Monday, June 08, 2009

Learning good rhetoric (not to become empty suits)

It was hard for me as a young man to come to learn the importance of rhetoric: I mean, the art of talking, be it in simple conversations, or to a public audience. That's why I appreciated Obama's talk in Cairo.

There is a strong streak in our culture that praises sincerity at any cost, and views any holding back in what we say as hypocricy.

So we have group therapies - or their caricature in tv shows, I don't know - that recommend venting one's feeling as a liberating experience. And maybe it is so: if I have a grudge against somebody, it may be good to be able to bring it out and say it. The problem arises when for whatever reason I care for that somebody. Say my wife did something that caused me a discomfort (I don't mean necessarily a betrayal, but anything that can make me feel estranged from her, like her preferring "I" to "we" when discussing common matters), should I be sincere and assault her with my bad feelings? Nowadays she will probably go away. I would have liberated myself, and lost my wife. Should I keep it all bottled up inside, and get a bad liver (as we say in Italy)? Leaving aside that probably even in this way I'll loose her, no. It's a question of how I say things.

It's a question of rhetoric.

There is more that I had to learn in my unlearning of the no-hypocrisy culture: not to assume that my interlocutors are in agreement with me, by too soon showing where I stand on touchy issues - or, if you prefer, who I am. It is easy in such a case for them to manipulate what I let them know - somehow to turn it against me.

I remember an episode from the time of my staying in the United States. I was talking with a fellow student in the docrotal program I was attending in the seventies, when at a certain point of a discussion on some topic, I prefaced, to make my argument, "I am a Catholic"; well, I could not go on, because he immediately retorted: "If it makes you happy."

I could have no more case to make. And that was a relatively nice way to cut me out. There can be much nastier ones. But it was an occasion for learning that we need to know whom we are talking with, in order to know what to say to find commong grounds of discussion.

It's a question of rhetoric.

Rhetoric is oratorial etiquette. The habit by which we present ourselves. Even when we expose ourselves naked, we have to know that we'll not stay so for long, and after undressing we'll dress again. Should I say more? That of sincerity in rhetoric is a genuine question: by what can we know that habits do actually show and don't hide?

Obama is not my president - or in a way he is., bBecause personally I can say that I became a man in the United States of America, and still feel therefore, after decades I have been away, an hyphonated American. But also because here in Europe we always takes sides, pro or against American adminstrations: as if we were part of the United States of Europe+America. As a concerned Italian-American I say then that the trouble with Obama is that he is an accomplished rhetorician, even too much so. So that one notices it.

And doesn't quite know, as an American friend of mine suggested, whether he isn't after all an "empty suit".

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