Monday, February 06, 2012

Analyzing Rhetoric with Minimal Bias

A colleague from another institution asked why I would analyze any speech or writings attributed to President Obama. "He's much better than any Republican," my colleague stated, as if that is reason enough to not analyze any Obama speech.

We should not let ourselves be afraid to critique anyone, regardless of our personal biases. When we are unwilling to analyze someone out of "loyalty" to a viewpoint, we are failing as academic role models.

Yes, Obama's speeches are better than those of most current politicians, but that is faint praise. His speeches are not perfect. They are sometimes good, but seldom great. Of course we should analyze his speeches. We would analyze any sitting president because there is seldom a more important rhetor at any given time in this nation.

Sadly, the best speeches seem to be in the past. Not even the recent past, either. Reagan was good, but rarely great. John F. Kennedy had great speechwriters. Truman had moments of greatness when speaking. FDR? Reading his speeches reminds us of what is possible. I'm even impressed with Cleveland's speeches. What happened to our oratorical skills?

A recent study found that Obama's speeches are composed at the eighth grade level. By comparison, our early presidents delivered college-level speeches. Something's wrong with our culture if we want presidents to sound average.

See Politico:
State of the Union Registers at 8th Grade Reading Level
The University of Minnesota's Smart Politics conducted an analysis on the last 70 State of the Union addresses and found that President Obama's three addresses have the lowest grade average of any modern president. "Obama's average grade-level score of 8.4 is more than two grades lower than the 10.7 grade average for the other 67 addresses written by his 12 predecessors," they conclude.
Full disclosure: my doctorate in rhetoric is from the University of Minnesota.

While it is cliché that we are judged by our language patterns, there is a fair amount of research finding that words and phrases are associated with specific socioeconomic classes. The president is making a choice, and that choice is to embrace the language of the lower class.

The British royalty made this choice, according to some language historians, to seem more "English" and less "French" to the public.

My students sometimes struggle with the concept of "code switching" — changing how we write and speak to appeal to specific audiences. Obama is an expert at code switching based on the audience before him. Studying this does not imply he is doing anything "bad" at all. He adjusts his speech just as a college student speaks differently to his or her parents than to peers or instructors.

But, the president also uses Biblical language more than people realize. He actually uses Bible references more than many Republicans. Why is this? Is it to "prove" his Christian faith? Or, is it because African-American voters are accustomed to a blending of religion and politics?

The problem is, Obama doesn't hold true to the scripture. That was my most recent post on this blog. It does bother me that any president uses faith to appeal to voters and the public in general. It bothers me more when a politician does this inaccurately.

When our president delivers mediocre speeches, in historical context, we should ask why. When he misrepresents facts or sources, we should not exempt him from criticism simply because his potential opponents are even less impressive orators.

Yes, I will continue to argue for eloquence and accuracy. That is what rhetoricians should do.

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