Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Rhetoric of Change

So I was reading an older post by Michael over at Wormtalk and Slugspeak (Dec. 8 -- Good Rhetoric = Bad Argument), and it got me thinking: of course rhetoric can be used to hide logical flaws in an argument -- the Ad Herennium depicts rhetoric first and foremost as the skill-set of lawyers and politicians, after all -- but it can also be used to elevate the truth, and to unite people in a common belief.

I am writing, as you may or may not have guessed from the title, of the speech given by President-Elect Barack Obama on the night of 4 November 2008. Like many millions of others, I found myself hanging on every word. At the end of his speech, a lump in my throat, the first thing I thought to myself was something to the effect of "wow, America is great again." And to be fair, that's pretty impressive, given that I'm a Canadian. The second thing I thought was, "wow, I wonder who wrote that speech."

It was a speech that would have made Aaron Sorkin either proud or jealous. Despite the number of brilliant things that came out of the mouth of the fictional President Jed Bartlett, very few in the one hundred fifty-five episodes he wrote came close to giving me the feeling researchers are now calling 'elevation,' the feeling Obama's speech inspired in myself and millions of others that night.

I've been meaning to take a closer look at it since then.

Part of the success of that speech was the hope the now President-Elect was peddling: hope for the future, hope of a better tomorrow. Part of its success was in the delivery: clear, concise, confident. But for my two bits, the greater part of the success of that speech was its level of rhetorical sophistication.

While the first half of the speech (about a thousand words, the whole totalling a little over two) was mostly average political and/or heartfelt thank-yous to friends, family, and campaign workers, the second half was a rhetorical masterpiece. The speech was based around the same thesis that his entire campaign was based around: first, (explicitly) that "America can change," and second, (less explicitly) that change is a positive thing.

It focused around the life and experiences of a 106-year-old black woman named Ann Nixon Cooper, and while I'm certain that she's a perfectly nice person, I think we can agree that the President-Elect wasn't actually talking about her. She was a metaphor for the progress (remember, change is a good thing) that America has made over the past hundred or so years.

Tied together by the antistrophic refrain "yes we can" at the end of half a dozen verses, the speech plots the positive changes America has seen in the last century, and does so with flair. Anaphora, balance, isocolon, asyndeton, polysyndeton and rhetorical questions -- these are some of the more frequently used (and well used) structural devices in the speech. Every statement is balanced, every phrase is mirrored, all building to culminate in a dozen lines of some of the most stirring prose America has seen in decades.

If you'll bear with me, I'll go into a bit of detail. Below are quoted the final lines of the speech. I've added brackets and underlining in areas to try to give a sense of the structural repetition that gives the writing its power.

"America, (we have come so far.) (We have seen so much.) But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves -- [if our children should live to see the next century];[if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper], (what change will they see?) (What progress will we have made?)

"[This is our chance to answer that call.] [This is our moment.]

"[This is our time,] (to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids;) (to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace;) (to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth,) [that, out of many, we are one;] [that while we breathe, we hope.] (And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people): Yes, we can."

As you can see, the sentences begin in pairs -- "we have come so far," "we have seen so much;" "if our children should live..." "if my daughters should be so lucky..." -- and then graduate to triplets -- "this is our chance," "this is our moment," "this is our time" -- culminating in three actions to take place now: "to put... back to work," "to restore," and "to reclaim."

Then there is a contraction: two doublets -- "out of many, we are one," and "while we breathe, we hope" -- and a single, long, balanced phrase. Sum it up with a final repetition of the refrain, and you have what may be the perfect way to end a speech. Can this man write? Yes, he can.

Even in the nuances earlier in the speech this ability is obvious. In listing the changes America has seen, he gives us this gem:

"A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination."

In addition to the obvious lack of conjunctions (asyndeton), and the tripartite structure (balance or isocolon, depending who you ask), this sentence also gives us three things, three nouns: a man, a wall, and a world. For me, this is the reader's digest version of the whole Obama campaign -- everything he sold, every word in every speech he gave can be boiled down to these: the individual, adversity, and the prize for overcoming it. The American Dream.


But there's a dark side to such mastery of rhetoric. You'll note that nowhere did you find yourself thinking, "what about the bad changes?" Nowhere in my mind stirred thoughts of the gradual overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the rise of the religious wrong, the spread of unintelligent design. That's the 'black magic' of rhetoric, nowhere did he say "all change is good," but I bet you believed it by the end. I know I did.

The danger of rhetoric is this: if it is used well, it doesn't need to convince the listeners of the speaker's correctness; if it is used well, the listeners will want the speaker to be right so intensely that they will convince themselves of the speaker's correctness.

Don't get me wrong, I buy it. Hook, line and sinker, I buy what that man is selling. But do remember, that whether you like the product or not, it's still being sold.

But then perhaps that's the real change America needed: someone who had both enough moral fortitude to think that hope (rather than zealotry, xenophobia or ignorance) was a product Americans would want to buy, and also enough pragmatism to get past his idealism and actually try to sell it.

Wow, that was a long post.



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