Beware Inspiration

From a review of William Gavin’s book Speechwright:

Gavin became [Nixon’s] speechwriter … [and] came to share [his] suspicion of stirring, soaring speechifying and his preference, instead, for what Gavin calls “working rhetoric” — plain, forceful, purposeful prose. Words that bear down instead of lift up. “The desire to be inspired,” Gavin writes in “Speechwright,” “to be uplifted, to be made to feel deeply, to be swept away, and thrilled is the mark of jaded citizens who have forgotten that the major goal of political rhetoric should be to make good arguments, clearly and honestly.” For Gavin, the original sin had been committed by John Kennedy, whose inaugural address begat “the modern cult of thrill-talk.” That speech was “magnificent,” Gavin allows, “but it wasn’t true, because it wasn’t achievable.” (more)

The reviewer disagrees:

He is mostly right that politicians should “stop trying to get us to stand up and cheer” and “start persuading us to sit down and think.” But … the basic purpose of political rhetoric is to “move men to action or alliance.” … Yes, “thrill-talk,” as Gavin insists, often gives wings to “impossible dream[s]” and “inevitable disappointment.” But the words that excite us are also the words that can change us — words that stretch our national sense of self, that make us believe we really can end Jim Crow and win a war and put a man on the moon. Not every dream is an impossible one.

Yes, inspiring idealistic far-mode talk can motivate cooperative and idealistic acts in ways that realistic near-mode desire, fear, practicality, etc. talk cannot. But know that you will let yourself believe more lies and impossibilities in that mode. You may coordinate to take more actions, but actions that are more likely than you think to be useless or even harmful.

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  • Karl Hallowell

    Soaring speeches or working rhetoric, there seems to be two different problems. First, a style of speech that works for the speaker. Second, the speech has to communicate the idea and persuade the listener of something (default is that the speech is worth listening to). Even with the right style and good delivery, the speech can still fail because it’s just words. For example,

    My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. And now I recommend you to go home and sleep quietly in your beds.

    This and other flowery, soaring language uttered that day preceded the Second World War by less than a year.

  • Scott Messick

    How worthwhile do you think it might be to try to modify one’s far mode ideals to make them less contradictory and more honest, but hopefully equally as inspiring?

  • Tor Munkov

    We are millenia past the time of Nixon. The store of human knowledge now doubles twice each year. The tech is here for us all to use the same tools once reserved for the oligarchs.
    Certainly we could all use our smart devices to project a teleprompter display to use on someone we are trying to influence.
    Whether at the job, or trying to get a new mate, it would be a simple short program that could search databases of speeches in real time based on whatever keywords we are speaking. We can all be world leader class speakers using the net to help us inspire, move to action, or gain alliance.