Obama's Cairo Speech Dissected: The Power of Language

So Barack Obama has made another inspirational speech. This is hardly remarkable: we’ve known for some time that Obama makes George W. look like a performing seal, and an inarticulate one at that. Yet even in this context Obama’s speech in Cairo was remarkable. In less than 6000 words he was able to strip bare some of the most complex international politics of the last 100+ years. To read his speech is to wonder what all the fuss has been about. There was much anticipation of this speech. It was always going to involve treading a careful path. How could he raise the issues without raising ire? In the end, Obama didn’t tiptoe the fine line nor stumble over it. He simply strode along it as if it were a red carpet.

He did so by using the sort of simple, plain speech which has become so rare in politics.

A longer, more thorough discussion of this topic, written by me, is at NewMatilda.com

Obama used clear, straight talk: there was no jargon nor no weasel words. The word ‘outcome’ was used once, and only in its correct sense. There was no ‘moving forward’. There were no ‘stakeholders’. There was no talk of ‘full and frank’ discussions.

There was no unspoken agenda either. This speech directly reflected Obama’s long stated values. Unlike many of his political counterparts, he does not shy away from saying things like “my responsibility [is] to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear”. He does not allow his meaning to be stifled by the fear of losing the redneck vote.

Obama’s speech was finely balanced (“too balanced” according to one critic - go figure). He achieved this by focusing on basic values and basic human rights. He was candid that everyone has a role to play and responsibilities to uphold: Americans; Muslims, Jews and Christians; Palestinians, Israelis and the Arab world; Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans.

It was also inclusive. As he did at his inauguration, he emphasised the need for a combined effort: “All these things must be done in partnership. Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments; community organisations, religious leaders and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life.”

Obama spoke to and focused on ordinary people: the mother in Tehran, the father in Kabul and the child in Tel Aviv. He repeatedly emphasised basic shared values: “principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”.

And, most of all, he spoke in language that was understandable to that broad audience.

There is plenty more to be done in the Middle East and between the Muslim world and America. But in the end all we have is language and guns, and the latter don’t seem to be getting us very far. We should all be thankful that at long last we have an American President who understands this.

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