President Obama is no doubt one of the best orators we’ve had in the White House. Yet he chose a tone in his State of the Union that hurt his communication. He conveyed more of a sense of aggravation and alienation than cooperation and negotiation.
Apart from what I think about the content of his speech, his delivery was not effective. I am certainly not opposed to firm and direct communication but in public speaking the tone chosen must meet the occasion. One can speak firmly without sounding like you’re peeved at others.
The president often sounded like an angry liberal who is fed up with conservatives. His tone seemed to play to a narrow part of his base rather than to a diverse nation. There is a growing cynical and condescending tone making its way into the Democratic Party that should trouble concerned members.
In critiquing the president’s speech, I need to pause to acknowledge that a US president must have one of the most frustrating jobs in the world. The challenges and pressures he faces are greater than most understand and the obstructions in politics would drive anyone crazy. I don’t think I would have the patience for this job. There are not many who could hold up under the strain of endless spotlight from media and endless criticisms from every possible angle. We must not forget that the president is human. So I don’t offer my critique to be overly critical of a man who should be often in our prayers.
Yet when a president has an opportunity to speak to a nationwide audience, he should use a presidential tone and avoid divisive tones that convey bitter partisanship. President Reagan was a master at this. Even when he laid a dig into the other side, he did it in such winsome ways that often his critics couldn’t keep from smiling. I think President Obama faces an additional challenge of slipping into an all too common Ivy League tone of condescending cynicism.
The president’s tone at the State of the Union made me feel that he was taking things too personally. One of the basic principles of leadership is to distinguish the personal from (in this case) the presidential. In ministry, I distinguish the personal from the pastoral. There are some things that are aimed at me not because of who I am but because of my role. If a leader allows opposition and attacks to be taken too personally, he easily becomes sidetracked and begins to play to his critics. A leader should be secure enough to authentically consider criticism without being controlled by it.
The tone chosen by the president made me think of some of the tone changes that have become part of public discourse in the last several decades.
If you listen closely to conversation and debate (particularly among the younger generation), you’ll hear more of the language of moderation and tones of negotiation. You’ll hear common phrases that invite conversation rather than foreclosing on it. You’ll hear words of invitation and dialogue rather than conclusions and dogma.
It’s become common place to couch opinions in a language of possibility and personal preference more than matter of fact. The old “tell it like it is” tone isn’t nearly as acceptable — particularly in educated circles. Consider a few of the more common expressions that have become part of public discussion and analysis:
- “So that’s a really good question and I guess what I want to say is …”
- “So I think what you’re saying is….”
- “Sort of… Kind of….”
- “I guess we could say that ….”
- “If I understand you correctly, it seems like you’re saying…”
- “So if we take it this way of looking at it, then we perhaps we would have to conclude that…”
The most popular words are “so,” “perhaps,” “seems,” and “guess.” The most popular phrases are “kind of” and “sort of.” Did I miss any? Listen carefully for how often these are used when people express opinions or offer analysis of issues. I suppose this trendy way of speaking was common for many years in philosophy clubs and departments where truth is ever circular.
I appreciate tones and phrases that invite dialogue and debate rather than foreclosing on it. This could be because I’ve worked in a university town for almost thirty years. It also could be because I came from a background much more influenced by a kind of ignorant dogma. It’s easy to see how announcing the dogma of absolute opinion, is a conversation stopper and a way to ask for an argument with those who disagree.
But why has this way of speaking become more mainstream? Are there dangers behind too much openness when facing critical issues that require hard decisions?
I can think of a few possible sources behind these changes. My analysis is mainly focused on changes in the United States.
Four potential sources
1. Emphasis on tolerance.
I don’t recall ever hearing the word “tolerance” when I was in school. Things are far different for my children. Tolerance has been one the most emphasized social standards over the last several decades. One of the primary purposes for promoting tolerance has been to avoid offending others. Is it possible that this emphasis has shaped public discourse? Fear of offending has become far more significant.
2. Availability of information
We have access to far more information than ever before in human history. If I doubt what you tell me, I can just “google it.” This puts a new kind of pressure on public speaking and private conversation to get the facts right. Information also enlarges perspective. People tend to filter ideas, opinions and theories through more of a world grid. This can make one more hesitant to be dogmatic about his opinions and perhaps to be more inclusive and compassionate on a larger scale.
3. Reaction to ill-informed dogma
This might be a bit speculative or colloquial but I think that in the 1980’s and 90’s, there seemed to be a resurgence of dogma in a kind of reaction to the Woodstock culture. The rock-n-role sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s led to a renewed emphasis on morality and moral majorities in many contexts. With the reaction to what was considered a permissive and free love era came emphasis on standards, convictions and absolute beliefs. In some places, a legalistic attitude took over and people became very judgmental and hypocritical. It seems (at least in some places) that we’re experiencing a reaction to the reaction with a lean away from moralizing.
4. Influence of the university
Some sociologists postulate that the universities in the US have often taken their cue from European influences. So it is argued that the philosophies of existentialism, moral relativism and even nihilism (that trace their beginnings to Europe) have invaded our college campuses and produced the predominant outlooks of modernity and post-modernity in our young people. When young people go to a university they often leave more limited and controlled environments with limited influences. The range of diversity they encounter is a shock that’s hard for some to absorb. Universities are places where becoming broad-minded is part of the educational objective. I have not doubt that some of these influences have contributed to the reticency among young people toward dogma and absolute truth.
Four potential dangers
When absolute opinions must be avoided to promote tolerance and protect civility, people tend to become more cynical. Have you noticed how quickly cynicism becomes the default setting for many people? Many operate with a filter of suspicion as a protective screen to keep from being duped or at least from appearing to be. It is common (especially among young people) to suspect deceitful or evil motives behind firmly held beliefs. Those who hold to any form of absolute truth are more quickly suspected of oppressive or imperialistic agendas.
2. Irrational self-contradiction
There are times when two opinions cannot logically both be correct. There also times when important choices must be made between differing viewpoints. But It has often been noted that in the transition from modernity to postmodernity, the two areas granted authority to speak in absolute categories (science and math) lost their authoritative seats. With postmodernity came a refusal to grant anyone the right to make truth claims that all people must accept –even if they came from science. Of course, it’s hard to accept that 1 + 1 could equal 2 or 3 or whatever you wanted it to equal. But postmodernism came with a radicalization of relativism to all areas of knowledge.
The tone changes toward uncertainty became more common as aversion to absolutes and universals became more deeply part of the social narrative. This is especially the case when it comes to religion and morality. An extensive survey found that teenagers in the US had a one word response to absolute opinions on religion and morality — “Whatever.” But should we be able to agree that a religious practice like jihad is intolerable? And how can we make laws and exact punishments without moral decisions?
3. Neutrality and indecisiveness
Part of leadership is the ability to make tough decisions when popularity is at risk. The president is also a Commander and Chief. He cannot remain neutral or indecisive on issues that affect the well-being of the nation. When people are uncomfortable with reaching conclusions and prefer endless discussions, they risk avoidance of necessary decisions. Leaders must be willing to offend some people if necessary.
4. Fear and manipulation
When people are controlled by a fear of offending it can easily be manipulated by those in power. Vocal and militant groups will seize the weakness of indecisive people to promote their agendas. This often leads to duplicity in people as they publicly affirm what they privately disapprove but fear speaking up about. As strange as it might sound, indecisive people are more vulnerable to totalitarian regimes.
Few teachers spoke with more absolute authority on matters related to God and morality than Jesus. Of course, we must recognize that he taught in a time when people feared offending the dominant religious leaders. But Jesus forthrightly challenged the deceitfulness of the corrupt establishment. It’s a simple but profound truth that if there is a God and he has spoken, we are obligated by His words. If Jesus is God than he did not lie or deceive in anything he taught. When he said, ” “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” he was not offering a suggestion or a personal opinion.
These tone changes and postures toward truth statements are part of what makes the work of those who preach more challenging. Preaching and proclamational ministries can come off as socially rude to people conditioned to speak and think in the most subjective terms possible. Certainly those who preach should be aware of prevailing cultural conditions and be wise in the way they communicate (see: Colossians 4:4-5). But when we teach Scripture we cannot treat it as mere recommendations when it speaks with binding authority on all people. We can tone our teaching thoughtfully but still be faithful to the truth. Pastor Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC has been an excellent popular level example of how this should be done.
I am sorry for the length of this but for the brave few who read it, I’d love to know what you think.