Wednesday, June 30, 2021


Henry Ward Beecher cartoon as Gulliver reaching out to "Lilliputian" crowd.
by Bernard Gillam (1856-1896). Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

Engaging an audience takes talent. Whether comedian, TV anchor, journalist, or a speaker or writer for any purpose, how you start sets the stage for all that follows. Especially in the snappy world of social media, the choice of visuals as well as your first words matter. 

We know that with distractions just a click away, it's best to get attention to topic, theme, and you, quickly! From the earliest teachers of rhetoric onwards, we've known that audiences look for an introduction, a body, and a conclusion; and the best introduction attracts attention to both the topic and the speaker/writer, as well as directly developing the topic. We connect with anyone who does this well.

Clearly, what you choose to mention among facts, opinions, and ideas, along with the words you chose, how you shape sentences, and how you develop passages, all impact how an audience sees you, thinks of you, relates to you, and hears what you say. The talent of making these choices well grows from thinking to do, from thoughtful "listening," and from practice.

During the introduction, as in any first meeting, a listener or reader intuitively looks for common interests, along with signs of who you are in the words you choose; which signal your tone, role, stance, and personality. 

When teaching speech-writing, an exercise that I often used to help reveal how language choices project personal style and persona (adopted role) was to ask students to read brief speech excerpts, which didn't identify who the speakers were. The students then described what personality characteristics they detected from the language choices, wrapping up with the inevitable guesses about the identity of each speaker. 

In common with much teaching of rhetoric, we also listened to the recorded speeches of a wide variety of powerful speakers, to take note of specific language features that resonated. 

The speakers of course included Sir Winston Churchill, whose early experience in journalism showed through, with his initially setting a scene, then dramatically relating events to inspire commitment. Or, John F. Kennedy's memorable introduction in his inaugural address, urging observance of "not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom." And Martin Luther King Jr's deeply resonant voice, to commence his sharing of a dream, by marking the occasion of the day's march to Washington DC as "the greatest demonstration of freedom." Each alerted listeners to focus the moment.

Some speakers use questions to begin. Mahatma Gandhi asked what was non-cooperation and why was it important; and Jawaharlal Nehru asked what brought "friends and fellow Asians" together. Each, with straightforward engagement, developed tremendous following. Across a range of Australians, from Dame Enid Lyons, Sir Robert Menzies, John Curtin, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Gough Whitlam, Germaine Greer, and a host of other community leaders and advocates of social change, a similar variety of approaches for introductory remarks is evident.

Even the less savory provided lessons. Such as the opening to Richard Nixon's 1969 inaugural address, where he acknowledged that "In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free;" indicating how far down the escalator it's all traveled since. Or, the rambling Adolf Hitler in 1938, complaining of "the foreign press [who] inundated the new Reich with a virtual flood of lies and calumnies," which hardly deserved repeating, yet some still like to hear their own echoes of that approach.   

On the flip-side, the nineteenth century's so-dubbed "most famous man in America," Henry Ward Beecher, so the story goes, one hot summer evening walked into his routinely over-crowded church, and the assembled congregation became aware of his uncharacteristically removing his coat and tie, and mopping his head with a large handkerchief. Once in the pulpit, with all eyes fixed in his direction, Beecher is said to have exclaimed "It's so goddamn hot in here tonight!" After a pause, he stated that this was what he'd heard someone say as he'd walked into the church; then he delivered a sermon on blasphemy. 

Today's audiences might not sit still for the length of sermons and other speeches so common in the nineteenth century. Yet Beecher's introduction stands the test of time, to illustrate how he made full use of the situation and his own movement, combined with careful timing and a very few words, to commence his remarks powerfully.

Choosing well the ideas, nonverbal opportunity, and words we use makes a real difference.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Dynamic Tension for Pandemic Times*

Lieutenant (junior grade) Natasha McClinton, a surgical nurse prepares a patient in USNS Comfort's ICU, for healthcare support in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic
by US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman. 
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov}}

Written By Randal Marlin

One of the great features of Jacques Ellul's writings is his extraordinary ability to keep focused on what is important. It is important, for example, to take account of how readers are going to interpret your writings. It is important that they become engaged in an issue. Constant qualification can baffle the hearer.

Ellul's political and sociological writings tend to leave us with unsolved problems. In the case of propaganda, for example, he points to a need on the part of liberal government to engage in propaganda to offset seditious ideas from within the state or propaganda to offset other states seeking conquest over one's own state. But he recognizes that once a state begins to engage seriously in propaganda, it erodes its own claim to being liberal. In Propaganda, he leaves his readers with a stark understanding of the dilemma without resolving it.

I see a parallel with Albert Camus who dealt with the problem of free will and determinism by ranking different certainties. He was certain that he was free. And he was certain that the world of science presented us with a deterministic universe. What was important, then, was to be faithful to what reason presented him and not to deny one or other of these two certainties. He was not going to deny one of his certainties merely because there was an apparent contradiction.

As I understand Ellul, he preferred to hold fast to the clash of ideas, leaving the reader to solve a dilemma, rather than presenting a solution that would save the reader the trouble of thinking on her own. That did not mean he did not have a solution. For example, in conversation he approved of what might have been done (but wasn't done) to stand up to Hitler in the late 1930s. Left wing publications folded after the victory of Franco in Spain, but keeping them alive through subsidies would likely have fostered more anti-Hitler sentiment.

In a bizarre way, I am brought back to advertisements of my childhood, where a bully insults and humiliates a "97-pound weakling" in the presence of his girl. The weakling puts on muscle through Charles Atlas's strength-building "dynamic tension" and later returns to deck the bully, winning his girl's admiration.

The phrase "dynamic tension," applied intellectually instead of physically, seems to fit both Camus and Ellul.

The growth of technology and the state is a threat to humanistic values. In defending the latter, Ellul may appear to be a technophobe, but that is because he saw the former as being held too much in awe and in need of more balance regarding the latter.

We see that tension very strongly with the current COVID-19 pandemic. The state has indeed a duty to reduce the spread of this deadly virus, but how far should this power extend? Should the state have the power to compel universal vaccination?

Ellul advises us to be aware of the costs involved with the unchecked growth of technique and state power. Have we reckoned adequately with those costs? One of the most heart-rending costs is that of restrictions preventing close relatives being with their mother, father, spouse, sibling, grandparent, child, long-time friend, etc. when the latter are on their deathbed.

There is also the general problem of lack of social contact. For many, this is not a problem, especially if we have spacious living conditions, contact with nature and someone we live with. But for others, regulations governing whom one may be in contact with can bring extreme hardship, and possibly suicide.

Church gatherings are forbidden where they threaten the spreading of the disease. But didn't Jesus say that he who saves his life will lose it? Yes, but he also commanded us to love one another and that means respecting the lives of others.

Just as with the propaganda dilemma described above, there are dangers with being too lax or too rigorous in countering the pandemic. What is wrong is supporting proposed measures without due consideration to fundamental rights and duties that are at stake. Some measures, in that light, may need mitigation while others need strengthening.

[*first published 10 May 2021 by the International Jacques Ellul Society; IJES Ellul Society grants permission to Word to the wise to reprint the blog posting "Dynamic Tension in Pandemic Times" by Randal Marlin: A.B. Princeton, M.A. McGill, Ph.D. Toronto, all in philosophy; philosophy professor, Carleton U. Ottawa, 1966-2001; sabbatical year in Bordeaux, 1979-80, with Jacques Ellul; and author, Propaganda and the Ethics of PersuasionBroadview Press, 2nd ed. 2014.]