The limits of rhetoric

Aristotle, Louvre, copy of statue by Lysippos
Barack Obama's victory speech is a classic example of oratory. Classic? Sure.

Aristotle analysed rhetoric systematically, as a science, and explained it in Rhetoric, written between 367 and 322 BC. Scholars have added a great deal since then, and yet frankly the principles don't change. A great speech is a great speech is a great speech.

Build up, catch phrases, repetition, personal anecdotes, climax, call to action... the same devices have always been used. Why not? They still work as they always have done. The speech is heard, not read, so the audience needs two or more chances to grasp each point. The argument must build and build, repeating key phrases so that the audience is carried forward on a wave.

A well crafted, passionate speech is a powerful emotional experience. But the full impact can only happen when the audience is willing and primed and hungry to believe. Which was indeed the case in Chicago when President Elect Barak Obama began,

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

And when he ended,

God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.

You see, despite the dark confusing years, the United States of America still knows who it is. It is the land of the free, the land of opportunity, it is great, it is the land where anyone can become President. This identity has a dark side as well as a glory, and it has endured.

New Zealand politicians can never reach the heights of rhetoric because our perceived identity keeps shifting. Personally I got sick to the cheekbones long ago with earnest discussion about national identity in literature and art. It's dormant at present, thank goodness. But I dare say it wouldn't carry on decade after decade unless we were a bit confused.

Before Europeans hit these islands, Maori did not perceive themselves as a single nation, but had an unshakeable identity based on iwi, hapu and land. Since then, New Zealand has perceived itself as the farthest outpost of the British Empire; the youngest Dominion; the ends of the earth; first in the world with social reforms such as votes for women and old age pensions; God's own country; a model of racial equality; a great place to bring up children; a partnership between tangata whenua and other residents; and a nation of innovators and inventors.

What a mess! I suppose in my own mind, New Zealand is a funny little country that I love, a small country with ideas above its station. This does not make for inspiring oratory.

Our politicians cannot appeal to our belief in God, either. The leaders of Labour and National openly admit they do not believe in God, and only a minority of Kiwis are active Christians.

Even the refrain Yes we can is anathema to New Zealand politicians since Winston Peters used it in the last campaign, quoting Bob the Builder. It is sullied. Yuk.

One phrase that might inspire New Zealanders is I think I can, I think I can. If we must quote picture books for children, The Little Engine That Could is more our style. We're doing our best regardless of size. And sometimes it's necessary and motivating to believe you have some control over such things as a global financial meltdown.

The Little Engine That Could

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine


Leave a comment

Comments have to be approved before showing up.