Friday, January 25, 2013

That Rhetoric of Obama's Inaugural Address

On Wednesday, January 23rd, Jon Stewart did a bit about the President's inauguration speech, and how it twisted back the "makers and takers" language that Rep. (and former VPOSTUS candidate) Paul Ryan made during the 2012 campaign:

Stewart corrects Ryan's false assertion that the President used a "straw man." (Yet another lie that Ryan makes for no apparent reason, other than because it was a dig against Ryan.) Although Stewart ends with a verdict of, "Plagiarism!" he is technically not correct.

According to, the rhetorical device was:
  • Antimetabole is reversing the order of repeated words or phrases (a loosely chiastic structure, AB-BA) to intensify the final formulation, to present alternatives, or to show contras.
The line in Obama's speech is, "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great." Here, you can see how "make us a nation of takers" is (kind of) reversed to make, "take the risks that make this country great." Okay, so it's not a perfect example of an inaugural antimetabole, but it's not bad, especially considering that it's doing additional duty in referencing Rep. Ryan's statement during the campaign while simultaneously blunting Ryan's statement and inserting the President's own message.

More pure (and well-known) examples of antimetabole were made by JFK in his inaugural speech by JFK:
  • Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
  • Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Now, Ryan's own construction of "we are becoming a nation of makers and takers" is also based on a rhetorical device that is based in the Latin expression Repitio mater memoriae, "Repetition is the mother of memory." As Joe Romm states in his book Language Intelligence:
Consider one of the most popular figures of repitition: rhyme. Studies suggest that if a phrase or aphorism rhymes then people are more likely to view it as true. People more readily believe "woes unites foes" describes human behavior accurately than they do "woes unite enemies." All these years after the 1995 O. J. Simpson murder case, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran's phrase "If it doesn't fit, you mush acquit" still sticks in the mind. It's a powerful mnemonic that hardwires what the jurors saw in the courtroom - when Simpson tried on the bloodstained "murder gloves" they didn't fit - with the verdict Cochran wanted and ultimately won for his client. Even simple repetition remains powerfully persuasive.
Of course, while rhyme is repeatedly used to advance an assertion of truth (i.e., Ryan's "makers and takers" trope), if it isn't resting on factual evidence, it is necessary to recognize that it is merely standing on the logical fallacy of an "argument by rhyme," which can only be strengthened by repetition (and, boy, did Ryan really get to repeat that smoldering, smelly, sack of lies). As Bo Bennett describes in Logically Fallacious:
The argument by rhyme uses words that rhyme to make the proposition more attractive. ... Rhymes tend to have quite a bit of persuasive power, no matter how false they might be. The best defense against this fallacious rhetoric is a good counter attack using the same fallacy.

Whomever smelled it, dealt it!
Whomever denied it, supplied it!
In this it is no small wonder that Obama's line ("They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.") stands as an effective countermeasure to Ryan's baseless claim of "we are a nation of makers and takers"), since it not only powerfully flips the words of the spoken phrase (i.e., it's an example of antimetabole), but it also makes use of the rhyming construction of the original lie to install a new message.

Finally (and this has nothing to do with the example of revenge-rhetoric), it was plainly obvious that Obama was using another rhetorical device - anaphora - when he repeats his opening phrase (five times in all), "We, the people." This echoed the opening words of the US Constitution. This echoed the anaphora and cadence that Martin Luther King, Jr. used when he repeated "I have a dream" eight times to underscore his message. Finally, too, it resonated with Lincoln's own (far more brief) use of epistrophe (which is the inverse of anaphora) in the Gettysburg Address in referring three different times - and in succession - to "the people".

No comments: