Mar 07 2009
“Aren’t there by now enough articles on Obama’s rhetoric, the way he uses language and his politics on this blog?” you might wonder. Well… the answer is no – at least this one is clearly missing. It’s missing, because in her very rich paper “Speaking in Tounges“, British novilist Zadie Smith takes a very different approach to looking at the new President’s rhetoric than any of the articles so far. She takes a writer’s perspective, draws parallels to Shakespeare but also thinks about the role of race in language and discusses Mr. Obama’s ability to speak in different registers. There are too many noteworthy thoughts to quote them all, but here are two brief extracts:
Smith finds that Obama presents an astounding variety of people in his book Dreams from My Father:
Obama can do young Jewish male, black old lady from the South Side, white woman from Kansas, Kenyan elders, white Harvard nerds, black Columbia nerds, activist women, churchmen, security guards, bank tellers, and even a British man called Mr. Wilkerson [...].
Concering the use of pronouns in his speeches, she argues that
[Dream City is] the kind of town where the wise man says “I” cautiously, because “I” feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun “we.” Throughout his campaign Obama was careful always to say we. He was noticeably wary of “I.” By speaking so, he wasn’t simply avoiding a singularity he didn’t feel, he was also drawing us in with him. He had the audacity to suggest that, even if you can’t see it stamped on their faces, most people come from Dream City, too. Most of us have complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives.
Interestingly, George Lakoff offers, although coming from a completely different direction, somewhat similar insights into Obama’s language: both scholars emphasize the importance of empathy.