The return of rhetoric

Emily Pitts writes:

King’s Place in London held an elegant discussion last week on the art of rhetoric, led by Tony Benn, Simon Schama, Polly Toynbee, Geoffrey Robertson and curated by English PEN. The panel examined whether a speech is made great by careful use of rhetorical techniques, or whether the art in fact lies in choosing the right point in time for the speech to occur.

Three of the four panellists argued against the power of rhetoric, stating instead that dramatic speeches occur at dramatic points in history. The moment, they said, defines the language, rather than the other way around.

Simon Schama dissented. He argued that Obama is the best modern-day example we have of an artful rhetorician, citing the use of iambic pentameter in his inaugural speech; “I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors”, and his skilful use of the plural personal pronoun; We can do it, Yes we can”. There has of course, been much written on Obama’s exemplary use of rhetoric – take a look at Max Atkinson’s blog for in-depth analysis.

During the course of the discussion, various other politicians came under scrutiny. It was suggested that the restraint of Gordon Brown’s language contributes to the perception of him as an inaccessible personality. Similarly, the “everyday Joe” language of Nick Griffin and his active oratory in local communities could be a significant factor in his success. Tony Blair was touted as the inventor of the ‘verbless sentence’ – a rather brazen grammatical omission – which allowed him to offer a promise without ever, in fact, making an actual commitment. “Our education system – a beacon to the world” is one example.

It is clear that artfully constructed language can be hugely powerful, especially when the point in history is hungry for words that can lead and provide strength. But more recently, blogging and instant communications seems to have had a ‘content over form’ effect on language – just getting the message “out there” has often become good enough.

However, with high-profile figures such as Obama leading the way, I suspect we may see a reversal of that trend over the next few years. We could see a return to more traditional values of well constructed and stylistically sophisticated language, both spoken and published. In the UK, the possible introduction of US-style televised political debates might raise the game for politicians and the language they use. It may not be Cicero, but the art of the spoken word could be about to resume an important place in public life.

The image is from Allan McDougall’s blog, and is used with thanks.

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