The Art of Rhetoric

There must be few who, in the course of the past year, have not been made more keenly aware of the power of speech in the public arena. The victory, in America, of a man known for his skill as an orator, captivated millions in the US and abroad, with the McCain-Obama debate attracting more viewers than the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

Whether praised or condemned, the ability to perform knowledge through speech is a cornerstone of Western civilisation: the Athenians considered it the foundation of democracy and law, and though Plato railed against the sophists for moving crowds to mindless action, his protest was nonetheless a testament to their power. Though yet in its infancy, the 21st century has already witnessed inspiring and infamous acts of public speech – from the galvanising rhetoric of last year’s presidential campaign, to the murkier protestations and justifications surrounding the Iraq War. The art of rhetoric has changed greatly over time, and arguably faces stern challenges in the modern day. What will its fate be in the age of the mass communication? What is its impact where messages must move audiences of millions? What uses and abuses is it prone to in our times?

In an attempt to address these questions, English PEN assembled a formidable panel of speakers, well-versed in both the art and the analysis of public rhetoric: Tony Benn, who notoriously left Parliament to spend more time in politics; Simon Schama, who has spent the last year documenting Obama’s first year in power; Polly Toynbee, one of our foremost political commentators; and Geoffrey Robertson, QC a passionate advocate against injustice, and one of the law’s most-engaging exponents.

Opening the discussion, Tony Benn identified a theme that was to form the bass note of the evening as a whole. Recalling his father’s maxim, Benn declared that the essence of powerful public speech is authenticity: “always say what you mean, and mean what you say, and don’t attack people personally”. He approached with caution the notion of public speaking as an art, preferring to view it as a skill which arose naturally from lived experience; quoting his father again, Benn remarked that, in his experience, very finely crafted speeches had a tendency to ‘smell of the lamp’, lacking the legitimacy of authentic emotion. By contrast, one of the most moving speeches he ever heard was given by a wife at a miners’ strike, whose honest words spoke directly to the experience of her listeners.

Simon Schama’s father was a soapbox orator at the time of the Cable Street riots, and was fond of instilling in his son the notion that ‘a Jew’s only weapon was his mouth’, training him for the public speaking circuit on such precocious subjects as nuclear disarmament. Schama’s recent study of the Obama campaign focussed the discussion on the role of rhetoric in the contemporary American setting; referring to Obama’s speeches, he remarked on their consummate craft: their attentiveness to pronouns, their sensitivity to rhythm and meter. The opening lines of Obama’s speech at the Iowa Caucasus fell into perfect iambic pentameter, he pointed out: “They said this day would never come/ They said we’d set our sights too high”, before extending through exordium to a final peroration which, Schama recalled, gathered that huge and disparate audience and transported them from instinctive elation to profound community.

Among the many remarkable achievements of the Obama campaign, Schama continued, was the rehabilitation of a political voice that was reasoned, articulate, and passionate, in stark contrast to the “authenticity of the inarticulate” which characterised the Bush years. Remarking on this shift, Schama suggested that the presidential campaign had seen a more profound return to roots than may have been apparent to the contemporary observer. In making intellectually self-conscious intelligence respectable again, Obama restored America to an older tradition of public speech that had its roots in the Declaration of Independence. America was, after all, a nation which “spoke itself into nationality,” and which has, over the course of its history, been defined by declamatory speech acts. To a large extent, American society rests on a powerful triad of transatlantic eloquence: the religious fervour of public preaching, the Ciceronian rhetoric of great politicians like Lincoln and FDR, and the righteous oratory of the law. Far more than the UK, public speech is woven into the political fabric of the nation in the form of TV debates, and Inaugural, Farewell and State of the Union addresses; indeed America has been propelled through its history by momentous speech-acts: the Gettysburg Address, FDR’s inaugural speech, and Martin Luther King’s resounding rhetoric.

Returning the conversation to the domestic context, Polly Toynbee pointed out that in contemporary Britain speeches in the Obama mould are out of fashion – limited to conference set-pieces delivered behind closed doors to the party faithful. In their way, they are an opportunity for a very British kind of bandstanding: moments like David Cameron’s ‘look, no hands’ speech capable of making or breaking the fortunes of their speakers within the microcosm of the Westminster village. However, this preference for preaching to the converted suggests a fundamental lack of faith in rhetoric as a tool of modern, mass democracy – while rhetorical flair is compelling in the controlled environment of the Commons and the conference, its power falters in the broader public setting. The growing importance of TV appearances further diminishes the role of rhetoric in the modern context, requiring an accessible, authentic approach to which the verbal flourish is unsuited. However the quest for an unadorned political language has arguably gone too far: Toynbee lamented a process of degeneration which arguably started with Tony Blair’s invention of the ‘verbless speech’ – incapable of breaking promises because incapable of making any – and culminated with the exceptionally inarticulate politics’ of recent years, in which politicians appear terrified of expressing ideas and opinions that depart even briefly from the party line. Gordon Brown is, in Toynbee’s opinion, the best-read PM for years, but one strikingly bereft of words himself: ‘a man constrained’.

“Great rhetoric requires great moments,” Geoffrey Robertson continued, “and, if possible, a great prop too – preferably a dead body”. Recalling a recent approach by a tabloid hack researching the greatest speech of recent years, he was surprised to learn that this was, in the hack’s opinion, Earl Spencer’s words at Princess Diana’s funeral, a view that seemed merely to confirm that great speaking is “not a matter of intelligence or art, but of atmosphere”. Elaborating on this theme, Robertson maintained that while the Obama election night was indeed an “unforgettable time and speech”, the words themselves were “totally forgettable”; by contrast, his inaugural speech was far better and more insightful but ‘went down like a lead balloon’. Turning to law, he commented that, ‘historically the great rhetoric was that of the prosecution’, until eminent advocates like Garrett and Clarence Darrow transformed the criminal justice process through a mini-rhetoric of defence. In the UK this led to the development of the adversarial system, while in the States, rhetoric was used ‘to achieve social change and education outside the court’. The abolition of the death penalty was, according to Robertson, ‘one of the main reasons that rhetoric is no longer practiced in the courts,’ while the opening up of juries to a broader section of society made it ‘a more rational exercise’ than it had hitherto been. In some sense, there are interesting comparisons to be made between this development and that which Toynbee outlined in the political domain. In both, the power of rhetoric derives from the ability to judge the innate prejudices of one’s audience – to develop Benn’s initial assertion, to play to a particular truth and notion of authenticity which chimes with the listener’s own experience.

In conclusion, Robertson touched briefly on the his recent work in developing the law of incitement to genocide, and the role of malign speech acts within it – the dangerous power of speakers like Milosevic and Khomeini ‘to turn words into weapons’ by exploiting the weakness of their audience. Linking this to the rise of the BNP, Polly Toynbee emphasised the necessity of speaking out against extremism wherever possible, and to reaffirming the truths of community and tolerance against those of isolation and ignorance. Looking forward, all the members of the panel urged a greater engagement in public discussion, both to stimulate civic life, and expose dangerous prejudices to scrutiny. Most importantly, children must be encouraged to ask questions, Robertson said, while Toynbee hoped that greater debate would prove to be ‘a way of reviving politics – daring to speak out, instead of that silence’.

Report by Lettie Ransley

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