Obama-Naut – Art of Rhetoric in Political SpeechShare


I can never sit through a political speech or interview because they are just so uninteresting. After watching the Obama speech, and catching a few glimpses of the presidential debates and interviews, I’ve noticed that most of the speeches given were ambiguous, non-substantial, empty, indirect, and above all, boring as hell. Why can’t politicians speak transparently, and why aren’t their speeches more substantial and interesting?

To answer that question, we have to first example the art of indirect speech. When people talk to one another through colloquial language, we never come out and say what we really mean; we do this by getting our points across indirectly to avoid awkwardness or impoliteness. Examples would be asking a girl whether or not she wants to “come upstairs for a cup of coffee” at the end of a date, when the actual meaning behind “coffee” means sex. When the question is phrased this way, both parties would feel less embarrassed and awkward if sex does not materialize. After all, both parties can pretend that the other person is interpreting the question literally. The worst you can do is smile, shrug it off, and move on.

Another example would be telling somebody to pass you the plate of pasta at a formal dinner table by saying to your guest, “Do you think you could pass me the pasta? That would be incredible”. Both speakers know that there is nothing incredible about passing on a plate of pasta, and that you are not literally asking that question, nor are you expecting a reply. But by phrasing a request this way instead of flat out asking “pass me the plate”, not only are you satisfying your goal of receiving the plate of pasta, at the same time, you are establishing a connection with your guest by being polite and avoiding disrespectfulness and awkwardness.

I think what politicians do when they speak to the public is to stretch the art of indirect speech to a new level. Anything direct or concrete that Obama or any other politician says is bound to anger somebody in the audience whose beliefs, interests and opinions differ. So what politicians tend to do is use the art of rhetoric to construct their words as indirect, ambiguous, and vague as possible so that anybody can interpret it in a way that favors their own interest. This way, not only will presidential candidates and politicians get their messages across without directly offending anybody, they intentionally reduce themselves to a mass of amorphous clouds that anybody who is listening can read into it their own way by attaching anything they see fit and mold it into whatever it is that favors their own beliefs and interests.

This fashion of rhetoric drives politicians to give their speeches and answer questions in interviews in an emptier and less substantial and bleak manner. When you ask Obama how he is going to run the country and he would vaguely state things along the lines of “change” and “hope”. But what kind of hope, and what sorts of change specifically? Anybody who hears these words can read between the lines of vagueness and interpret it in terms of the “changes” and “hopes” that they wish to see.

What’s ironic is that as much as we like to criticize the politicians by accusing them of using the art of rhetoric to deceive people, anytime somebody comes out and says something direct, concrete and true in a more interesting, meaningful, and substantial way, the media and the public make a huge deal out of it. They do this by blowing the words out of proportion and negatively criticize it and dissect them indeterminately. So in the end, we have to blame ourselves and the media for driving the politicians to make emptier and weaker and more boring speeches when discussing their policies.

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