Friday, June 05, 2009

Strength in Rhetoric

As a fledgling linguist and political optimist, I can say that I admired President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, for the strength of its rhetoric. Many people who oppose Obama may chuckle, point to this statement and say, "Exactly. The strength of Obama is in his rhetoric. This is a false strength because words mean nothing." However I would like to argue the contrary.
If words mean nothing, then let me ask, how was an entire movement and organization created from a speech that President Kennedy gave at the University of Michigan in 1961? Building on those words and during his inaugural speech when Kennedy said, "And so my fellow Americans--ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," the spark of public service was ignited in a young generation and the United States Peace Corps was born. If words are a mere trifle, how did Mohandas Gandhi urge not only the whole of India to act, but also the rest of the world to take a step towards equality among humans when he said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world?" On the heels of these words the non-violent movement of resistance spread like wildfire and a spark landed on the back of Martin Luther King Jr. who lead America out of the darkness of racial discrimination. And if words are a drop in the vast ocean of despair, then how has the timeless words of Margaret Mead inspired generations of activists to pursue peace in the face of overwhelming opposition? Ever since she said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has," people have used this statement as a rallying point for change.
So let us not discount the importance of language. Rhetoric is one of the three ancient forms of discourse and is defined as, "the art of using language as a means to persuade." Words themselves may mean nothing, but rhetoric is more than words. It is a strategy to incite action and words are its fundamental building block. If this is true then we ALL agree that Obama's strength in rhetoric may persuade the world to take action. A foundation built with words has proven to endure time, pessimism, and opposition. I am willing to wager a bet that Obama's words will incite action and when they do, we will be thankful that his strength was in his rhetoric.



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