A failing mark

Harry Drabik


Hard to recall once upon a time I taught speech. Before that I’d been in high school Speech (often called Declamation) competition. In those dark old days favored speaking the style was stiff and predictable as the term declamation rightly implies.
Stilted as speakers and speeches were back then, we were modern compared to Greeks and Romans. (They started or developed what we call oratory and dramatics, so remember to blame them when assailed by protest.) Roman oratory was heavily scripted in terms of language and gestures used. You’ll see hints of that in formal settings where ordinary Joe (or Josephine) Blo says in serious mien they “proceeded” down a road instead of the simpler less formal “drove.” I suppose we could blame the Romans for the habit of talking fancy in certain situations. But what’s the point of blame if we can’t sue for damages, huh? You aren’t likely to find examples of Roman speech partly because it’s become so unfashionable to have a classic education. Educators will, of course, assure us we are brilliantly prepared with all we need to know. After all, who needs familiarity with Plutarch’s Lives when we’ve the World Book of Googling as our B I B L E?  

Back when, as said, we did everything systemically wrong, the aim (standard that was not always met) in public speaking was to show well by demonstrating command (thorough knowledge) of your own and opposing views. An effective representative republic, two-party system, etc. depends on accurate listening and responding to other views in an exchange of ideas. Exchange assumes (this is important) the other side (no matter how unlikely this might seem to some) has something useful to contribute. Shouting down, censoring, or silencing opposing views breaks the exchange and is one sure sign of authoritarian tyranny where the ruling side is solely seen as correct and as a practical matter the only side to be on if you wish to prosper. Beliefs, cultures, and nations that follow the pattern of one-truth rule swing from despot to reformer who will swiftly turn despotic as what they replaced. All you need do to stifle working democracy is demonize your opposition as less-than, as despicable, flawed to the core, etc. to justify counting them out of the grand picture of social perfection.

Fractious (and believe me they were) as the Roman Republic was its citizens (the cells of a body politic) saw the republican whole as something they were intimately part of and sacred in a way comparable to religion. Forces (whether of renewal or decay) have led us away from honoring the sacred Union that was so much at the core of belief of a leader such as Lincoln. The whole body in union was worth sacrifice and preservation. Soon as a body says, however, the feet are most important and must be protected the entire body is soon stood on its head with little chance of going far or fast. Positions touting what’s good for all are more often than not tightly narrow views based on self-interests. Offered narrow choices we will, of course, pick one with the assurance it is and will be good for us. And indeed it is so. Fed political and intellectual gruel as daily fare it is good for us because it’s one only food were allowed.

A funny thing about the supposed systemic rot of the entire Western system (which produced the KKK, pacifism, Marxism, and cell phones) is the way in which its presumably evil roots gave names for things we see today. Credited or not, the Western world knew a thing or three giving us terms such as democracy, tyranny, oligarchy, and etc. Funnier yet, the human beastie over thousands of years has continued to behave much as described by the presumably awful ancients. How do you explain that and be consistent with denouncing systemic failure? A brief statement that “the past wasn’t always wrong” is no more helpful than curtly acknowledging “the present isn’t always right.” In the recent past (present) I felt pleased the US was able to elect as President a person of color. Good for us as a nation, I thought. But then he seemed to turn into an oligarch fine as any a rotten ancient could have conjured. Not so good, that, but at least our Senators aren’t murderous as the Romans who took their politics (religion) blood seriously. (Senatorial proclamations sometimes urged citizens to do harm.)

This being the season for it, I thought to look at public speaking as a worthwhile topic. Trouble is, as I sees it, there’s rather more public yelling and posturing than speech. Some crowds hail a well strung series of profanities as a great speech. I’d personally avoid that crowd because I see what its presence does to commentators who follow the rule that to be heard at all you have to be aggressive in your noise making. Content matters mostly for some of it to be brassily loud and keep your audience numbers up. A standard of public speech that makes unreason acceptable as we’ve allowed is a deeply systemic problem that won’t/can’t be addressed by shouting down, with cheap shots or silencing other views. Ironic, isn’t it, one dare not disagree with worshipers of diversity in name only.

Starting with thoughts on Trump’s public speaking style, I’ve wandered all over. Apologizing, I’ll return to my point. Trump is an annoying, awkward, non-polished speaker. When I taught speech I’d have given him poor marks. He’s simply not smoothly persuasive as a true politician who plans words and gestures (very Roman) in advance to win approval. The one thing Trump isn’t is classic politician. A polished (not Trump) speaker has the ability to make poor ideas into gold and knows who to blame (us most likely) when there’s no gold at the end of their promised rainbow. But remember, standards vary so at this point Biden doesn’t need be a fine speaker. His speech is three magical words, “I’m not Trump.” Is a politician a leader or simply ahead in a pack of followers?