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The Art of Persasion Through Abuse - EvoLit Webpaper 2

themword's picture

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The Art of Persuasion Through Abuse
Often leaders or important public figures, whether political or religious, abuse theories and texts to justify their actions and claims. They pick select passages from historical writings, using them out of context in their rhetoric. To be successful, the audience that these leaders are trying to persuade must have a certain level of knowledge of the subject or the author must be credible or authoritative. When people do not know the details of theories or texts, they take what they are being told at face value. Herbert Spencer employs and Islamic fundamentalist religious leaders employ the Quran to gain support for their actions towards certain groups of people (the poor and non-Muslims respectively).
When Darwin discusses “survival of the fittest,” he is referring to Natural Selection. This struggle for life means that any variation that is beneficial to an individual will save that individual. “Man by selection can certainly produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature” (Darwin 132-33). Herbert Spencer, the father of Social Darwinism, coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” misapplied Darwin’s ideas to defend “political doctrines” (Dennett 395). Spencer was applying natural selection to society, biology to sociology. Those that were the fittest in society survived. Therefore, helping the poor and disadvantaged went against nature. Spencer claimed, “the ‘survival of the fittest’ is not just Mother Nature’s way, but ought to be our way” (461). “According to the Social Darwinists, it is ‘natural’ for the strong to vanquish the weak, and for the rich to exploit the poor” (Dennett 461).
Friedrich Nietzsche points out the problem with Spencer’s claim saying, “We may simply deny that there is anything universally natural about the strong dominating the weak and the rest of the Social Darwinists nonsense” because it was “entirely natural for us to step out of the state of nature and adopt a host of societal practices for our mutual benefit” (Dennett 461-2). “All organic beings are exposed to severe competition. Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult […] than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind” (133).
Darwin explains that he is using the term “Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny” (Darwin 133). The fact that he explicitly says he is using the phrase metaphorically shows how Spencer and Social Darwinists deliberately used the term out of context, knowing that their audience would be ignorant of this fact.
Islamic fundamentalists and religious leaders will take words or passages from the Quran and use them out of context to justify jihad. One of the reasons they are so successful is because eighty per cent of the world’s Muslims do not speak Arabic, and therefore rely on these religious leaders for interpretations of the Quran (Esposito 10). They memorize the Quran but they do not necessarily understand it. The Quran is authoritative because it is supposed to be the direct word of G-d. But the interpretations presented by extremist (religious leaders may be their own, and may have a fundamentalist slant. If they depend on these interpreters, they can be manipulated into believing what those interpreters want them to believe. This is what has changed, is changing, and will change world history. The prime example is that of extremists who use select quotes from the Quran and interpret them in such a way to recruit terrorists and justify their violent actions.
Another reason they are successful is because the terms they select from the Quran invoke a collective memory of historic events. The intention of such a reference is to justify jihad. An example of this is the use of the word “jahiliyyah.” In the early 7th century, Muhammad and the Quran condemned the jahiliyyah, or condition of ignorance, that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, especially in Mecca. This ignorance manifested itself in the forms of “polytheism, materialism, avarice, and corruption” (Esposito 30). Extremists and fundamentalists have used the term jahiliyyah to justify jihad. The most notable example is Qutb, who joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1940s. A modern Islam fundamentalist, Qutb visited the United States, and he was appalled by the jahiliyyah he witnessed in the form of racism, discrimination and sexual promiscuity. He returned to Egypt and joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and vowed to rid Egypt, and the world, of jahiliyyah. This vow would lead to the Islamic movement. Qutb used the word jahiliyyah “to paint and condemn all modern societies as un-Islamic and anti-Islamic” (60). “We must free ourselves from the clutches of jahili society” not compromise with it, for to do so would mean losing the goal of a true and pure Islamic society. He painted the world into black and white, Islamic and un-Islamic. He believed that jihad was an armed struggle against jahiliyyah (anti-Islamic governments, the West, and the Soviet Union) and was “incumbent upon all Muslims” (60). He taught that Muslims who did not take part in jihad were enemies of God, and that “all true believers must wage holy war” against these jahili societies. The use of the word Jahiliyyah by Qutb is a prime example of exploiting a part of history to rally support for a modern cause.
Darwin justified Social Darwinism by abusing Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” and fundamentalists justified jihad by abusing the Quran. They took advantage of an audience that was ignorant of the context of these concepts, and were generally successful. Spencer and the fundamentalists demonstrated the art of persuasion through abuse.
Works Cited
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Ontario:
Broadview Press, 2003. Print.
Dennett, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.
Esposito, John. Unholy War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Esposito, John. What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2002. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

Abusing Memes?

two technical nudges, to start: please begin to experiment w/ the resources of the web in writing your paper, remembering that it is being read (@ least theoretically!) by "the world," and so needs both to be located more explicitly in our class conversation (why are you bringing together Darwin and Islamic fundamentalists? what's the logic of selection?) and less explicitly so (labeling it "Evolit Webpaper 2," for instance, will probably not draw many readers!). Think, too, about using images or other visuals to draw in your web reader.

Secondly, you tell the tale here of Spencer misapplying Darwin’s ideas to defend “political doctrines.” But the history of the phrase is much more complicated (and interesting, because "loopy") than the story you trace here. As summarized in Wikipedia, Herbert Spencer first used the phrase – after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species – in his Principles of Biology (1864), in which he drew parallels between his own economic theories and Darwin's biological ones, writing, "This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called 'natural selection', or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life." Darwin first used Spencer's new phrase "survival of the fittest" as a synonym for natural selection in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, published in 1869.

After that correction, I follow your argument that Spencer's revision of a natural process into a moral one, to justify established social relations, is an "abuse" of Darwin's concepts of emergence and interdependence, and I see the parallel w/ Islamic fundamentalism. Would you say that the process is one appropriated by all fundamentalists? Could you also say that such "selection" is a form of meme-manipulation? (For some possibilities along these lines, consider both ib4walrus' Hatred, What is the Point? and AnnaP's Using Memes for Social Change.)