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During the Holocaust era, sematic groups were deemed as priority danger to Germany as well as their collaborators, epitomized by the Nazi’s organized, state-sponsored persecution of six million European Jews. Fifty years later, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Elie Wiesel, worked tirelessly to educate the world of the inflicted violence that transfigures into indifference. From a serene childhood of studying the Torah to a brutal adolescence amidst the rise and horrors of concentration camps, the sum of his experiences has shaped the way we protect humanity. On April 2, 1999, Wiesel’s millennium address on “The Perils of Indifference” describes the injustices individuals face and urges the audience to engage in activism, to never ignore the plight of others. Its power lies in the combination of historical truths, a social and political call-to-action, and more importantly, the stirring personal story of the speaker. Wiesel’s speech is a harsh indictment against those who choose to be indifferent to the suffering of others, invoking compassion by utilizing various rhetorical devices including ethos, logos, pathos and charged language, rhetorical questions and parallelism, and repetition.
The speech brings forth an intense personal aspect, carrying the same ethos forward to address his Jewish values as well as the moral and ethical principles society seemingly fails to follow. By providing the audience with a short narrative about how his youth was encircled with mental scars, the wrenching story appears credible to a wide array of the government members. His piece warrants an extensive firsthand experience for the aforementioned reason, written by one of the foremost experts on the Holocaust and moral-related issues. His closing to the speech, “And so, once again, I think of the young Jewish boy from the Carpathian Mountain,” demonstrates not only the current issue at hand, but his own credibility as a relevant speaker (Wiesel, 1999). The usage of “us” and “we” throughout the speech reinforced commonality with the audience, and thus encouraged a sense of cohesion or community by blurring the author-audience divide. Because this speech was rooted from Wiesel’s own personal experience, he proves to the audience that humanity needs to wake up to the world; that we must not succumb to the dangers of shutting out the outside world. Equally as important as the time Wiesel (1999) conveys his message is his direct acknowledgement of the people whom he is talking to – “Mr. President, Mrs. Clinton, members of congress, Ambassador Holbrooke, Excellencies, friends”. This, in turn, not only sets the stage for their role in helping Wiesel escape, but also establishes a means to build rapport.
Utilizing an effective structure with logos, Wiesel brings together his personal recollections and facts about the atrocities of the 20th century to allow the audience to empathize with the victims of a century of horror. His evidence is constructed with a multitude of references to senseless historical events in which the human cost of grief and pain cannot be calculated from self-inflicted, interpersonal, or collective violence –– civil wars, world wars, assassinations, border disputes, genocide, etc. The act of sharing these tragic events and recalling the epicenter of unimaginable degradation in the form of numbers, translates his theme of indifference into perpetual emotions of guilt and shame. It was with reserved pain that Wiesel mentions the miserable American decision to deny the St. Louis refugees, which comprised a cargo with 1,000 Jews who were sent back to the burning shores of Europe.
It is evident that these arguments are tied together by a strong logical string as he encapsulates the philosophical ideas of humanity and linguistic characteristics to serve as inroads into his ideas. From providing an in-depth definition of indifference to highlighting America’s actions of the U.S. of A and our choice to not intervene, he touches on the effects of these situations to persuade the audience to take action. To create embarrassment among the audience, the speaker examines injustices faced by a wide array of ethnicities and backgrounds, further demonstrating the perils of indifference. Although the presence of such logical statements and questions serve as an appeal to the human conscience, Wiesel deliberately interweaves positive actions humanity has played a role in. Evidently, his goal was to shine light on the world’s selfless acts in an effort to imply that society has been and can be intuitively altruistic. The speech encompasses diverse uses of logos, in ways that appeal to an audience filled with government officials who rely heavily on a collection of facts.
Wiesel’s naturally emotional subject constructs a powerful speech filled with pathos as he opens with a sketch of a young boy, unidentified but representing Wiesel himself, recently freed from the concentration camp. In essence, the speaker uses the opening lines of his speech in an effort to contextualize his experiences in all the tragedy that characterized the 1900s, and to emphasize the importance of remembering it all. The usage of anecdotes to build the grim imagery of prisoners, starving children, and refugees feeling lost serves as topics that “tug at the heartstring.” Wiesel (1999) states, “Their hidden or even visible pain is of no interest. Indifference makes other people into something less human”, desensitizing those who lack empathy towards humanity. He juxtaposes both positive and negative emotions alongside each other to draw sharp contrast between lack of joy and liberation, the rage of soldiers to the gratitude he felt deeply. Losing his family and dedicating his life to expose the horrors of the Holocaust, he successfully elicits sympathy in a way that enables the audience to process and reflect upon these steps: stand up, fight back, and choose not to be indifferent.
The thought of violence evokes a sharp emotional reaction, enabling the speaker to gradually elaborate on sensitive notions such as starvation, despair and pain. His intent to pass the torch stems from his effective appeal to emotions, conveying the silver lining of the storm cloud “indifference kills” can be thwarted by saving lives through action and compassion. Using several key techniques to create a persuasive speech, Wiesel asks string of pointed, rhetorical questions with the intent that the audience will contemplate answering during his pause. In “The Perils of Indifference,” he asks a total of 26 questions, not to receive an answer from his audience, but to grasp their attention and allow them to ponder over the effects of such a global issue. Wiesel incorporates a very compelling manner of elaborating on his ideas as he relates the present condition of the world with the holocaust and questions the audience to action.
By posing questions such as “Does this mean that we have learned from the past? Does it mean that society has changed? Has the human being become less indifferent and more human” (Wiesel, 1999, p. 22), the speaker sets a path for the audience to connect with his topic. Hence, it conveys a sense of emotional conviction and righteous anger spurred from not only the structure of Wiesel’s questions, but the force of his main assertion: indifference is a dangerous emotion. In combination with parallelism, the speaker’s goal clearly transitions to shedding light on discrimination and abuse and its countereffect – unity to fight against suppression. He states, “and for what you are doing for children in the world, for the homeless, for the victims of injustice, the victims of destiny and society”, intentionally creating a harmonious effect that emphasizes the inescapable consequences of indifference.
Throughout Wiesel’s speech, the repetition of certain phrases and words stresses the significance of these topics in relation to the carelessness of the modern world. Contrasting words such as “good and bad” and “crime and punishment,” the speaker criticizes neutrality and indifference to advance his main point of the meaninglessness of enteral infamy and rage. Considering the seriousness of the topic, the need for repetition becomes imperative to express the disunity and ignorance circling society. “God,” “Humanity,” “Gratitude is,” and “Indifference is not” (Wiesel, 1999, pp. 2-6) demonstrates the unforgettable repetition of words, phrases, and sentence structures – this embodies that indifference is failing to take action, setting injustice as an end and an evil acceptability in society. The repetition of such phrases has an incantatory effect in which the usage of alliteration and anaphora in his speech turn into thought-provoking ideas. Towards the middle of the speech, Wiesel (1999) states, “You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it” (para 10) as the beginning of each sentence contains “You” to illustrate a minute call-to-action and provide an opportunity for the audience to self-reflect. Wiesel’s flow of words further captures his ability to expand on indifference by repeating initial sounds to help the audience visualize the point of raising awareness of a issue. Looking at the historical implication of instances of mass violence in human history, the speaker interlinks different combinations of words and phrases to formulate effective repetitive sentences.
Although this speech is one that merely pinpoints elegant language, righteous fury, and moral rigor through the use of effective rhetorical strategies, it also carries weaknesses and flaws. Mentioning Jews in a wide array examples helped establish an emotional appeal, however, this speech failed to mention other demographics, or the non-Jewish population affected by the devastations – priests, gypsies, mentally and physically disabled individuals, Slavic peoples, etc. In turn, this would have strengthened the idea that indifference is ubiquitous and targets anyone with different beliefs, values, and morals, from any place and any background. A component within this speech that was present but slightly absent was logos, specifically the use of statistics and facts. Wiesel interweaved strong points into his theme, and while it may be opinion-based, additional usage of logos presents the horrific tragedy with hardcore, concrete facts. As a result of capturing a multitude of negative consequences of indifference, Wiesel constructs a series of messages that are directed to the evils that flourish. But a discussion of the other side of the argument, no matter how unjustifiable and inhumane, would allow the speaker to carry out a counterargument elaborating on the insignificance of evil actions.
Much of Wiesel’s adult life encompassed his stories of speaking out against genocide and wars, showcased by the last lines of his speech. Filled with numerous rhetorical strategies, Wiesel’s speech consists of effective devices that provokes a response from the audience. By providing the audience with a call to action, the speaker was able to elaborate on the notion that the fate of the next century is on this generation – the world has to choose not to be indifferent.
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