Symbolism, Identification and Kenneth Burke

 When Martin Luther King rose to speak at the ‘Lincoln Memorial ‘ in August, 1963, he knew well that the long term success of his speech would be determined by his audience’s identification with his underlying message.  He succeeded in making this connection, and his speech goes down in history as one of those electrifying moments when an audience feels history is being made.

Plaque on the location of the memorial in Washington D.C. from November 2008

 But, we must ask ourselves, why was it so successful that nearly fifty years later we are still talking about it?  To answer this question, it is useful to turn to the ideas of the rhetorician, Kenneth Burke, and his theory of symbolism. What makes a speech great as opposed to being excellent? Is it just a clever combination of the rational argument-cum-emotion formula? Or is it something else? The answer is important for those of us interested in understanding how this can be achieved.

Kenneth Burke’s theory on Identification is a further dimension of the Aristotelian triad of Ethos, Pathos and Logos. It moves us to see persuasion more in relation to identification through symbolism. Burke believes that people naturally respond to symbolism in their quest for this identification; it is, according to Burke, “a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols”. A symbol is simply a monument, a statue, a building or a document that represents or stands for something else by way of association, resemblance, or convention. Examples of symbols are the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the Parliament buildings in Westminster, a statue to the Unknown Soldier, the Constitution of the United States, and the Declaration of Independence. It is interesting to watch and listen to Luther King using symbolism to create or reinforce identification in his speech.

To illustrate Burke’s explanation of identification through symbolism, we can briefly look at some of Martin Luther King’s famous quotes. In his “I had a Dream” speech, which symbols did Luther King use to make his connection with his audience?  He used symbols that the audience could see in their minds as well as seeing physically. For example, he used symbols from both the Constitution and Declaration of Human Rights (mind), on the one hand; he also relied on the Lincoln Memorial monument and the buildings and statues of Washington (senses), on the other.  They all were symbols that his audience could interact with in an emotional way. He could assume all this, simply because he knew the majority of his audience felt that being American was a good thing.

Another example is when King cried out “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation”. Here he was associating at the same moment both the physical symbol of the Lincoln Memorial and the mental association of the written documents of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It worked because it was sincere and was natural to make the association. Another example from his speech that linked all of the symbols was “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

Then he went on to state the purpose of their coming to Washington, “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

He even used the geography of the United States as a symbol of the mind in the following words:

“And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

In doing this, he established what it was to be an American, and so gently tugged the Civil Rights movement into the mainstream of American life. It was part of life.

Kenneth Burke (1897-1993), who was perhaps the principal rhetorician of the 20th Century, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but dropped out of Columbia University after one year in order to dedicate himself to what he termed as real study.* In one of his books, the language of Symbolic Action (1966) he defined mankind as a “symbol using animal”. For example, a person working in the area of finance “internalizes that subject’s symbol system” and then goes on to use symbolic language in speech. However, if someone approaches the topic from a different set of symbols, there will be the inevitable clash of symbols which will lead to misunderstandings and controversy.

 Every area of life has its accepted symbol systems and the vocabulary to describe them, how they work and what they mean. It is from this basis that many rhetoricians today would say that rhetoric deals with more than just persuasion, it is also about understanding. Rhetoric, it would follow, would encourage others to understand other perspectives based on a common set of symbols. For example, in terms of belief we naturally tend to perceive and understand everything differently from each other (this difference, of course, will vary according to the situation). So the question arises is, how do we actually persuade others within this difference? Burke gives us three ideas:-

  1. Creating an agreement where the two sides are united in substance (creating common ground). For example, using common ideas and attitudes based on the grounds that we form ourselves or our identities through physical objects, occupations, friends, activities, beliefs and values.
  2. Creating an agreement by way of identifying with the antitheses of a given situation. For example, if a number of people should oppose a particular issue they can be united under the umbrella of the common enemy.
  3. Creating an agreement by using sympathetic symbols in order to predispose an audience to the speaker.

For a more in-depth study, we must turn to Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, where he discusses the subject of Identification thoroughly. Additionally we can look at some of the great speeches in history and can see how symbolism was used effectively to win over audiences. Indeed, it was the success of the appeal to our common symbolisms that has made the great speeches of history great.

*Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkley, University of California Press, 1969

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