Friday, November 29, 2013


I wrote this originally in March of 2008, when then-Senator Obama was trying to win the nomination for the Democratic Party. I wonder what people think of his supposedly brilliant speechmaking today. Not many remember the fainting women these days.
"When one speaks out with skillful preparation and delivery amongst a sea of mangled talking-point spouting droids, they might be adjudged articulate and yes even eloquent."

Senator Obama One of the main strengths of Senator Obama is his speaking ability, he is a very good speaker in tone and delivery. He makes speeches so compelling that allegedly women faint at them (which does not speak well for the rational capacity of women and draws accusations of fakery), so powerful that many people listen and figure the case is rock solid.

These speeches are declared eloquent, masterful, a return to the great days of speechmaking of the past. The problem is, they aren't. They are compelling and entertaining, they do hold the attention and are emotionally manipulative, but they don't often say very much. And saying little with lots of flowery phrases does not define eloquence. As Ron Coleman explains on Likelihood of Success:
It once meant a talent for powerfully, persuasively and elegantly communicating ideas. Now it is used to describe the use of pretty language to obscure meaning.
Ronald Reagan was a powerful speaker not because he was particularly eloquent but because he was incredibly gifted at reaching each listener so that it appealed and made sense to them. He would reduce complex ideas to simple concepts, shift the entire discussion away from emotion to basic facts. The left cried about cruelty to the poor needing more tax money, Reagan spoke about the average working man having his wages taken away by an incompetent government. The difference was stark and welcomed.

Senator Obama is an effective speaker, because he can sway and manipulate his audience, but he's not a great speaker in that he cannot relay his information in simple, easy to grasp, reasonable, and logically compelling statements. It is the combination of truth, fact, and elegance in persuasion that defines eloquence. Senator Obama isn't particularly eloquent, but he is a great Sophist.

In the ancient Greek culture, the entertainment was a bit different than we have today. Lacking video games, television, and movies, they had a different system of entertainment. We'd recognize some of it: athletics, theater, hunting, boating, and so on. But there was a form of entertainment that many enjoyed that is sort of alien to modern culture. It was called Sophistry.

There were were itenerate speaker who would travel between towns and make a living by giving speeches. They didn't have a particular product to sell or idea they were pushing, they were simply men who made speeches that people loved to hear. Greeks prized themselves on being great thinkers, men of reason. They enjoyed hearing well-delivered, carefully crafted persuasion and argument on topics, and they would listen to new ideas with fascination and interest. The Sophist had a simple, if challenging job: each area he went to, he'd ask for topics to speak on, and take one of the suggestions and argue it. He didn't argue based on the merits of the case, but on what he could craft that might sway and manipulate his audience.

The arguments would go over great on daytime talk shows, they made powerful political speeches and would convince the less than discerning members of the audience. If you weren't particularly up on the topic or a person well-trained in rhetoric and reason, you could find yourself nodding, they were good at this. The Sophist didn't care about the topic, he wasn't didn't necessarily believe a word he said; his job had nothing to do with that. It was to entertain by presenting a compelling argument.

As opposed to Sophists, philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others were men of reason. They formed their ideas based upon strict rules of logic that were unbreakable, building a case that was powerful and real rather than emotionally compelling. They loathed Sophists, constantly attacking them in their writings and showing how false and poor their logic and efforts were. Sophists were primarily interested in getting people to feel what they said was true, these philosophers were trying to reason people into understanding what they said was true.

That's not to say there's an absolute line between the two concepts. Reason does not negate emotion, and emotion can be rationally based. You can make a case that is emotionally compelling that happens to be true and reasonable as well. You can make a rational, logical case that is persuasive, eloquent, and well-spoken. It's just that the two movements of thought were so contrasted and active at the same time they make a useful illustration for the case at hand.

Senator Obama uses a lot of words skillfully, he sways his audience and is pleasing to listen to. He conceals what he's saying with obscuring phrases and long, flowery statements, but he does not do a very good job of rationally or logically persuading. He tries to get you to agree with what he has to say on a basic, gut level rather than understand what he thinks and why, and come to realize that it is true and reasonable.

He's a Sophist. This isn't new, he's using the same techniques many pastors, particularly black pastors, have used for a long time now. He's simply applied it to politics and like Alan Keyes before him, it is a potent method of delivering your positions. In the end, however, he's saying very little in a very wordy manner that while pleasing to the ear does not convince, and is ultimately not eloquent at all.

What's interesting is that in the past, people who made speeches had a special voice they would use to speak in, and use language they would not normally use in ordinary conversation. It was part of how you made speeches, it was understood that when you stood up to read or make a speech, you were doing something special and different, and that involved a Speech Making voice. R's were often rolled, the voice was sonorous and deep, to reach the entire audience without amplification. The words were larger and less common in normal speech. There are pastors who do this today, they have a special "preaching" voice that is different than ordinary talk.

That is gone today, and if you watch the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance you get a contrast of the two speaking styles. In the scene where there is a convention trying to decide if Arizona will be a state instead of a territory, there is a man who speaks for the Cattlemen. He's a sophist, but he demonstrates the kind of speaking voice a speaker at that time period could have: it's distinct from ordinary conversation, a powerful, commanding presence.

Listening to old speeches can help understand this better as well; my brother bought a CD series of Great Speeches of the 20th century, and some of the older speeches demonstrate this style. They recorded well on the very poor fidelity systems of the time, and would have carried well over radio broadcasts. Winston Churchill's speeches were made in a Speech Voice, he didn't converse like that.

Now, the "down home honest" version of speaking is preferred so that the speaker sounds like one of the guys, someone who'd never lie, heck he's just talking to you. This was Ronald Reagan's speaking style, with little down home touches and quips. It was deliberate to reach ordinary people and make the case being presented seem more comfortable and accessible. It works, but I do miss the concept of a special way of delivering speeches. It appeals to me at a formal level: it declares that the person speaking is doing something important and special, not just making another statement.

I am not sure how this campaign will turn out, although at this point, it looks like McCain has an easy win; things change so fast in this election year in the Internet Age that we can't really predict with any degree of certainty what will be true in November. All I know is that we'd all be a lot better of if people would stop simply believing speeches because they sound pretty or appeal to one's emotions. There have been some pretty evil people in the past that have been incredibly compelling speakers of this type, you can disguise horrible things in flowery language.

For other thoughts on Senator Obama and speaking, I've written about praise of his ability in the past.

No comments: