David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Radical Oratory

February 2005:  Looking at these, I wonder if all the bad puns on popular culture make these seem a little outdated.  2 Live Crew??

WCAC/QuAAC Corner:  Liberal Oratory?

By David Fleming, executive director of faculty development and assessment

Gary Franchy, division chair, math

Dave: Well, Gary, I've plowed through most of the books I got over the holidays and I have been struck by something.

Gary: Massive paper cuts?

Dave: No, but I did always wonder if that was a problem when reading Braille.

Gary: Only if you're callous.

Dave: I was particularly intrigued by a book on modern language use, John McWhorter's Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care.

Gary: That's quite a mouthful. No chance there's a Cliff Notes version, is there?

Dave: That makes me wonder. If one buys a shortened version of a concerto, is it the Cleft Notes?

Gary:  You've been waiting to use that, haven't you?

Dave: No, I came up with it just this minuet.

Gary: {Groan} I admit, though, I am intrigued by his reference to degrading music.

Dave: Don't get your hopes up. I was disappointed, too. Not one reference to 2 Live Crew.

Gary: I was thinking more like Celine Dion.

Dave: Let's just say I find his arguments about popular music less compelling than his arguments about public speaking.

Gary: Less a-cappelling?

Dave: I'll have to imagine the rim shot. Anyway, one of McWhorter's arguments is that public speaking has been dumbed way down.

Gary: I assume you're paraphrasing.

Dave: He suggests there's a link to 60's anti-establishment attitudes. As he says, current philosophy is that "speaking is dishonest and oppressive; just talking is where it's at" (p.49).

Gary: With two turntables and a microphone?

Dave: Actually, no, and for more than just the usual reasons. McWhorter believes that the microphone is a block to great oratory. It guarantees "that we can understand what the speaker is saying anyway, but a microphone cannot create the melody of intonation wielded to highlight and sway and compel" (p. 48).

Gary: So it's both "what you say AND how you say it"?

Dave: Exactly.

Gary: Now, I don't have a degree in communication, but if someone can effectively convey their message, isn't it "mission accomplished"?

Dave: Uh, could you use a different example?

Gary: I'm just asking if people really want to hear convoluted phrases like "Four score and seven years ago" rather than "Let's roll."

Dave: Actually, McWhorter cites "Let's roll" as an example of uninspired public speaking.

Gary: But, it did inspire many people.

Dave: It may inspire, but so does "We Will Rock You" blasted over the speakers at a Lions' game. 

Gary: I'm not going to argue with you or him, but it just seems that this is a tired argument in the "modern world." People have changed; literacy has changed, and as you have frequently said, language changes.

Dave: I'm not necessarily here to promote McWhorter's points, just raising an issue that our readers might want to consider when making a speech. Besides, would we really want to argue that the farmer listening to Lincoln's speech in the middle of the nineteenth century was more literate than the factory worker listening to Bush's speech in the 21st century.

Gary: I sense a trick question.

Dave: Of course. McWhorter argues that the public expected elevated language in public speeches. The elevated language elevated them.

Gary: They thought a politician talking over their heads was good for them? That's frightening.

Dave: No, no. He's raising a different point: that "there was a certain place in the culture for crafted oratory . . . [which] a representative number of people of [the lower] classes were receptive to" (pg. 72). 

Gary: So, blame it on the 60's. I'm guessing McWhorter claims that once the public in the 60s found a new way to get high, they didn't need elevated language to get them there?

Dave: Well, not in so many words.

Gary: Apparently in many more words. Anyway, what is your point with all this?

Dave: That maybe we should consider occasion more often when delivering our speeches. It is easy to stress in our communication classes the extemporaneous and impromptu speeches, and not the more formal completely written out and memorized speech for situations that demand it.

Gary: The commencement ceremony speech, perhaps?

Dave: A good example as long as it is less than thirty minutes.

Gary: I'll begrudgingly give you that point. By the way, does he blame Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart for how music has been degraded?

Dave: No. Why would you think it would be one of those three?

Gary: Because they have long since decomposed.

Dave: I'm guessing our readership is very pleased our columns will now only be once a month.


McWhorter, J. (2003).  Doing our own thing:  The degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care.  New York:  Gotham Books.