Appealing to the vanity of one’s audience is one of the standard rhetorical tricks of speakers seeking to ingratiate themselves and thus make their message more palatable. Donald Trump in the US has raised such pandering to extremists to high levels. But this kind of appeal to the tribal vanity of the audience is by no means unique to him and one does not have to look far to find other examples that are as extreme.
I posted recently how Sinhala Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka had taken to vigilante violence against Muslims based on the most outlandish rumors that were spread via Facebook. These Buddhists militant extremists have patrons in parliament and even in the Sri Lankan cabinet and a cabinet minister had given a speech to Sinhala expatriates in Paris in 2014 that, according to this report, was full of falsehoods such as:
- “the Sinhala are a rare race of people born to a unique island that surpasses all the world’s countries”
- “this race is about to be wiped out by minorities that entered the island under the welcome protection of a benign host population. He particularly picks on the Muslims at conclusion.”
- “that our island is the most ancient of all countries and that Sri Pada is more ancient than the Himalayas!” [Sri Pada is a 7,000 foot high peak that is considered sacred by Buddhists because it supposedly has an imprint of the footprint of the Buddha, another fiction. –MS]
- “the Sinhala language is the oldest language in the world next to the Hebrew language.” [I am actually a little surprised that he was willing to concede that any language was older. –MS]
Americans will recognize echoes of the rhetoric of exceptionalism one hears all the time here, that America is the greatest country in the world, favored by their god, its white Christian people are possessed of all the virtues, everyone else is here by sufferance, etc.
What is disturbing is not only that such inflammatory absurdities were being uttered by a government minister but that the audience of Sri Lankan expatriates in Paris had responded enthusiastically. You would think that people who were residing in another country would be more aware that claims of uniqueness and exceptional virtues are inherently suspect since such claims can be found pretty much everywhere and are usually used against immigrants. But it seems like the desire to think that one’s own tribe is superior to every other tribe triggers a positive response from primal part of the brain, sufficient to overwhelm people’s ability to think rationally and separate fact from fiction.