets the stage for the audience to accept her as an intellectual, being that she provides that necessary insight.

Morrison also benefits from a certain amount of inherent credibility due to the context of her writing.  Being that her essay prefaces a book filled with other analyses of racial injustice, she automatically assumes a position of authority on the subject.  The audience most likely to read such a book, probably also shares a lot of her opinions, or at least has an open mind about them.  Without this barrier to overcome, Morrison can begin her argument earlier, without needing to prove her credibility to a great extent.

The next element upon which I am judging the two writings is the use of pathos or understanding the frame of mind of the audience.   Aristotle believed that “Emotions do not exist in isolation; they may work in concert with other feelings.  For example, experiencing fear may cause one to become angry at those who caused the fear” (Smith 83).  This is an especially important element to be considered when writing about a subject such as racism that has the effect of making people very defensive in the face of possible accusations.  The very mention of the word can make people uneasy and thus necessitates the use of effective argumentative procedure in order to maintain the attention of the audience.

Martin Luther King Jr. is very effective once again in the understanding of pathos, just as he was with ethos.  His letter is in response to clergymen who do not approve of his practices, which automatically places him in a position of having to overcome those attitudes in order to effectively present an argument to which they will listen.  In doing so he must be careful not to offend them or they will simply disregard what he has to say, especially when they have little respect for him in the first place.  He is successful in conveying a nonconfrontational attitude that allows him to establish a case without disinteresting his audience.  He does so by acknowledging legitimate concerns of the clergymen and addresses them in a very matter-of-fact manner. This can be seen in paragraph 11 of his letter when he agrees with the clergymen by saying, “I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation” (Corbett 304).  In effect he acknowledges that he has already considered that as an option, as a man who has put a great deal of thought into his cause.  He then argues as to why negotiation has not and will not work and places the blame on the government for preventing them from taking place.

Another instance in which he agrees with the clergymen in theory but not in practicality, is in response to the concern over breaking laws.  He simply replies, “This is certainly a legitimate concern” (Corbett 306).  This opens the door once again to allow him to justify the necessity of their actions and the reasoning behind them.  The effect that these statements have on the reader is to demonstrate that King is a rational man with good intentions.

These instances are part of a larger scheme that has the greatest effect on the pathos of the reader.  This larger scheme presents itself in the form of King’s writing style, which I described earlier as nonconfrontational.  At the same time he is discussing a topic which is very sensitive to the readers, and he does so in a manner that naturally creates a direct emotional attachment.  By doing so, he can manipulate the readers with the way he approaches the subject.  “Orators need to understand how to move their hearers away from the pleasures of future revenge and away from the circumstances that provoked the anger as much as they need to understand how to intensify experiences” (Smith 84).

The use of emotive response, along with the empowerment described earlier, are the strongest elements in Morrison’s argument.  Each paragraph in her essay calls in to question every possible hint of racial stereotyping in the confirmation of Clarence Thomas.  This topic effectively grab’s the reader’s attention, especially in a society that views racism with the same feelings that fourteenth century Europeans may have viewed the bubonic plague.  She takes care, however not to intensify the emotions to the point where she completely loses the ability to persuade the reader.  Essentially she pulls the reader along through the essay on the leash of racism.  Just when the intensity of one argument reaches a dangerous level, she moves on to another.  The method of constant movement from one argument to another allows her to be a little more daring for short periods of time.  She starts with the reference to Clarence Thomas’ body and the effect that it had on the public’s perception of him.  She then moves to the topic of the allegations made by Anita Hill, which allows her to interject a strong opinion of the sexist implications which were involved therein.  Her emotions are obviously running high when she states, “She was portrayed as a lesbian who hated men and a vamp who could be ensnared and painfully rejected by them” (Morrison xvi).  Although this appears as a short sentence hidden within the matrix of racial issues, it makes a powerful statement.  I’m sure that Toni Morrison could write an entire book about the feelings associated with that sentence, but the point she refrained from doing so.  As a result the average reader will probably read right over it without realizing its implications.  Thus the reader has been manipulated to receive her opinions while confined in the mindset which she initially created.

The last topic that will serve as a basis for comparison, is the issue of logos in the writings of King and Morrison.  As I stated earlier, logos deals with the arguments made by each author and the basis upon which those arguments are made.  The styles with which each of the authors make their arguments are inherently different due to the nature of the writings.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s writing responds to accusations, in which the clergymen determined the subjects of his arguments beforehand within their statement.  Morrison, on the other hand, draws her arguments from the context of the hearings and offers her own insight to the reader so that they may confirm them for themselves.

The format of King’s letter follows that of a classic apologia, historically plagued by “rambling discourse,” but successfully used by King (Corbett 319).  He overcomes the negative attributes  associated with the apology, and further confirms his ability as an orator.  He always stays focused on directing the arguments towards the accusations.  This resembles the style of Socrates, who, in his Apology stated, “I always address the individual” (Smith 56).  By structuring his arguments around the framework laid forth by the clergymen, he maintains the focus of what he attempts to achieve.  Had he strayed from the arguments at hand and gone off on a tangent, the reader would lose sight of his direct intentions.

King also uses the power of tropes in strengthening his arguments.  The use of imagery with metaphors and simile become apparent in more than one case.  When describing the present injustice that in society, he states,

Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of natural opinion before it can be cured (Corbett 308).

This sentence leaves an impressionable image on the mind of the reader, having exactly the effect that King attempts to achieve.

I also found another example of this style within his writing  in paragraph 26, when he states, “Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity” (Corbett 309).  This metaphor establishes an ideal goal of striving toward dignity.  It also succeeds insofar as it does not focus the blame on any individual, but rather on a national policy.

Morrison’s argument essentially focuses on the errors of national policy as well.  She does not blame any one individual, but the general rationale of the country as a whole.  The prevention of individualistic attacks assists her argument in withholding personal prejudices.  Instead she offers her insight into the occurrences of the confirmation, and allows the reader to make the personal connections for themselves.  In order to accomplish this, she uses the method of asking rhetorical questions.  These questions guide the reader towards the understanding that she wants them to have by prefacing them with enough information and logic so that the desired answer becomes clear.  She also manipulates the reader with the wording of the question, to where any answer other than the one she wants them to have, would seem illogical.

She performs this early in the essay in order to get the audience thinking on her line of thought.  She asks, “How could the notion of union, nation, or state surface when race, gender, and class…dominated every moment and word of the confirmation process?” (Morrison xii).  The answer to the question lies within itself and forms the basis of her argument to follow throughout the essay.  She then begins to demonstrate how race, gender, and class played into the hearings, in order to substantiate the argument.  The reader then has no choice but to agree with her ideas.

Thus, we see that both Morrison and King were both admirable in their abilities to persuade their audiences, though each did so using different tactics.  King focused mainly on establishing his own credibility so that his statements would bear the appropriate weight necessary for effectiveness.  Morrison, however focused her strategy on the manipulation of the audience by using their emotions and empowering them to confirm her arguments.  Regardless of the individual focus of each author’s style, they both contained the necessary elements of successful writing as defined by Aristotle: ethos, pathos, and logos.  These elements form the backbone upon which all good writing should form, and these two passages verify that

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