What do Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have in common?
In addition to being old, white, and angry, they both use an ancient rhetorical technique known as attributed belittlement. The technique has survived at least since the days of Aristotle. It survives because it’s simple and effective.
Attributed belittlement works because nobody likes to be humiliated. If I tell you that Joe thinks you’re a low-life, no-account, I’ll probably get a rise out of you. What I say about Joe may not be true, but that’s not the point. I want you to feel humiliated. To accomplish that, I’ve attributed to Joe belittling thoughts about you. I want to make you so angry that you don’t even think about whether I’m telling the truth. I want to manipulate you into focusing your anger on Joe. I want to short-circuit your critical thinking apparatus.
The technique works even better with groups than with individuals like Joe. You can get to know an individual. Perhaps you already know Joe and you like him. That casts doubt on my veracity. But with a group – nameless, faceless bureaucrats, for instance – it’s easy to imagine the worst. They hate us. They look down on us. They take advantage of us. Belittlement works best when we can profile an entire group of people. It’s not logical but it’s effective.
So, let’s imagine the following quote:
They look down on you. They think they’re superior to you. They think you’re here to serve them. They think they can push you around. They’ve taken your jobs and your money and now they just want to rub your nose in it.
Would this quote come from Donald or Bernie? Well, … it depends on who “they” are. If we’re talking about immigrants and religious minorities, it seems like something the Donald would say. If, on the other hand, we’re talking about billionaires and fat cats, it’s more likely something that Bernie would say.
Note the rhetorical device. While talking to you, the speaker attributes horrible thoughts to other people. These are people who are easy to caricature. They’re also easy to profile: after all, they all think alike, don’t they? They’re also not here to defend themselves. Whether you’re Donald or Bernie, it’s an easy way to score cheap points.
By the way, I’m not an innocent bystander here. I sold software for mid-sized companies and often competed against some very big fish. I told prospective customers that, “The big software companies don’t want your business. You don’t generate enough revenue. They won’t give their best service. You’re just a little fish in a big pond.” It didn’t work every time. But when it did, it worked very well.
The good thing about attributed belittlement is that it’s easy to spot. Someone is talking to you about another group or company or person who is not physically present. The speaker attributes belittling thoughts to the third party. It’s a good time to say, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re using attributed belittlement to make me angry. You must think I’m stupid.”
Nice article, Travis! We have been talking here at the agency along similar lines. In addition to attributed belittlement (a new term I am so happy to add to my vocabulary), we noted the broad, sweeping generalizations they so often make, allowing the audience to fill in the details with their own interpretation. “We’re going to make America great again!”