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    “I Want Us to Live Up to Her Expectations”

    Obama’s Tucson speech turned the conversation from blame and blood libel to make us look through the eyes of a little girl. The rhetorical device he used might look familiar; it’s the same that expressed MLK’s dream.

    I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us—we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

    Optatio (op-TOT-io), the wish. From the Latin, meaning “wish.”

    According to Gideon Burton, the Greek word for the wishing figure, oeonismus, referred to the act of divining the future by watching the flight of birds. How appropriate to eulogize the hopes of a little girl.  

    Nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green had been elected to the student council and was off to see her congresswoman “undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted,” Obama said. He then switched the tense from the past to the future, where dialog gathers hope and maybe even gets some work done.

    The optatio makes an ideal figure for this switch, because by stating a wish it allows a speaker to paint the future in deeply personal terms. Obama takes the figure and shines it in the glow of a hopeful little girl.

    Martin Luther King based his whole “I Have a Dream” speech on the optatio and made us live up to his higher expectations. Use it when you have something noble and important to say.

    Figaro has argued since Obama got elected that the president lacks “virtue,” the rhetorical skill of making an audience believe the speaker shares the audience’s values. In this speech—his best so far as president—he showed great virtue indeed.

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    Reader Comments (12)

    So by switching the tense is Obama using deliberative argument? You say in your book that deliberative argument is based on choice, while the present tense is about values. Isn't Obama's wish about values?
    January 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcia
    Good question, Marcia. Obama is giving both a demonstrative appeal and a deliberative one. Demonstrative rhetoric brings the audience together and speaks of their common values; deliberative argument talks about the future and what needs to be done to achieve the results the audience wants.

    In other words, Obama does what a leader needs to do: bring us together and urge us to make a decision.
    January 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    I'm surprised you didn't write about "blood libel," the most interesting phrase to come out of this awful episode.
    January 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Exton
    This is a website about figures of speech, Jonathan, and I usually like to focus on successful ones. "Blood libel" is an interesting, and technically even accurate, term for the false accusation of murder. Sarah Palin's use of the term shows her tendency toward self-dramatization, and her tone deafness toward any audience beyond her own followers.

    But I believe she was correct in one sense: she's not responsible for murder. Her website didn't cause it, nor did her political speech. To call her an accessory to this murder is not just irresponsible; it's bad for our democracy.
    January 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Sarah Palin may not have caused the murder of a little girl and the near assassination of a congresswoman, but her evil words created the atmosphere that tipped the balance of a deranged mind.

    And you don't think that imposes any responsibility on Palin? Shame on you, Figaro!
    January 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSusanna T.
    Then shame on the President as well, Susanna. He clearly agrees with me that we can't condemn political speech for the actions of one crazed person. Not only can't we, we shouldn't. Our democracy is based on open speech. We can disagree with, even condemn, what a person says. But to blame a person for murder, or call her an accessory to one, is irresponsible unless that person actively encouraged the crime, or caused it.
    January 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    So the optatio simply expresses a wish? Does it have to be a noble wish?
    January 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRicardo
    No, simply a wish, Ricardo. But I think the figure gets its best use in MLK fashion, expression a dream for the future that inspires the rest of us. That's a very specific subset of optatio, but the one we should focus on.
    January 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    "But to blame a person for murder, or call her an accessory to one, is irresponsible unless that person actively encouraged the crime, or caused it."

    I like your approach and you are right. And I like your book too.

    Actually, isn't it enough to say, "I wish?".
    January 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKamil
    To qualify the phrase as an optatio? Yes, Kamil. And thanks for the kind words.
    January 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    It just amazes me that we find one or two people, or even a metaphor like "cross hairs", to blame whenever a tragic situation like this occurs, yet we forget to look at our own interactions in person or online (I'm not referring to any comments on this thread). We treat other people with such rudeness in day-to-day life, and when a disagreement arises, whether about politics or paint choices, we jump straight to aggression and hyperbole.

    Although later reports point to Loughner's internal demons as the cause, the sheriff's words that day touched a nerve. The idea that political dialogue in this country is broken is commonplace for people across the political spectrum, including me. I read your book in order to improve my own skills at persuasion and verbal self-defense, but I also believe that education in rhetoric could be a tool for repairing our deep political divisions.
    January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGearhead
    Well said, G'head.
    January 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterFigaro

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