Reaching for Rhetoric

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Writing is a complex process. Writing is complex because thinking is complex. How, what and to whom to write are questions that seem to only just scratch the surface of the process because there are a great many factors to consider when coming up with an answer. But I believe this course has better equipped me to answer these questions and more; through course readings such as Reagan’s Challenger disaster speech and Severn Suzuki’s U.N. speech, I’ve learned the importance of considering my audience and developing a voice of unity that best speaks to them if I hope for anyone to listen. I’ve learned to write in a clear and concise manner to best convey my message. Finally, I’ve learned that the revision process is perhaps more important than the initial draft, for a fresh look at one’s work can lead to an entirely new perspective.

At the essence of rhetoric is the audience; its desires, its fears and its hopes. To connect with an audience, one must connect with these feelings to create a feeling of unity, to make an audience feel it is listening to someone who feels as they do. I’ve learned that to connect with an audience through feelings, word choice is key. That's why rhetoric and politics go hand in hand. Ronald Reagan and his speechwriters clearly understood this much during the delivery of his speech after the space shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986. In this speech, Reagan refers to the aftermath of the tragedy as “a day for mourning and remembering” and “a national loss” (1986) to quickly establish the somber tone of the day. He connects himself directly to his audience, saying “Nancy and I are pained to the core by this tragedy” and “We know we share this pain with all the people of our country” (1986). These lines connect to the audience in two ways: first Reagan establishes that he feels the loss of the tragedy, then goes on to convey the sense that he is suffering along with his audience. To create a seemingly practical foundation for unity Reagan declares “We mourn the loss as a nation together,” explaining that this loss is shared by everyone because “they [the crew] served all of us” (1986). By establishing the somber tone of the moment and engaging his audience from within that moment, Reagan not only creates the sense that he is suffering this loss, but that everyone is and should be suffering this loss with him.

While Reagan uses his speech to connect to people already reeling from the tragedy, Severn Suzuki attempts to sway people to change their feelings with regard to the matter of environmental devastation. She appeals to her audience to “change your [its] ways,” listing problems and reaching out to them in an innocent manner, asking “Did you have to worry about these little things when you were my age?” (1992). Rather than try to speak as an adult Suzuki addresses her audience as a child speaking to adults, specifically naming adults as her target audience because it is they she blames for the then-current state of the environment. By referring to the children of the world as “your own children” (1992) Suzuki attempts to instill a feeling of parental responsibility within her audience. Several times during the speech Suzuki identifies herself as “only a child” as an introduction to a simple but poignant argument for consideration and change, declaring “we are all in this together and should act as one single world toward one single goal” and that “we are all part of the same family . . . and we all share the same air, water, and soil . . .” (1992). By referring to herself as a child before making these claims she emphasizes them by implying that adults have been neglecting these simple truths while at the same time she connects to her audience in a straightforward manner appropriate for a child.

While speaking in a tone appropriate for one’s audience is important, how one speaks is a matter of at least equal importance. No matter what the writing, clarity, and conciseness are critical if one hopes to transmit a message to an audience. Reagan’s speech can be divided into at least four distinct parts, each delivering its own purpose while subtly and briefly reminding the audience of the themes conveyed in preceding parts. Reagan’s speech consisted of about 650 words; within the first hundred he managed to connect himself to his audience as described in some detail above. Within the next hundred he named each of the seven fallen crew members, calling them “heroes” and praising them as “brave” and “daring” (1986) to describe exactly what was lost during this accident and to subtly emphasize the aforementioned virtues as desirable ones. The core of the speech is used in an indirect attempt to defend the integrity of the space program, claiming tragedy like this is “all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons” and that “the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave” (1986). By referring to space exploration as man’s possession he attempts to convince his audience that these astronauts died on everyone’s behalf while at the same time slipping in some justification for the space program’s existence, dangers and all. He even goes so far as to relate the space program to “freedom” (1986), a deeply held American value. By doing so he conveys a veiled message that any criticism of the space program, even after this accident, would be contrary to American values and thus unpatriotic. The final part of Reagan’s essay shifts its focus back to the lost crew, likening its members to the famous explorer Sir Francis Drake and referring to their sacrifice as an honor to all Americans (1986). The brilliance of this work, it seems to me, is in its design its true message is concise yet subtle, nestled deeply within layers of powerful rhetoric to make it irresistible to the audience.

While Reagan’s speech employs just the right amount of subtle reminder and repetition to conceal the taste of its primary point, Suzuki’s speech enjoys an appropriate childlike clarity and straightforwardness in its attempt to convey its message. She directly addresses the members of her audience to condemn them, saying they “don’t know” how to fix several major environmental problems, which she lists, and in what is perhaps the most powerful line of the speech she implores his audience to cease and take action, saying “If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!” (1986). With these few lines, Suzuki affirms her effort in civic engagement and presents a powerful philosophical argument criticizing man’s interference with nature and like a child too scared to face the truth she implies to her audience the potential irreversible ramifications of this interference rather than stating them overtly. By embodying the frightened child Suzuki instills a powerful sense of guilt and responsibility within her audience, and to me it is this ability to stir emotion so well that makes this speech powerful.

The third major takeaway I leave this class with is an understanding of the need and potential of revision. While impossible to make any claims of the effects revision may have had on either of the speeches referenced in this paper, my time in this class has taught me that the revision period is not simply a time to hunt for spelling errors or comma splices. It’s a time for reflection; a time to meditate with my ideas, to allow them to present themselves before me as I try to unravel them and expand upon them so that they can reach their greatest potential. I’ve learned that nothing is more exhilarating—and heartbreaking— than sitting down with a freshly completed draft only to discover a major flaw in its argument that requires a nearly complete overhaul. The feeling that comes with a reborn essay is one that seems difficult to describe without over-exaggerated rhetoric, so perhaps it would be best to simply say that the reward proves to be well worth the effort.

In the end, it seems impossible to describe anything and everything I may take from this course experience, for with every little experience the human mind changes and evolves in ways we probably can never truly fathom. But if nothing else I can claim that voice, clarity and a stronger understanding of the need to revise are three things I will leave this class with. Each of these will make me a stronger writer, and for that, I would be hard-pressed to be anything but grateful.

References

Reagan, R. (1986). American rhetoric. Ronald Reagan: The Space Shuttle "Challenger"Address. Retrieved from http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ronaldreaganchallenger.htm

Suzuki, S. (1992). Articles on & by Gandhi. Retrieved fromhttp://www.gandhifoundation.net/gandhi/articles/july083.htm