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The Difficult Truths of Indifference
On April 12, 1999, Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference” was presented in the White House. His speech was only six hundred and ninety-eight words long. Six hundred and ninety-eight words filled with hard truths. Six hundred and ninety-eight words demanding the end of indifference. Words have the power to change people’s hearts and minds. “I wanted to be sure to find words, the right words,” Wiesel said in an interview about one of his previous writings (Shea, Andrea). Consequently, his speech impacts people just as much today as it did twenty years ago, and every decision Wiesel made when writing his speech was both thoughtful and purposeful.
Wiesel uses the three appeals and elements of the five canons to write a speech that became one of the most influential speeches to date. He used the elements of the rhetorical situation and created a written masterpiece.
Wiesel’s speech is still relevant today as indifference is still apparent in everyday life. On August 26, 2019, the New York Times released an article entitled “India’s Widows, Abused at Home, Have Sought Refuge in This Holy City for Centuries,” which highlighted the many hardships that over 40 million widows face in India. The writer talked about a sanctuary for these widows, but this sanctuary helps less than 1% of those 40 million women (Schultz, Kai). On one hand, the fact that this article was written is a huge step in the right direction. On the other hand, the fact that this has become such a problem shows how indifferent people are today. “Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment” (paragraph 11). If this is true, then how much punishment are we inflicting on ourselves and others through our indifference? Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference” is a huge cry for change, and this change is still necessary today. Wiesel pleads that we end the reign of indifference, as well as hoping that future generations can use their imaginations in such a way that will effectively inform so that we do not become numb to the happenings of the world (“THE WHITE HOUSE”).
Wiesel uses memory in his speech; he recounts an emotional memory from when he was a child during the Holocaust. He ends the story by describing the day he was liberated from a concentration camp (paragraph 3). Wiesel uses memory to appeal to pathos. This use of pathos, both caused the audience to sympathize with Wiesel’s situation and caused the audience to pay close attention to what Wiesel had to say. Wiesel’s use of pathos was also used to set up the rest of his speech. He uses pathos at the beginning of his speech so that when he arrived at the core topics of his speech, the audience would be more receptive to what he had to say.
The major constraint of a speech is keeping the audience captivated. When giving a speech, keeping the audience interested in the topic is crucial. An effective speech tells hard truths, and presenting these truths at the right time is paramount. In order to keep his audience captivated, Wiesel began by telling a story that pulled the audience in and made them listen to what he had to say. Throughout the speech, the audience gets to know Wiesel a little bit better, and then he begins to go deeper into his topic by confronting some tough truths like the fact that the United States made many mistakes during the Holocaust ( paragraph 16). Had he presented this from the beginning, his audience would most likely have been offended, whereas by introducing this subject later in his speech, his audience was more open to considering his point of view because they felt connected to what he was saying. As a result, he caused his audience to question their preconceived notions about the Holocaust. Many Americans look at the U.S. as the “hero” during the Holocaust, but Wiesel tells us that this is not the case. However, he maintained his credibility by arranging the speech in such a way that the audience was able to stay connected to the text and even sympathize with him. He did not shy away from the truth, but he presented it appropriately. It is hard to keep an audience captivated while doing so, especially when talking about something the audience holds dear, like their country. Wiesel was able to achieve this, making him one of the most influential writers to date.
Truth is an essential part of writing because not telling the truth results in the loss of credibility and ethos. However, telling the truth can be very hard, especially when the truth (as it oftentimes is) is ugly. Wiesel encounters this in his speech when addressing the United States and how the country has impacted his experiences. While during part of this story he does put the American people on a sort of pedestal and talks about the U.S. in a very positive light, he then goes on later (beginning in paragraph 16) to say that there were many instances when the U.S. exhibited the epitome of indifference, including when the U.S. turned away nearly 1000 passengers from docking in St. Louis.
While Wiesel certainly builds ethos in his speech, he also spent years building his ethos before he even wrote this speech. Wiesel received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 as well as many awards for his book series. After he received the Nobel Peace Prize, he said that he wanted to use it to reach more people (Markham, James). He did that in many ways, one of which includes giving his speech “The Perils of Indifference.” The Nobel Peace Prize helped build his credibility, giving him a platform to reach more people with his powerful message (Gartland, Michael).
Questions are another way to convey meaning in a speech. They help to achieve deep thought and connection to the audience and are a large part of delivery and arrangement. Writers do everything with a purpose, and Elie Wiesel is no exception. Almost all of paragraph 17 is questions. Wiesel wonders why there were so few who attempted to help the Jews during the Holocaust. He asks why there were not more people willing to help, and he wonders why they were so indifferent. These types of questions cause the audience to think more deeply in order to truly understand what he is saying and to contemplate their own choices. The interesting thing is that Wiesel does not answer any of the questions he asks about the Holocaust or about our society. He arranges his speech with carefully structured questions in order to let the audience think on their own. Writers can state their claims all they want, but in order for the audience to truly believe it, they have to form their own opinions about it. Wiesel allows them to do this by asking questions, causing them to think and struggle, finding the answers for themselves. He could have stated his answers to these questions himself, but in doing so, he would have robbed his audience of arriving at their own conclusions. These questions helped his audience genuinely connect with the text. Sections like paragraph 17 can provoke the audience to ask questions like: “In what ways have I been indifferent to situations in my own life?” and it is in this way that questions can be a catalyst for change.
Indifference is something we encounter every day and most of the time we don’t even realize it. Wiesel’s striking speech changed the way that many Americans view the world. He talked about many hard truths that most people would shy away from. Wiesel’s influential speech was effectively and purposefully crafted and used elements of the five canons as well as the three appeals to communicate to an audience about something deeply meaningful to him. His speech has been heard by millions around the world and remains relevant today. Indifference is everywhere, we just have to be strong enough to recognize it and maybe one day, we will stop the reign of indifference. Wiesel certainly hoped so.
Gartland, Michael. "Elie Wiesel: Indifference a Great Inhumanity: FINAL Edition].
"The Post and Courier, Sep 17, 2006, pp. H3. ProQuest,
JAMES M MARKHAM "Elie Wiesel Gets Nobel for Peace as 'Messenger': Elie Wiesel is Awarded Nobel Peace Prize for '86." New York Times (1923-Current file), Oct 15, 1986, pp. 2. ProQuest, libproxy.bellarmine.edu/login?url=search-proquest-com.libproxy.bellarmine.edu/docview/111033770?accountid=6741.
Schultz, Kai. “India’s Widows, Abused at Home, Have Sought Refuge in This Holy City for Centuries.” New York Times, 27 Aug. 2019.
Shea, Andrea. “A 'Messenger To Mankind,' Elie Wiesel Continues His Fight Against Indifference.” 90.9 WBUR, 2014, www.wbur.org/news/2014/02/10/elie-wiesel-visionaries.
THE WHITE HOUSE: Remarks at Millennium Evening -- the Perils of Indifference." M2 Presswire, Apr 14, 1999, pp. 1. ProQuest, libproxy.bellarmine.edu/login?url=search-proquest-com.libproxy.bellarmine.edu/docview/446261008?accountid=6741.