“He speaks well.” How can this non sequitur be construed as the reason to vote for the President of the United States? Yet, you, too, have heard this answer when inquiring about voting grounds. The party leader’s alleged speaking prowess trumps job record, policies, and vision. Logic and facts, however, have little weight when pose pulls its own.
“He speaks well.” Never mind that a presidential debate and the off-teleprompter moments, marked by the awkward search for the elusive words, shatter this assertion.
Let us, though, momentarily entertain the premise. Some basic verbal skills are, indeed, important for a successful presidency. Speaking well, however, neither suffices nor is it the sine qua non of executive success. Moreover, speaking well—eloquently, fluently, self-assuredly, cool—does not necessarily imply speaking with meaning or substance. The timely emphases and pauses, the frown signaling thought, and the guru smile at cue make for engaging script. Yet, pose is not necessarily truth.
Statements like “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal” and “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek” are emotionally primed. But, what do they mean? For instance, if “we are the change that we seek,” then “we seek we”… When said with poise, rhetorical fallacies, distortion of reality, inanity, and even vulgarity seem all too often to be either blindly celebrated or to go unnoticed. Grandiloquence, with the populist twist for effect, is hardly a surrogate of right vision and achievement, of bipartisan cooperation and serving the Constitution. Neither does it imply respect for the rights to freedom of speech, conscience, and religion.
President Barack Obama’s 2009 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame is quite revealing. A segment of the Notre Dame community boycotted the event because of his support of so-called abortion rights, while another feted him with standing ovations and awed faces. Recalling a supporter’s e-mail, Obama’s carefully crafted words were as follows:
[The doctor] had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life — but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me. What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website — an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”
He added that he thanked the doctor, and “I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website.”
In this rhetorical class act, the crux is not the reality that abortion is unfair, but the illusion of fair-minded words. Not that abortion is an intrinsic evil, but that the words may have appeared to be unreasonable. Not that the pro-choice stance is morally wrong and, thus, ought to change, but that the language does not sound acceptable and should be tweaked. In addition, responsibility is dodged (the “campaign staff” is blamed for posting the original wording; we are too naïve to assume that presidential candidates approve their website messages) and even facts are overlooked (e.g., there are pro-lifers across the entire ideological spectrum). The key is simply to sound reasonable, rather than to be reasonable. Embellish the speech, and voilà! All is well that speaks well!
The oratorical maneuver does more. It prioritizes policies on poverty and education, important matters but prudential judgments, over the inalienable right to life of all human beings—the unborn included. The linguistic stroke thus inverts the priorities grounded on ethical reflection and Catholic teaching, and the pro-choice advocate conveniently positions himself as a viable candidate—all in a purportedly Catholic institution. Moreover, it profits from the specious appeal to authority. The supporter “described himself” as a “strongly pro-life” Christian doctor, thereby intimating that his views must consequently be right on all counts: life, social, political, and religious issues. So few words, so many fallacies.
“As cookery is to medicine, so is rhetoric to justice” said Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias. Speaking well is not an end in itself, but should aim at the good. Otherwise, it is not really an art to be praised, but flattery and sophistry to be denounced. True power does not arise simply from florid speech, but ultimately from the virtuous life. Instead of being lulled by pleasing words, let our vote be grounded on the right priorities, and the candidate’s record, policies, and vision.
Alma Acevedo, PhD, teaches courses in applied ethics and conducts research in this field.