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Sep 30, 2018

Rhetorical Strategies in Feminist Discourse: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Speech

Rhetorical Strategies in Feminist Discourse:A Critical Discourse Analysis of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Speech
Language cannot be discussed outside the human context; this is because it is a universal property possessed by all humans. It is a universal means of human communication. It is an instrument of social existence, without which communication would have been completely impossible. Language is indispensable because it serves as a vehicle which conveys human thoughts, information, ideas, emotions, ideologies etc. Language is central and crucial to man, and it is the quintessential endowment that differentiates man from other animals. Language provides man a tool to enhance growth and progress. The language one speaks tells much about one’s identity with regards to where the person comes from. Not being oblivious of these magical powers of language, individuals and groups have used it persuasively to inculcate their ideologies in the minds of others, and our pen goddess, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is one of such individuals.

Working within the tenets of Critical Discourse Analysis (henceforth, CDA), this article examines how feminists use rhetorical strategies in their speeches to portray their identity before their audience and persuade them into accepting their ideology. The speech of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered at the 137th Commencement Exercises at Wellesley College, United States of America, constitutes the primary datum for this article and is analysed using the qualitative approach. The study reveals a conscious deployment of different persuasive strategies by the speaker (Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie) to articulate an alternative ideology for women whose society has subjected to playing the role of a second fiddle.

Just as political discourse, feminist discourse is also persuasive. Feminists employ persuasive language to make their audience accept their ideology. They often employ emotional arguments and language to arouse the interest of the audience, and consequently shapening their views on certain issues. Jimenez (2005, p. 209) observes that “By means of language, we shape our view of society, we organize our knowledge; we learn new things and above all, we assimilate the norms and social patterns of our community.”
The analysis done in this article will centre on identifying some of the rhetorical strategies employed by the speaker to project her identity and ideology. These strategies are discussed below.

The Use of Anecdote/Story telling
This is the first persuasive strategy used by Adichie in her speech. Adichie recounts to her audience the conversation that ensued between her and “a loud, unpleasant man” at a friend’s dinner party. The conversation was about traditional Igbo – a custom which allows only men to break the kolanut, which is a deeply symbolic part of Igbo cosmology. According the Adichie, the breaking of the kolanut should be based on achievements rather than gender. Inarguably, Adichie tells such anecdote to her audience in order to till the ground for the implantation of her feminist ideology although she claims that the anecdote isn’t told to illustrate her discovery of gender injustice. Such claim only portrays Adichie as a seasoned speaker who cleverly dishes out her message to her audience.

The use of Name as metaphor
Name plays a significant role in the life of an individual. In traditional Africa, it is believed that the name one bears has a way of affecting one’s existence in life hence parents are very careful of the kind of name they give to their children. Izevbaye (1984, p. 164) cited in Kamalu and Agangan (2015, p. 43) argues that “Names in reality exist in a context that gives them form and meaning. Taken out this context of social reality, names remain in atomistic state.” Adichie, as an Igbo woman, knows the importance attached to names in traditional Africa and Christendom, and decided to play politics with the name, “Hillary.”

The name, “Hillary,” is of high repute among Americans and in the world at large. Hillary Clinton was the first lady of the United States from 1993 – 2001, and as first lady, Hillary was an advocate for gender equality and healthcare reform; so, it is glaring that Adichie’s description of her audience (who are mainly females) as “Hillary” is deliberate and not for mere fanciful purposes. There is a strong connection between her feminist ideology and the nomenclature. And I am compelled to say that Adichie uses such name to indirectly persuade her audience to accept her feminist ideology with open hands. Adichie is fully aware that 80 out of 100 women will accept being feminists if they are aware that someone of cosmic importance like Hillary Clinton is a feminist hence her exclamation of the phrase, “Go Hillary.”

The projection of feminism as an inclusive party
Due to the general misconception that feminism is a “woman thing” or an ideology that is propagated by some arrogant women who don’t intend to be submissive to men, thereby making most men and women not to accept such ideology, feminists, through the use of language, always try to debunk such fallacy by portraying feminism is an inclusive party; a party opened to both men and women who share similar ideology:

It was as though feminism was supposed to be an elite little cult, with esoteric rites of membership. But it shouldn’t. Feminism should be an inclusive party. Feminism should be a party full of different feminisms...

Furthermore, the speaker’s assertion that “men were not inherently bad or evil” but “were merely privileged” by society is also a way of projecting feminism is an inclusive party; a party that is not just opened to women who have decided to liberate themselves from the unfair treatment melted against them by society, but a party that is also opened to men who have decided to liberate themselves from the bad and evil beings that societal privileges have turned them into. This is further validated when the speaker urges her audience to “go out there and make a raucous inclusive party.” Undoubtedly, these are ways of controlling the mind of her audience to accept her feminist ideology.

The portrayal of feminism as an ideology that is based on equity
In order to legitimize their actions and ensure that people accept their ideology, feminists all over the world always project feminism as an equity-based ideology. They are of the view that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Of course everybody loves equity; nobody wants to be dealt with unfairly. Not being oblivious of this ideology, Adichie, once again, uses it to subdue the mind of her audience:

Write television shows in which female strength is not depicted as remarkable but merely normal. Teach your students to see that vulnerability is a human rather than a female trait; commission magazine articles that teach men how to keep a woman happy because there are already too many articles that tell women how to keep a man happy. And in media interviews make sure fathers are asked how they balance family and work. In this age of “parenting as guilt”, please, spread the guilt equally. Make fathers feel as bad as mothers. Make fathers share in the glory of guilt. Campaign and agitate for paid paternity leave everywhere in America; hire more women where there are few, but remember that a woman you hire doesn’t have to be exceptionally good. Like a majority of the men who get hired, she just needs to be good enough.

In the above excerpt, Adichie samples her professionalism in the use of language to control the minds of others and dominate their own perspective of life. Someone who never liked the feminist ideology will definitely have a rethink when he/she reads this.

Identifying with women in general
It is believed that traditional African society is a patriarchal society, and as a result, relegating women to objects rather than subjects. Having an in-depth knowledge of such belief, feminists, although having being liberated from such patriarchal dominance, always identify with such women while addressing them. Such identification is not done for mere fanciful purposes but for tilling the ground for the implantation and acceptance of their feminist ideology.  Through the instrumentality of language, Adichie tries to create a collective identity with women who have been reduced to nothing other than objects in a society that gives more privileges to men than women: “I already knew that the world does not extend to women the many small courtesies that it extends to men”. She uses the plural noun, “women,” to include herself in the class of women who are victimized by societal constructs.  This is a rhetorical strategy employed by the speaker to invoke the feeling of pity in her audience to her and women in general, and consequently legitimizing her action.

The use of pronominal
Kamalu (2013, p. 70) observes that pronominal referencing is strongly used in discourse to index group alignment or alienation and identity. On their part, Simpson and Mayr (2010, p. 13) cited in Kamalu (2013, p. 70) opine that pronominal/pronouns are used to “construct identities, draw or erase boundaries between groups, and stress social distance or resentment against other groups.” All these assertions gear towards one thing – pronominal referencing are used to create identity, either individual or group identity.

Adichie’s speech is an embodiment of pronouns such as “I,” “we,” “you,” “me,” and “my.” Among these pronouns, the first person singular pronoun, “I,” has the highest frequency as it is used 98 times by the speaker. The predominance of the first person singular pronoun highlights the speaker’s independence, individual identity and achievements, which are major traits of feminists. Her continuous use of the first person singular is deliberate. It is her own way of telling her audience that women can still be great achievers without depending on any man amidst the too many privileges given to men by society. In almost all the paragraphs of her speech, Adichie highlights the things she did or intend doing all by herself through the use of the pronominal, “I.” One can feel her self confidence through her tone:

I already knew that the world does not extend to women the many small courtesies that it extends to men. I also knew that victimhood is not a virtue. That being discriminated against does not make you somehow morally better. And I knew that men were not inherently bad or evil. They were merely privileged. And I knew that privilege blinds because it is the nature of privilege to blind. I knew from this personal experience, from the class privilege I had of growing up in an educated family, that it sometimes blinded me, that I was not always as alert to the nuances of people who were different from me.

I told myself that I would tough it out and become a psychiatrist and that way I could use my patients’ stories for my fiction.

She also uses the pronoun of exclusion, “they,” to dissociate herself from the group of men whom she feels are only enjoying the privileges provided them by society: “...They were merely privileged”. By so doing, Adichie creates a new world for herself; a world where men and women will have equal rights and privileges. With the sole aim of inculcating her feminist ideology, she also urges her audience to create a world for themselves as their “standardized ideologies will not always fit” their lives because “life is messy.”

Negative face strategy
According to Kamalu and Ogangan (2015), the negative face strategies refer to “those rhetorical patterns that are intended to indirectly endear the speaker (self) to his audience and delegitimize the other (the opponent).”

Feminists see society as their opponent hence their continuous use of the phrase, “societal construct.” To them, it is the society that has made the woman to play the role of a second fiddle; so, they always use language to delegitimize society, thereby legitimizing their actions and endearing themselves to their audience. One major negative face strategy Adichie employs is the indictment of society. She accuses society of giving men too many privileges but paying little or no attention to the women folk:

And if the goddesses and gods of the universe do the right thing, then you will also very soon be the proud alumnae of the college that produced America’s first female president!

From the above excerpt, one can adequately argue that the speaker is of the view that America’s continuous production of only male presidents since time immemorial is a social construct that is made possible by the “goddesses” and “gods” of the universe (society), which she sees as a form of injustice to the female folk. Therefore, she asserts that “if the goddesses and gods of the universe do the right,” her audience “will also very soon be the proud alumnae of the college that produced America’s first female president.” This is an outright indictment to society or what Kamalu (2013) refers to as “explicit indictment.” To the speaker, women are still reduced to objects in the society because the society has failed to do the right thing.

In sum, Adichie consciously deploys these rhetorical strategies to articulate an alternative ideology for women whose society has subjected to playing the role of a second fiddle. The speaker wants her audience and the society to see and accept her own ideology hence her adoption of some persuasive strategies to positively orient her to her audience. It is also important to state here that Adichie’s speech is a full-fledged speech, with duration of 20 minutes and 48 seconds on YouTube. Although this long, Adichie is able to keep her audience informed and entertained. The sense of humour is there from the beginning to the end of the speech. I counted the number of applause, uproars, clapping and cheers of laughter created by the speaker and found that the audience responded with at least 13 times. In relatively short speech of 20 minutes, this is certainly a marker of agreement and solidarity among the audience. Indeed, Adichie, through the use of language, was able to manipulate the minds of her audience to accept her feminist ideology.

Listen to the speech below.

Jimenez, C. & Rose, M. (2005). “Linking gender and second language learning education in a database”. CAUCE, Revista International de Filologia y su Didactica, 28, pp. 205 – 218.

Kamalu, I, (2013). “Ethnic and racist discourse in postcolonial African text: A critical linguistic analysis of Uwem  Akpan’s  Say You’re One of Them” Covenant Journal of Language Studies (Maiden edition) 1 (1) pp. 63 – 75

Kamalu, I. & Agangan, R. (2015). “A critical discourse analysis of Goodluck Jonathan’s declaration of interest in the PDP” ResearchGate, pp. 32 – 54.


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