Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur
jducoeur

Speech and Ritual

I was chatting over in msmemory's journal about the inauguration, and the point was raised that, whereas many adults in offices talked right over the speech, a lot of schoolkids were rapt. I have to say, I'm not at all surprised.

The thing is, what makes Obama's speeches so powerful is their use of well-controlled and carefully modulated emotion. Yes, the words speak to the head, but the real difference is that he speaks with emotional nuance that we're just not very used to from politicians any more. Moreover, the emotional tones ebb and flow fluidly through his better speeches: consider the way his inaugural address started pretty quiet, then moved through subtleties of warning, determination, and eventually raw patriotic sentiment. There's nothing new here, of course, but many modern politicians seem to have forgotten this particular art: even when they manage emotion, it tends to be rather monotonous.

Really, it's all about ritual. A good political speech shares a lot with good ritual, and *great* ritual requires emotion. When I teach ritual, this is always the capstone. First you make sure you have meaningful words, and you understand them thoroughly. Then you do the mechanical bit: memorizing the ritual to the point where it is flowing, confident and strong. If you get to this point, you can do good ritual. But *great* ritual demands that you go to the next step: to really *feel* what the words are saying, what they mean on an emotional level, and let that emotion flow through your voice, changing tone with every paragraph and phrase to stream those nuances through. The result is that people will feel the punch of what's you're saying right away, even if they have to re-read it ten times to really grasp all the words. And I suspect that it's why kids responded well to the speech: even if they didn't understand every bit of it, they likely felt it.

It's powerful -- and it's dangerous. Ritual can be used for both light and dark, and it's easy to miss which is which in the heat of the moment. With any luck, Obama will have some success against the cynicism that I think has badly corroded American life and thought over recent years. But I'm going to need to remember to step back from time to time, and coldly sanity-check the words under that emotion, because it's awfully easy to get carried away in it...
Tags: politics, ritual
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