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Obama’s Story with Moral Imagination

January 14, 2011

On Wednesday, Alexis eloquently wrote about the rhetorical situation in Arizona following the Tucson shooting. President Obama spoke later that evening at a memorial service for the victims. It was as if the president—or at least his speechwriters, or his speechwriters’ interns—had read Alexis’s point that “[w]hat we need is discourse that revises the immediate reality we cannot abide and creates in its place a reality that better reflects the country we want.”

Of course, Obama couldn’t change the past. He couldn’t change the present, either. Even he, the rhetorically gifted (or at least oriented) president, said, “There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts.” But he could talk about the future—and by talking about it, start drafting the next chapter.

I chose this book-ish metaphor for a reason. Obama told us a story on Wednesday night because stories are how we make sense of our experiences. It’s how we figure out the country we want. As Deborah Schiffrin, a sociolinguist at Georgetown, puts it:

“[O]ur identities as social beings emerge as we construct our own individual experiences as a way to position ourselves in relation to social and cultural expectations.”

If we are social beings by telling stories about our own lives, we are a social unit—a nation—by telling a story about all of our lives. Obama, as president and headlining speaker, was responsible for telling this story. So he talked about Judge John Roll’s daily attendance of Mass, George and Dorothy Morris’s fifty-year honeymoon, and nine-year-old Christina’s recent election to her school’s student council. Even Fox News said that he delivered these anecdotes “tenderly.”

But this collective story meant nothing without its moral. And Obama made sure that the moral of this story was absolutely clear.

In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners.  Phyllis — she’s our mom or our grandma; Gabe our brother or son.  (Applause.)  In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America’s fidelity to the law. (Applause.)

And in Gabby — in Gabby, we see a reflection of our public-spiritedness; that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.  (Applause.)

And in Christina — in Christina we see all of our children.

Actually, the “moral imagination” that Obama exhorted us to expand is less about imagination and more about conformity to “social and cultural expectations.” But a story can make a moral more compelling.


Update: It’s been several days since I wrote this post, but I want to share with anyone just now reading it how difficult it was for me to write about Obama’s remarks. Our blog usually focuses on recent, even unfolding, examples of public rhetoric. But sometimes a rhetorician might not have enough emotional distance from an event to offer a fully evaluative analysis, as I didn’t here. You’ll notice in my analysis that I didn’t evaluate the effectiveness of what Obama said; instead, I focused on the effectiveness of how Obama said it. I would be able to write a different post today, and I hope sharing this gives some insight into the analytic process.

If you want to know more:

  • For an accessible introduction to narrative studies, I recommend The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, available on Amazon.
  • The quote from Schiffrin comes from her 1996 article “Narrative as Self-Portrait: Sociolinguistic Constructions of Identity” in Language in Society.
  • You can read the official transcript of President Obama’s remarks here.
  • You can watch the video of President Obama’s remarks here.
  • Read four different assessments of President Obama’s remarks at The Daily Beast.
  • The Guardian compares the word choices of President Obama’s remarks and Sarah Palin’s statement here. Click on the first graphic in the article to see the word cloud for each.

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