23 November 2008

Rhetorical Analysis of “A More Perfect Union” Speech

The speech titled “A More Perfect Union” was delivered by Senator Barack Obama on March 18, 2008 near the historical site of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The speech responds to the video clip of Barack Obama’s pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, making racially charged comments against America and Israel. The pundits and various news media outlets played the clip repeatedly on the television, radio, YouTube, and podcasts.

First, the Senator’s speech attempts to address the nation on their concerns of his affiliation with Reverend Wright. Second, the speech addresses the sustaining and prevailing issues of race within America and how it paralyzes our nation.

The speech is compelling because it possesses the necessary elements of effective and persuasive rhetoric; in summation, Obama’s rhetoric works. Rhetoric is the study of opposing arguments, misunderstanding, and miscommunication.

Also, relevant to this analysis, rhetoric will be defined as the ability to speak and write effectively and to use language and oratory strategically. Despite the common employment of speech writers by most politicians, Senator Obama wrote the speech himself.

By addressing the misunderstanding and miscommunication connected to and perpetrated by racism in America, the audience sees precisely how effective Obama’s speech is when examined through such lenses as the classical and 20th century rhetorical theories and concepts from Aristotle, Richard Weaver, Stephen Toulmin, Chaim Perelman, and Michel Foucault.

Barack Obama’s speech echoes the rhetorical concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos that are explicitly discussed within Aristotle’s The Rhetoric. Ethos is how the speaker’s character and credibility aids his or her influence of the audience; whereas pathos is a rhetorical device that alters the audience’s perceptions through storytelling and emotional appeals (181). Logos uses reason to construct an argument and to covey an idea (182). Finally, kairos attempts to conceptualize the need for the correct timing (201).

Therefore, ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos are all evident within the speech and expressed in various ways, striking language and repetition, and through different receptors, emotions and logic.

Ethos is accomplished on intellectual, social, spiritual, and biological levels. Senator Obama does this by giving factual information. He interjects historical references; he explains the extent of his family tree. Thus, the Senator gives creditability to his speech and validity to his message. The implication is that everyone should listen; he is the authority.

He acknowledges that the press routinely looks “for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well” (Obama, par. 7). From this quote, the audience is being persuaded by the classical theoretical concepts of opposing arguments.

The audience is fully aware of the division between the races, and the speech is very effective due to the fact that Barack Obama is willing to speak of what is often unspoken. When addressing his intellectual ethos, Obama mentions that he has “gone to some of the best schools in America” (Obama, par. 6).

Secondly, he recites, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,” which is easily recognized as the first line in the U.S. Constitution (Obama, par. 2). Even those who do not possess complete knowledge of the famous line immediately understand that something of importance is being conveyed to them.

Thirdly, he demonstrates his awareness of past occurrences and present concerns on the global scale. Senator Obama recalls the “legacy of slavery and Jim Crow” within our nation (Obama, par. 24). He acknowledges the present dangers of “conflicts in the Middle East” and explains the cause of such conflict (Obama, par. 10). The audience is given evidence that he understands the role of history as well as the present-day global concerns affecting our nation.

Furthermore, Senator Obama uses ethos to gain credibility with his knowledge of social issues that pervade our society today. He states, “The most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning” (Obama, par. 12).

He acknowledges that the resentments of the black and white communities “aren’t always expressed in polite company,” but these resentments are manifested within our society in destructive ways, like racism (Obama, par. 31). The audience feels that he is knowledgeable and credible on the immediate topics affecting our future and our daily lives.

Ethos is also applied on a spiritual level by mentioning his present faith and making Biblical references. He states that “more than twenty years ago [he was] introduce[d] …to Christian faith [with] obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor” (Obama, par. 13). He noted how “black people merg[ed] with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, [and] Ezekiel’s field of dry bones” (Obama, par. 16).

Senator Obama is altering the language. Christians did not exist in the Old Testament story of Ezekiel, but Senator Obama is effectively connecting with every major religion. Simultaneously, he is reaching out to the secular world as well. Being cognizant that everyone does not actively practice a religious faith, Obama chooses stories that everyone, Christians and non-Christians, could identify and recognize. Thus, these religious references connect with masses as well as members of the three major religions.

Finally, Senator Obama gains ethos by explaining his own genetic makeup. He states that he is “the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas… [He continues that he] is married to a Black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners… [Then, he acknowledges that he has] brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue scattered across three continents” (Obama, par. 6).

In essence, he reveals that he has the blood of Africa, the birthplace of humanity, and the blood of a woman of French descent within him. He has married a woman who has both slave and slave owner flowing within her. Moreover, he has fathered children who have the blood of humanity: African, European, slave, and the Caucasian slave owner within them. Thus, he is an authority on race.

He states, “[his] story [is] seared into [his] genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more that the sum of its parts--that out of many, we are truly one” (Obama, par. 6). The audience revels at his remarkable story, and ethos is achieved through storytelling. In essence, Obama forges a biological connection with his audience.

The connection is strengthened through Senator Obama’s use of pathos. It is achieved through the use of emotional appeals. He alters the thoughts and feelings of his audience through storytelling, imagery, and allusion. The topic of race, within itself, evokes strong emotions, even to this very moment, this very second.

The senator begins by telling a story of his grandfather “who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s army during World War II” (Obama, par. 6). The use of key terms such as Depression, Patton’s army, and World War II evoke the emotional responses of patriotism and self-sacrifice.

Toward the end of his speech, Obama shares another story; he tells of a young, white, Southern campaigner--Ashley Baia--who inspires an old, black, Southern man to vote (Obama, par. 45-46). In essence, Baia encourages pathos by telling her story. Barack Obama uses Baia’s story of inspiration to highlight the power in sharing his own story.

The audience is able to connect through the emotional appeals that take place at the very core of humanity. It is easy to disrespect and dishonor something that is foreign and unknown, but it is hard to turn away from the essence of another man’s soul. As fellow humans, the audience recognizes the sheer humanity in the story.

Pathos is also achieved through the use of allusion and imagery. The imagery that is provoked with terms such as slave or slavery is still poignant today. Most people are cognizant of the plight of slaves within this country. The audience would be aware of the racism that ensued and the devastation and isolation that slavery caused in American history.

When Barack Obama describes the various ways that racism manifested within our society, pathos is achieved because of the powerful imagery of the allusions to race and racial conflicts within our community. The audience is trapped and becomes aware of the prejudices and experiences of race and racism within their own lives, thus causing emotions to surge and overflow.

Pathos, being the weakest form of rhetoric, is utilized by Senator Obama sparingly. Instead, he overwhelmingly utilizes the most powerful form of rhetoric, logos. Logos is the ability to embody rational, logical, methodical thoughts and persuasions.

As it relates to Obama’s speech, examples of logos are found throughout the text. For example, by displaying objectivity, the element of logos is achieved. Senator Barack Obama methodically explains the problems with race within America, and he gives logical, reasoned resolutions to the problems.

He explains, “The anger [of Blacks and] the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away, nor has the anger and bitterness of those years… [Later he offers resolution and states that] the African-American community [must embrace] our past without becoming victims of our past” (Obama, par. 34).

Many African-Americans will identify with Obama’s assessment of race within the African-American community, and they will be inspired to act in a positive manner.

Simultaneously, he acknowledges “a similar anger within…the white community. They [feel] they’ve worked hard all their lives…They are anxious about their future, and they feel their dreams slipping away [and] resentment builds over time… [Furthermore, he offers resolution and urges that] the white community [must acknowledge] that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination [exists]” (Obama, par. 36).

From these lines, the audience is persuaded to respond in a positive manner as well, and they are urged to approach the subject of racism both subjectively and objectively. Senator Obama recognizes the duality of both plights and asks the American people not to blame each other but investigate and seek out the true reason of conflict within our nation.

Thus, Obama is using inductive and deductive reasoning, which is indicative of logos. By utilizing Aristotle’s method and system, Obama’s appeals to logic are beyond reproach. Once his reasons are defined, he states that this is the time that we must take action and secure our future together, and Obama begins to preach on the importance of time.

The issue of time and timing directly correlates with the classical rhetorical term kairos. Obama conveys time in a powerful fashion. In the beginning of his speech, he states, “Two hundred and twenty one years ago [our forefathers]…produced [a document that was] eventually signed, but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by the nation’s original sin of slavery [that] brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and leave any final resolution to future generations” (Obama, par. 3).

Later, he explains how people often manipulate race to win political elections and prevent unity. Barack Obama speaks of the continual war between segments of our community. Then he states, “But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now” (Obama, par. 23).

Furthermore, he acknowledges “the complexities of race” in America have never been resolved. He urges Americans “to come together and solve [the] challenges [in America]” (Obama, par. 33). He persuades the audience to racial relations within America a priority.

In summary, kairos is aggressively addressed and highlighted. The audience realizes that the problem at hand may have been ignored by our forefathers, but these problems must be addressed now.

Toward the end, kairos reaches its peak of effectiveness. Obama states that what has been effectively dividing the races in the past will not happen again:

Not this time. This time we want to talk about crumbling schools…This time we want to reject the cynicism…This time we want to talk about [healthcare]…This time we want to talk about [jobs]…This time we want to talk about [race]…This time—This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag (Obama, par. 40-41).

From these lines, the audience feels the urgency of time; the listeners realize that “this time” America must act. Obama effectually uses the sophistic rhetorical theories and concepts to ignite and unite the audience; however, he also incorporates modern-day rhetorical theories and concepts as well.

Specifically, Senator Obama utilizes the hierarchy of definition, analogy, cause and effect, and testimony of the 20th century rhetorician, Richard Weaver. In the introduction of Language Is Sermonic, the narrator summates Weaver as stating, “Rhetoric…is a positive act with consequences in the world…Every utterance is an attempt to make others see the world in a particular way and accept the values implicit in that point of view” (1348).

Similarly, Obama desires to persuade the audience to see the world from a different perspective, a different lens.

First, toward the beginning of the text, Obama defines the Black church. He states, “Black churches across the country embod[y] the community in its entirety—the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger…[S]ervices are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor... [Full] of kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love [as well as] the bitterness and biases” (Obama, par. 18).

If one really looks closely at the definition, it is also a definition of America as well as the Black church. By explaining the polarity within the Black church, he explains the polarity within America as a whole.

In this way, Obama uses rhetoric in a positive way to impact his audience and highlights that “every utterance is an attempt to make others see the world in a particular way [through definition].”

Second, Weaver asserts, “Rhetoric [is] the most important of all ends, the persuading of human beings to adopt right attitudes and act in response to them” (1351). From these lines, one can examine Senator Obama’s use of twentieth century rhetorical theories and concepts. Obama uses “cause-and-effect” by illustrating the history of racism within the United States (1354). He states:

We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that existed between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow (Obama, par. 24).

In essence, Obama is stating that the racism today has a sordid past in our history; it can not be ignored, but it must be confronted, discussed, and acted upon. Obama is using this cause-and-effect to play on the emotions of his audience.

Everyone is aware of the gruesome history, yet, as Weaver puts it, “Humanity includes emotionality or the capacity to feel and suffer, to know pleasure” (1352). From these lines, it is obvious that Senator Obama uses cause-and-effect to evoke an emotional response and sway the audience to his point of view.

Furthermore, Barack Obama utilizes the elements outlined by Stephen Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument. He uses the schema of the six components in analyzing arguments: qualifier, claim, data, warrant, backing, and rebuttal.

The qualifier is the “word or phrase [that] expresses the speaker’s degree of force or certainty concerning the claim” (1418). Next, the claim is the “conclusion whose merit must be established” (1417). Then, the data is the “fact we appeal to as a foundation for the claim” (1417). The warrant is “the statement authorizing our movement from the data to the claim” (1419).

The backing is the “credential designed to certify the statement expressed in the warrant; backing must be introduced when the warrant itself is not convincing enough to the readers or the listeners” (1420). Finally, the rebuttal is the “statement recognizing the restrictions to which the claim may legitimately be applied” (1421). The following examples show how Obama’s speech utilizes these principles as well:

First, by working together, we can move beyond some (qualifier) of our old racial wounds (claim) by virtue of asserting a firm conviction, a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people (data), because we have no choice if we are to continue on a path of a more perfect union (warrant), as we know it’s a racial stalemate we’ve been struck in for years (backing)…

Second, the vast majority (qualifier) of Americans want the issue of race to be resolved (claim) by virtue of the desire to perfect our society by young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election (data), because there is hope in the next generation (warrant)…(Obama, par. 33, 42)

Similarly, as a rhetor, Obama uses Chaim Perelman’s techniques to connect to his audience. Perelman’s The Realm of Rhetoric states, “The importance of rhetoric, of the psychological technique which acts upon the hearer’s will in order to obtain his adherence…[B]y showing that for any subject there are two opposing discourses…the existences of one single truth [is denied]” (1379).

From these lines, the audience can assume that Senator Obama verbalizes the plight of black, white, and brown Americans. He dismisses a single truth, and Obama accepts multiple truths within a society. He promotes inclusion and commonality among all people despite socio-economics or race, and Obama encourages them to look at both sides of the argument. Thus, he uses psychological techniques in order to connect with his audience.

Similar to Aristotle’s rhetorical concept of kairos, in Chaim Perelman’s The New Rhetoric: A Theory of Practical Reasoning he states, “‘Political speaking’…urges us either to do or not to do something” (1387).

Not this time. This time we want to talk about crumbling schools…This time we want to reject the cynicism…This time we want to talk about [healthcare]…This time we want to talk about [jobs]…This time we want to talk about [race]…This time—This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag (Obama, par. 40-41).

From these lines, Obama is calling for action. He is urging the audience to respond and respond now. Using anaphora, the importance of acting now is echoed over and over again. It provokes emotion, pathos. He is promoting social cohesion in his audience.

Furthermore, Perelman states, “Things present, things near to us in space and time, act directly on our sensibility” (1395). Obama’s speech parallels this concept. Obama begins by making allusions to America’s historic past:

Two hundred and twenty one years ago [our forefathers]…in a hall that still stands across the street…produced [a document that was] eventually signed, but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by the nation’s original sin of slavery [that] brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and leave any final resolution to future generations (Obama, par. 23).

From this quote, Obama even reflects the idea of time, past and present, in the very location in which the speech is given. He is connecting the past to the present. This quote highlights the importance of the location of Obama’s speech on race, and how the event at the location has made the present setting possible.

Finally, Michel Foucault’s The Order of Discourse can easily be applied to Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race in America; the political speech delivered in March 2008 concerned the taboo subjects of racism and how racism affected our religious rhetoric.

According to the text, Foucault remarks, “The desire to locate truth in something other than discourse itself has…spawned several mistaken beliefs… [Foucault questions] the will to truth [and attempts to] restore to discourse its character as an event” (1432).

Likewise Obama seeks to locate truth in his own experiences and through the invitation of discourse with the audience. Senator Obama discusses the discourse of race in America in a reasonable and logical manner, yet he also seems sincere, full of character, and an expert on the topic.

Toward the beginning of The Order of Discourse, Foucault states, “I should not like to have to enter this risky order of discourse” (1460). Obama’s speech is a risky order of discourse. Racism in America is, in many ways, ingrained and embedded within the culture. There are deep wounds that accompany a deeply wounded history.

Foucault remarks, “In a society like ours…We know quite well that we do not have the right to say everything, that we cannot speak of just anything in any circumstances whatever, and that not everyone has the right to speak of anything” (1461). Foucault’s statement sums up Senator Obama’s dilemma. His pastor has spoken words that should not have been uttered—publically at least.

Obama states, “We’ve heard my former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation and that rightly offend white and black alike” (Obama, par. 8). In our society, it is simply not acceptable to transmit racism in a public and formal manner.

Racism exists, but it is most often in the subtleties and comforts of familiar spaces and private homes. Thus, Obama’s willingness to have an honest conversation on the taboo subject of racism in America is a risky order of discourse.

To reiterate, the speech delivered by Barack Obama in March 2008 exemplifies effective rhetorical theories and concepts. Obama hopes to heal America’s turbulent racial legacy and move forward, from the negativity of the past, in a positive, logical manner through ethos, pathos, and logos appeals.

First, Senator Obama argues against the long standing racial climate that exists within American society. Second, he broaches subjects that are often discussed in the private sphere but rarely discussed openly. Third, he wants the audience to know that he is an articulate, vibrant, and diverse African-American man who is capable of leading this country forward. Finally, he uses rhetoric to calm the misunderstanding of his personage and his controversial affiliation.

In essence, he uses many elements that are exemplified in the classical and modern-day study of rhetoric, blends and expands new rhetorical devices in order to elevate the message, and effectively reaches a broad audience composed of multiple ethnic groups, multiple religions, and multiple socio-economic divisions.

Through the rhetoric of language in the speech, Senator Obama proposes to have an honest conversation on race and unite the historical racial divide. In summary, the speech effectively connects to the audience through the multi-media of rhetoric.

Works Cited

Bizzell, Patricia and Bruce Herzberg, eds. _The Rhetorical Tradition_, 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001.

Aristotle. From_Rhetoric_. In Bizzell and Herzberg. 169-241.

Foucault, Michel. From _The Order of Discourse_. In Bizzell and Herzberg. 1460-1470.

Perelman, Chaim. From _The Realm of Rhetoric_. In Bizzell and Herzberg. 1379-1384.

Perelman, Chaim. From _The New Rhetoric: A Theory of Practical Reasoning_. In Bizzell and Herzberg. 1384-1409.

Toulmin, Stephen. From _The Uses of Argument_. In Bizzell and Herzberg. 1413-1428.

Weaver, Richard. From _Language Is Sermonic_. In Bizzell and Herzberg. 1351-1360.

Obama, Barack. "A More Perfect Union." Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 18 March 2008.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great ideas towards the deconstruction of his speech. It must have taken time to write this. Thank you.

Dionne said...

Thank you. It was a compelling speech.

Anonymous said...

wtf thought dis was a summary

Anonymous said...

what are your thoughts on the way he presents conflicting perspectives?

Dionne said...

Over the years, I reflected on this original post and remain intrigued by the insightful (yet rhetorical) messages embedded within this speech. My students have assisted me in this process as well. Each of us bring different perspectives to the text - and the analysis becomes richer, fuller, and more thought provoking. My thoughts are too numerous to respond in a follow-up post, but I sincerely thank you for taking a moment to read my initial thoughts.